Study of Edible Spontaneous Herbs in the Republic of Moldova for Ensuring a Sustainable Food System


Recent studies have shown that food systems fail to provide a healthy diet and are unfair and ecologically unsustainable. Sustainable food production will require multidisciplinary approaches, in which human, animal, and environmental health, are inextricably linked. There are various researches that make edible spontaneous herbs (ESP) the protagonists of a new trend in food approach, focused more on health, food safety, and connection with nature. The research consisted of the analysis and capitalization of (ESH) from the territory of the Republic of Moldova (RM) by reviewing their traditional use in local gastronomy and describing the nutritional characteristics. Ethnographic research techniques, such as conversations and interviews, were used to identify knowledge about the use of ESH in the RM. The use, phytochemical profile, and curative effects of the analyzed ESH were taken from the online database Plants For A Future (PFAF) and the phytochemical and ethnobotanical database of the US Department of Agriculture and Agricultural Research. The analysis of the specialized literature on ESH consumption in the world showed that their culinary application in the RM could still be diversified. Some of their properties could possibly be used in the design of new products for people with special diets.

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Siminiuc, R. and Țurcanu, D. (2021) Study of Edible Spontaneous Herbs in the Republic of Moldova for Ensuring a Sustainable Food System. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 12, 703-718. doi: 10.4236/fns.2021.127053.

1. Introduction

Although it is believed that the current global food system is able to provide calorific value to the population, there are still an imposingly large number of people facing the double burden of malnutrition, where malnutrition coexists with overweight, obesity, and other diet-related diseases. The number of people suffering from hunger has reached 60 million in 2019. Preliminary estimates COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this growth: adding another 132 million people in 2020 [1]. It is assumed that the world community will not be able to end hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030 [2]. Addressing these challenges would involve an increase in global food production, which cannot be achieved by simply expanding industrial agriculture which will lead to land conversion to the detriment of the environment and, consequently, an even more drastic reduction in biodiversity [3].

The rapid reduction of biodiversity limits the possibilities of finding new food sources [4], probably given that most research does not reflect information on the full spectrum of food resources consumed worldwide. Sustainable food production and environmental management are essential and will require multidisciplinary approaches, in which human, animal, and environmental health, are inextricably linked.

The benefits of using underutilized traditional crops and exploring more sustainable production methods for growing common crops are widely promoted [5] [6]. In this context, the conservation of diversity, the use of traditional food knowledge, information, and the development of associated policies, scientifically argued, are not only required but also become a global priority [7].

From ancient times, plant species have been essential for nutrition and still represent today more than 80% of the components of the daily diet. Many plants are consumed only locally, collected in nature, constituting a biological and cultural heritage of spontaneous edible species, which deserves to be appreciated for the benefit of all. The growing interest in the ESP has led many researchers to gather and disseminate local knowledge in order to preserve their traditions. There are various researches that make ESP the protagonists of a new trend in food approach, focusing more on health, food safety, and connection with nature [8].

In addition to being available, tasty, and easy to cook, ESP also has a high nutraceutical value consisting of a significant content of minerals and bioactive components that bring benefits to human health [9] due to the content of polyphenols and fatty acids [10]. It has been shown that, compared to many cultivated species, they have a higher fiber content [11], are rich in antioxidants and flavonoids and their beneficial effects have been proven in the prevention of various chronic diseases of modern society [12] [13]. After a period of abandon-ment, today in Europe interest in ESH is growing, enjoying well-deserved attention and recognition, helping to increase attention and consideration for ethnobotany and traditions related to the perception of nature as an environment of particular importance and important constituent of intangible cultural heritage [14]. Return-ing to traditional knowledge and flavors and appreciating local natural resources is an incentive for a commitment to building an eco-sustainable world.

Aim of the study: The research consists of the analysis and capitalization of spontaneous edible herbs from the territory of the Republic of Moldova by reviewing their traditional use in local gastronomy and describing nutritional characteristics.

2. Working Procedure

The research was initiated within the state project, personalized nutrition and intelligent technologies for my well-being, carried out within the Technical University of Moldova. Ethnographic research techniques, such as conversations and interviews, were used to identify knowledge of the traditional use of ESH. Initially, conversations were held with students and masters of academic groups in the specialty of Technology and management in public catering (age 20 - 24 years). Subsequently, the students were given the task to talk to other people from the place of birth (parents, grandmother, relatives, etc.). In total, the students interviewed about 120 people, over the age of 40 (40 - 80 years). The majority (about 80%) of those interviewed were women.

As a result of the conversations and the interview, 16 ESH were selected and analyzed in the paper, which were mentioned at least once by the informants in the discussions. The fields, the use, the phytochemical profile, as well as the curative effects of the analyzed ESH were taken from two electronic databases: the online database Plants for A Future (PFAF), which contains information about over 8000 plants [15] and Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Agricultural Research Service [16].

