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Edible Wild Plants

For food and health

In wildness is the preservation of the world.{a}

There is much that’s reputedly good to eat growing wild around the island


This is a series of articles, first published in The Sentinel, about plants that grow wild on St Helena and which are reputed to be good to eat and also sometimes to have properties beneficial to your health. In the ‘before days’, when seeing a doctor was much harder than it is today and when medicines were unaffordable to ordinary people, a lot of use was made of herbal remedies, using plants that grow wild across the island. The aim of these articles is to document these uses before the knowledge dies out. So with each article we will feature a plant that can be found growing wild on St Helena and talk about what the previous generations used it for.

The knowledge part of the article comes from Stedson Stroud. John [editor of this website] is merely the author - and guinea pig! If you have any feedback on what we’ve written or any suggestions for plants we might feature please contact Stedson{1}

Before you read further please observe the following guidelines:

  1. These articles describe common beliefs about the plants we feature but please be aware that we have not attempted to scientifically verify these beliefs.

  2. Although some of the plants we feature have claimed medicinal properties you should not use them as substitutes for prescribed medicines without first consulting a doctor.

  3. Only collect from public areas - never from private property or the National Park or Endemic Restoration sites.

  4. Make sure anything you collect is thoroughly washed before consumption and always avoid anything near sprayed weeds signs.

  5. If you’re not completely sure you have identified the plant correctly don’t eat it!

At the time of writing the series is ongoing so please check back for new additions.

The Plants

Below: Pig Weed LividusWater MintPig Weed BlitumLemon GrassMonkey EarsAloe VeraWatercressBalm of GileadPurslane

Pig Weed Lividus

Pig Weed Amaranthus Lividus
Pig Weed Amaranthus Lividus

Pig Weed (Latin name Amaranthus Lividus) grows alongside The Run in great abundance, and elsewhere in similar environments (warm, shady, damp), usually at heights above 400m. It is distinct from Pig Weed (Amaranthus Blitum) which we covered previously.

Its leaves alternate on the stem, widest near the leaf tip and notched. The stems are usually pale pink. When it flowers these are green and small with no obvious petals and with spiny auxiliary clusters. There are photographs there and there is also the one on this page.

So much for what it is, but why is it interesting? Well in Africa particularly it is widely used as a substitute for spinach. Older Saints used to boil it and eat it with a little salt and pepper as an addition to just about with any dish. Apparently fried it is a delicious addition to diced pork or bacon. It does not have any particular medicinal properties but spinach, like all greens, is an essential part of any balanced diet and Pig Weed provides a free alternative to buying spinach. Just don’t be put off by the name…!

First published in The Sentinel 21st September 2023.

Water Mint

Water Mint Mentha Aquatica
Water Mint Mentha Aquatica

Water Mint (Latin name Mentha Aquatica) grows (unsurprisingly) near or even in fresh water. It is commonly found in marshy areas or close to streams. Sadly the only large concentration is found in Manati Bay but there are occasional plants found elsewhere.

If you are familiar with mint you will easily recognise the leaves - they are very similar (it is related). It grows to about 50cm height and the flowers are lilac or magenta coloured. There are photographs there and there is also the one on this page.

So much for what it is, but why is it interesting? Well if the stories are to be believed Water Mint can be effective in treating fevers, headaches, digestive disorders, sore throats, ulcers, bad breath, difficult menstruation, migraine and lack of appetite. Quite a set! The common way to take it is to make tea from the leaves, but for external use it can be made into a mouth wash which can also be used for gargling. If the leaves are crushed and the oil inhaled, it is said to help with blocked noses. The tea is also claimed to cleanse the liver.

It can also be used as a flavouring, especially in salads, either just by adding the leaves or by crushing them with a little vinegar, though some find it too strong so it should be used in small quantities.

You can even use the crushed leaves as an air freshener.

One warning however - large quantities should be avoided when pregnant.

First published in The Sentinel 15th June 2023.

