Wild Edible Plants of Ladakh
Geographically, Ladakh is in the rain shadow region of the mighty Himalayas. A high-altitude area with an extreme climatic cycle, the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh is a unique cold desert. It is home to diverse lifeforms.
Over millennia, the region has also been home to a relatively isolated and self-reliant human society with its own distinctive culture and agro-pastoral way of living. Local people have rich knowledge of plants, especially of wild edible varieties, that have been consumed since time immemorial. These plants display unique adaptations to survive in the high elevations of Ladakh and its extreme climate. They have played a crucial role in shaping people’s lives and the traditional strategies adopted by them in overcoming challenges to living in Ladakh.
Photo by Phuntsog Dolma
It is not surprising then that Ladakh is home to various traditional made using wild plants. In the past, communities prepared dishes on auspicious occasions. Various different wild plants are used in these traditional preparations. Some of the most commonly consumed wild edible plants include zatsot (Urtica hyperborea), kabra (Capparis spinosa), shalmasgok (Nepeta floccosa), Hans/Khi-khol-ma (Taraxacum officinalis), shangsho (Lepidium latifolium), snue (Chenopodium album), Azhangkabra (Christolea crassifolia), tsotse (Allium carolinianum), lachu (Rheum spiciforme), shrolo-marpo (Rhodiola tibetica), shrolo-serpo (Rhodiola imbricate), kumbuk/kosnyot (Carum carvi), zera-nakpo (Buniumper sicum), phololing (Mentha longifolia), toma (Potentilla anserine), sari (Cicermicro phyllum), demok (Arnibiaeu chroma), tsepad (Ephedra gerardiana), tsestalulu (Hippophae rhamnoides), siyahmarpo (Rosa webbiana), chuli (Prunus armeniaca) and starga (Juglans regia).
The consumption of wild edible plants has immense health and economic benefits. Firstly, unlike their cultivated cousins, wild plants are natural and self-nurtured without any harmful chemical fertiliser, pesticides and weedicides. Secondly, wild plants adapted to high-altitude cold desert conditions are known to have developed diverse secondary metabolites to protect themselves from extreme conditions, insects and microorganisms. These secondary metabolites are of immense medicinal value and provide health benefits.
There is considerable variation in the way these plants are used for cooking. Skotse, rasgokpa and luksgokpa (Allium carolinianum, A. prezewalskinam) and kosnyot are prominent aromatic species used as a spice condiment in different dishes. Tender shoots of Allium species are collected, ground into a paste, dried and used as a flavouring agent in local dishes like tangthur, tsonkitig, bagthuk and in local pickles. Similarly, seeds of kosnyot and zera-nakpo are used as a condiment in a traditional recipe called ten-ten. Leaves of shangsho form an important constituent of tsonkitig, a local preparation made using mixed vegetable and sattu (roasted barley flour). The young leaves and tender shoots of kabra are consumed after frying them, called kabra-tsotma in Sham region in western Ladakh. The leaves of phololing are used to prepare chutneys and occasionally mixed with curd as a flavouring component, while the leaves of shalmasgok are mixed with curd or lassi to prepare tangthur.
Artwork by Peeyush Sheksaria
The tender shoots of shrolo-marpo and shrolo-serpo can be rinsed in running water and mixed with curd to prepare shrolo-tangthur. The green leaves of zatsot (stinging nettle) are collected and used to prepare zatsot-thukpa, while the young leaves of khi-khol-ma are used in thukpa. In the past, the edible berries of tsestalulu were collected, dried and powdered. It was then mixed with sattu and consumed. Similarly, seeds of sari were dried and ground into flour. The ripe berries of tsepad, roots of toma and green shoots of lachu are edible and can be eaten raw.
Freshly harvested Gyaman - flowers of Alluim sp; Photo by Chemi Lhamo
Declining use of edible plants
Ladakh has witnessed dramatic changes over the last few decades. There was a time when Ladakhi people were heavily dependent on wild plants to fulfil their dietary requirements. People would eagerly await spring-summer seasons when the collection of wild edible plants would peak. However, this collection was always for personal consumption and never for commercial purposes. There was a common practice of children going into the mountains or the fields after school to collect wild edible plants like kabra, shalmasgok, shrolo, zatsot, khi-khol-ma, kumbuk, shangsho etc. Nowadays, very few people know the art of collecting these wild resources. It is an aspect of our traditional knowledge that is eroding fast and will soon be lost forever.
There are multiple reasons for this unfamiliarity, and aversion to ethnic plant-based foods. The growth of the tourism industry in Ladakh and the introduction of horticulture-based vegetables are two major factors. In the last decade, Ladakh has witnessed a dramatic rise in horticulture, forestry and agriculture with the introduction of numerous cultivated plants. In addition to this, the influx of tourists has facilitated the introduction of western cuisine, which has devalued the cultural and economic importance of wild edible plants. This has also eroded Ladakh’s traditional knowledge
and use of wild plants as locals now favour western recipes over local ones. It is unfortunate that our younger generation is not troubled by this rapid loss of knowledge of edible wild plants and their ethnic preparations. Instead, most of them are eager to learn more about non-local cuisines and ingredients.
The need to preserve ethnic knowledge
There is an urgent need to preserve indigenous knowledge of wild plants and their preparation. Plant folklore, wild plant resources, and the usage of plants including cultural and religious taboos constitute an important aspect of our traditional knowledge. Reviving these traditions and the conventional use of plants will provide insight into Ladakh’s unique folklore and heritage. Furthermore, consumption of indigenous wild edible plants is healthier than cultivated vegetables. In comparison to cultivated varieties, wild plants are more nutritious, naturally resistant to pests, and most significantly, least contaminated and thus purely organic. In contrast, cultivated vegetables tend to be contaminated with toxic chemicals from fertilizers and insecticides that are known to cause deadly diseases such as cancer.
Photo by Phuntsog Dolma
If we are to preserve local knowledge of wild plant consumption, community members and elders in each household must encourage youth to consume such plants and explore this knowledge system. At the same time, local households, hotels, restaurants, and retailers must also offer traditional preparations and dishes. Our local government must encourage people to explore this facet of our heritage and organise awareness programmes to conserve this knowledge. Wild edible plant consumption and preservation of this unique heritage may provide an alternative food resource for Ladakh’s nutrient deficiency. Plant collection and the consumption of traditional plant-based organic foods can also generate entrepreneurial opportunities for youth, while also enhancing the income of local farmers. However, we also need to make serious efforts to conserve wild biological diversity by ensuring that collection is sustainable and managed responsibly.
About the Storyteller
Phuntsog Dolma works as Flock Supervisor in the Sheep Husbandry Department, Leh. A plant lover at heart, she is co-author of Plants of Ladakh: A Photographic Guide to the common plants of the region that was published in 2021. Phuntsog is also a recipient of the Mud of Boots award in 2021 by Sanctuary Asia that supports a network of on-ground conservationists across India.