To assess and compare the overall diversity of the analyzed ESHs, we used the data set “World Checklist of Useful Plant Species”, produced by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew [17]. This data set includes 40,292 species and was compiled by compiling plant uses and reconciling species names using the taxonomic backbone of Kew’s Plants of the World Online portal [18].

Data on the knowledge of these herbs in the RM and how to use them were collected from conversations and interviews with informants.

3. General considerations. About RM

The Republic of Moldova is a small country, located in southeastern Europe between Romania and Ukraine (Figure 1), covering an area of 3,384,300 ha. The relief is mostly hilly (Figure 2) with a maximum altitude of 429.5 m.

The vegetal diversity of the Republic of Moldova is conditioned by the geographical position, topographic characteristics and climate. In Moldova, agroforestry biodiversity is dominant. The spontaneous flora of the Republic of Moldova currently includes over 1891 species of vascular plants [19]. Located at the crossroads of many historical roads, the culinary traditions of Moldovans have often been formed by force, due to wars, invasions or political and demographic

Figure 1. Map of Moldova.

Figure 2. Rural image (Lopatna locality. Republic of Moldova).

changes. To meet the challenges, the natives, over time, found alternatives, using plants available as valuable allies for food and physical and spiritual well-being (Orthodox fasts having its logic not only religious but also expressing popular experience and wisdom).

The consumption of spontaneous plants (SP) was born without an evocative or romantic connotation, but purely utilitarian, dictated by the urgent need to feed, even in more difficult times.

Hunger, drought, and wars, these are just a few reasons that have forced and still force people to look for alternative food resources, while appreciating the generosity of nature. Although these reasons are characteristic of many peoples and nations, it seems that for the Moldovan people the impact of those times was stronger with an echo that is still felt: the food shortage in Soviet Moldova in the first years after World War II, caused by a terrible drought, an extremely repressive totalitarian political regime, as well as the ruin of peasant households as a result of military hostilities, led to the compromise of a large part of the 1946 harvest [20]. The terrible famine forced the inhabitants of the country to resort to the practical consumption of all herbs, more or less edible. Some witnesses say that even the ground bark of trees is being consumed.

Various studies showed that ESH consumption is still seen as something related to poverty and nutritional deficiencies, in addition to poor livelihoods, while being considered part of traditional diets [21].

Today, the consumption of PS enjoys a well-deserved rebirth, this is largely due to global food trends. The collection of SPs from their natural environment has gained popularity, as people prefer quality products of known origin and enjoy direct contact with nature and the activity itself. So, for many, the motivation for collecting wild plants has shifted from the need to meet various essential needs to the preference for quality products and the pleasure of collecting. These motivations denote a positive self-perception and a personal commitment to the collection of plants from the wild [14]. Another cause of the growing popularity of ESP is due to the mass migration of Moldovans in search of a better existence (since the 90 s). It has contributed to the diversification of the gastronomic heritage due to the takeover of new ingredients and culinary recipes, including ESP. The big paradox is that a large part of those ESPs brought to the country as new and fashionable plants, proved to be consumed since ancient times by the Bessarabians, only that their knowledge was forgotten with industrialization, with the abandonment of the rural environment and the beginning of food distribution chains.

It is considered that the main reason why SP consumption has decreased recently is their low availability, lifestyle changes, time constraints and limited knowledge of their nutritional value, scope and use.

4. Results and Discussions

Being a small country, the collection and consumption of spontaneous plants in the Republic of Moldova, however, differs not only from region to region, but also from village to village, varying depending on the natural environments they meet, the plant species that grow, but also by local traditions. And if in many countries’ meals are omitted by choice and not by necessity, for some Moldovans, especially during the pandemic period, the search, collection and consumption of spontaneous plants for gastronomic use has taken on very different meanings than those mentioned above.

As a result of conversations and interviews, a fairly large number of ESPs were mentioned, used on the territory of the Republic of Moldova now or in the past: from grasses, to shrubs to trees.

In order to achieve a deeper approach to the research topic, we focused on a narrower field—(ESH) [22]. Plants that do not synthesize or accumulate lignin are called grasses or herbaceous, also called herbs [23]. The FAO defines edible plants in spontaneous flora as “plants that grow and regenerate spontaneously, in natural or semi-natural ecosystems and can exist independently of human action”.

4.1. Knowledge of ESH in the RM and Their Usability in Human Nutrition

4.1.1. Discussions with Students

As a result of conversations with students, the following were identified:

Among the most used ESH in food consumption and mentioned by students were Urtica dioica L., Rumex acetosa L., Thymus serpyllum, Papaver rhoeas L., Sonchus oleraceus, Taraxacum officinale L. Young people had more thorough knowledge of ESP, considered in vogue, as they are seen as attractive gastronomic resources for modern culinary experiences. Many restaurants in the country already include wild plants in their menus.

4.1.2. Discussions with Parents, Grandparents and People from the Village

As a geographical area, the interview covered practically the entire territory of the country. From the students’ testimonies, it seems that the discussions with the respondents were marked by 2 major positive aspects:

1) Students have discovered new things about the consumption and use of ESH.