Pig Weed Blitum

Pig Weed Amaranthus Blitum
Pig Weed Amaranthus Blitum{b}

Pig Weed (Latin name Amaranthus Blitum) grows around the island in cultivated land, tracks, roadsides and bare ground in pastures - anywhere where there is human disturbance, but generally in rural situations and absent from heavily populated areas like Half Tree Hollow and Jamestown.

It grows in sprawling mats. The stems are usually pale pink with leaves up to 5cm and the flowers grow on a long stem. There are photographs there and there is also the one on this page.

So much for what it is, but why is it interesting? Well if the stories are to be believed the fluid extracted from the plant can be used as an astringent internally in the treatment of ulcerated mouths and throats (gargle with it or use it as a mouthwash), and externally as a wash for ulcers and sores.The juice of the roots can also be used externally to relieve headaches, applied to the head. The plant also has a reputation for being effective in the treatment of tumours and warts.

First published in The Sentinel 20th April 2023.

Lemon Grass

Lemon Grass Cymbopogon citratus

Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus) does not really qualify for this series because it does not grow wild, but as it is so widely cultivated we think it’s worth a quick mention. Apart from being a primary ingredient in Thai recipes, people on the island use Lemon Grass as a refreshing health drink, hot or cold, or mixed with Balm of Gilead (which we featured earlier). It is also used with ordinary tea and as a face and body wash. Formerly, local midwives gave it to mothers to drink as a pick me up after the birth of their baby.

First published in The Sentinel 20th April 2023.

Monkey Ears

Monkey Ears Centella asiatica
Monkey Ears Centella asiatica{b}

Monkey Ears (Latin name Centella asiatica) grows widely across the island’s inland areas, in pasture, but also frequently along tracks and roadside banks, in rough grassy places and on upland rock ledges. It likes a moist environment and sometimes grows in shallow slow-moving water.

The leaves are quite distinctive and give the plant its popular name. It spreads vine-like and has small reddish flowers. There are photographs there and there is also the one on this page.

So much for what it is, but why is it interesting? Well in its native India, the leaves are much used in salads, where it adds an interesting additional texture - it’s crunchy - and flavour - it has a carrot-like taste. It can also be used to treat various skin conditions, and was even, historically, claimed to be effective against leprosy. It has long been valued in eastern cultures, and has gained popularity in alternative therapies in the west under an Indian name, gotu kola.

Get some and add it into your next salad!

First published in The Sentinel 27th October 2022.

Aloe Vera

Aloe Vera Furcraea foetida
Aloe Vera Furcraea foetida{b}

If you buy an expensive skin cream in the UK it probably contains Aloe Vera. Here you can get Aloe Vera for free! It’s known locally as the sick reviver plant.

Aloe Vera (Latin name Furcraea foetida) grows well in the drier parts of the island, often in quite large colonies. It is distinctive because of its tall flower stalks - easily 10m high. The leaves are also distinctive - leathery, almost 3m long with a spongy feel, in a V shape with spikes on the ridges. When broken, oil can be squeezed out, which is the active compound. There are photographs there and there is also the one on this page. It is particularly abundant in Ruperts, around the former ‘slave hospital’ - it was used to treat illnesses amongst the ‘Liberated Africans’ housed there.

So much for what it is, but why is it interesting? Well if the stories are to be believed it’s good for a variety of skin conditions, but other issues too. For skin conditions simply break the leaf and spread the oil on the affected area. It helps with pretty much anything including bruises, eczema, ringworm and other irritations, joint inflammation, insect bites and even to control bleeding, which is why it is an ingredient in so many expensive skin creams. It can also be swallowed, but only in very small quantities (0.1-0.3g) where it acts as a laxative or for other stomach disturbances (Please Note it should NEVER be taken by pregnant women).

First published in The Sentinel 11th August 2022.


Watercress Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum
Watercress Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum{b}

Watercress (Latin name Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) can grow wherever there is a source of shallow flowing water. It is mostly found in the French’s Gut, Broad Gut (in Levelwood) and Swanley Valley. It is basically the same plant as the Watercress grown widely in Britain and was naturalised here more than 150 years ago. Melliss in 1875 states that locally-grown Watercress was sold to passing ships as a fresh vegetable.