2) The people interviewed by the students (these being their parents, grandparents, natives from rural localities) remembered many ESHs that were once consumed in the country, but which, for various reasons, were forgotten).

In general, the results of the conversations can be summarized as:

· Older people (over 40 years old) still have knowledge about ESH used in the diet of Moldovans since time immemorial.

· From the multitude of mentioned ESPs were selected only ESH used in the diet of the natives (Table 1).

· The respective plants have been mentioned as being used both in human nutrition and for medicinal purposes.

· The interviewees confessed that the consumption of spontaneous herbs, at the current stage, is mainly due to the need to follow a curative diet and less often to nostalgia to return to traditional cuisine. This is explained by the fact that most of these spontaneous herbs, for a large part of the interviewees, have a sad utilitarian connotation, associated with poverty and need, dictated by the urgent need for food in times of famine in the postwar period (1946-1947).

Table 1. Nutritional value and areas of use of ESH.

Note: Animal Food (AF), Environmental Uses (EU), Fuels (FU), Gene Sources (GS), Human Food (HF), Invertebrate Food (IF), Medicines (ME), Social Uses (SU).

4.1.3. Nutritional Value and Areas of Use of ESH

In general, the consumption of ESH was and is justified not only by their availability and accessibility, but also due to the considerable intake of phytonutrients (Table 1). It has the potential to improve the quality of human life as well as food security. They are important locally and are adapted to unique climatic and environmental conditions.

A comparative analysis of the selected ESH told us that their domains and use were common for both the population of the Republic of Moldova and other people, while retaining certain distinctive features. In addition to human nutrition, they were also used in many other fields such as: animal nutrition, social field, environment, etc. For its therapeutic effects, all selected plants were and are used, more or less and for medicinal purposes. The PFAF database developed a scale from 1 to 5 to establish the rating of ESH use in human nutrition, medicine, etc. According to it, in human nutrition, the maximum score belonged to Rumex acetosa L., Urtica dioica L., Viola odorata L. (with a score of 5 points), followed by Cichorium intybus L., Portulaca oleracea L., Taraxacum officinale L, Thymus serpyllum L., Arctium lappa L. and Anethum graveolens L. (with a score of 4 points). The most optimal ratio between food and medicinal use belongs to Urticadioica L., with a ratio of 5/5 (Table 1). And that was not surprising, because it had practically became a long tradition for young nettles to be picked for food at the end of winter. Even now, Urticadioica L. remains one of the most well-known and widely used herbs in both human nutrition and medicine. It seems that ESHs have been and continue to be the usual components in the diets of many peoples. Moldovans’ ESH consumption preferences do not differ significantly from other peoples. However, the study shows some peculiarities: consumption, in large quantities of Anethum graveolens, which is used not only for flavoring dishes but also as their main raw material (Table 2). Pies with Anethum graveolens, green onion, are known and appreciated. Another local artisanal specialty is alivanca with cheese and dill. Also, in spring, a salad is made from dill leaves, onions and tomato sauce. Dill is so popular that, from a spontaneous plant, as it once was, it has now become a garden crop and is present in every household.

The leaves of Tussilago farfara and Rumex acetosa L. were frequently used, but are still used today, for modeling sarmales [44]. Rumex acetosa L. is also the natural acidifier for spring green soups.

Papaver rhoeas L. seeds are widely used, sometimes being the only ingredient used as a filling for many pastries (buns or rolls without fermented dough—with poppy seed filling boiled in red wine, cakes, pies, biscuits, etc.).

In many regions of the Republic of Moldova, an artisanal recipe for biscuits (poppy cakes) is known, for which the poppy seeds are crushed by hand until poppy milk is obtained, with which the cakes are sprinkled in abundance.

Thymus serpyllum L. is irreplaceable in the preparation of sour borscht (borș) which is a healthy liqueur obtained by fermenting wheat bran: a food that is trivial in appearance, but amazing in its qualities. Westerners do not know much about this natural preparation, but in post-Soviet countries, it is very popular due to its invigorating sour taste (which acidifies soups) and its healing properties, if consumed as such. Without thyme, it is not perceived the traditional Moldovan zeama—traditional Moldovan soup.

The analysis of the specialized literature on ESH consumption in the world showed that their culinary application in the Republic of Moldova can still be

Table 2. Culinary use of ESHs in the Republic of Moldova.

diversified. Some of their properties, after further studies, could possibly be used in the design of new products for people with special diets (hypoglycemic diet, gluten-free diet, etc.) or the improvement of those diets [45].

Knowledge and capitalization of ESH could also be an effective measure to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, contributing to raising awareness of food security, perceived as quality, variety and access to food, with a commitment to consumers, producers, cultural diversity and the environment.


This research was funded by State Project “Personalized nutrition and intelligent technologies for my well-being”, grant number 20.80009.5107.10, running at Technical University of Moldova

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest regarding the publication of this paper.


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