The leaves are hairless, spaced and up to 20cm in size, on upright pale green stems. The best way to describe them is that they look edible! It usually roots close to or in the water. Those familiar with watercress in the UK will find ours a somewhat paler colour, possibly because we have stronger sunlight. There are photographs there and there is also the one on this page.

So much for what it is, but why is it interesting? Well experience shows it is a great addition to any salad, and can be used in sandwiches - it goes especially well with cheese. It also makes a great soup, and can be fried or steamed and used as a vegetable. Stedson puts it (with Purslane) in Kedgeree. Watercress also contains many useful vitamins including A, B6, C, E and K (good for blood clotting and healthy bones) and essential minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and copper. It also contains important antioxidants which are understood to be good for general heath, particularly of the heart.

First published in The Sentinel 22nd June 2022.

Balm of Gilead

Balm of Gilead Cedronella canariensis
Balm of Gilead Cedronella canariensis

Balm of Gilead (Latin name Cedronella canariensis) used to grow widely on St Helena but now it’s restricted largely to the Peak Dale area with some found at West Lodge and Napoleon’s Tomb. But it’s certainly worth seeking out.

It looks at first like mint, with the same patterned leaves, though they are longer and thinner. Some say it looks a bit like the Cannabis plant, but it isn’t related. It’s a scrambling semi-woody plant and has a Camphor-like scent, or some say between sage and lavender with a sharper lemony note. It has pink orchid-like flowers. There are photographs there and there is also the one on this page which we took ourselves from a cutting collected by Stedson. It was introduced here from the Canary Islands but escaped into the wild and, according to ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island{2}’, it grows wild, and is common in some localities. It is not the same plant as the Balm of Gilead referenced in the Bible.

It has a strange taste - slightly medicine-like but not unpleasant. It is useful as a general tonic and pick-me-up, and was formerly given to mothers after childbirth to help with recovery. It is also used to make a tea, mixed with chopped lemon grass and, if you want, sweetened with honey, which can be drunk hot or cold as a refreshing drink. Stedson uses it to flavour omelettes and to add tang to a Gin & Tonic.

Another use is as a mosquito repellent. Either crush the leaves against your skin or hang it in the room and it keeps those pesky mosquitoes at bay. Also if you crush the leaves and inhale the scent it can help clear a stuffy nose.

It can be dried to preserve it and if you can’t collect your own it is sometimes sold dried in the local shops.

First published in The Sentinel 5th May 2022.


Purslane Portulaca oleracea
Purslane Portulaca oleracea

Purslane (Latin name Portulaca oleracea) grows widely in the lower drier areas of St Helena; particularly in Jamestown, Ruperts & Half Tree Hollow. It actually prefers poor soil! It’s a succulent (which means it holds a lot of water) - that probably how it survives living in the driest parts of the island. It grows ‘prostrate’, i.e. along the ground rather than upright. It has smallish hairless green leaves - about 1cm across - growing in clusters. The pinkish stem is distinctive. There are photographs there and there is also the one on this page which we took ourselves on the roadside in Napoleon St.

So much for what it is, but why is it interesting? Well if the stories are to be believed it is useful as a general tonic and pick-me-up, is high in Omega-3 (good for brain function) and may be helpful to type-2 diabetics in regulating their blood-sugar levels (but see guideline 2 in the text box). It is mentioned in ancient Chinese medicine texts and the native North Americans used to collect the seeds and grind them to make flour. African tribal peoples cooked it as a vegetable. In Palestine they used it to address kidney weakness. Other claimed properties include addressing issues as diverse as ulcers, eye diseases and asthma. Apparently if you feed it to hens you get eggs that are high in Omega-3! As far as we can tell there is nobody that it is bad for.

So if it does all that good, it must taste awful, surely? Absolutely not! It doesn’t have a strong taste but in a simple test (using the sample Stedson gathered from just outside my house) most people said it tasted similar to lettuce.

The problem with collecting it from the roadside is the dirt and pollution from passing cars, but it grows quite widely in the lower areas at this time of year so you should be able to get some quite easily.

I will certainly be adding it to my diet. My plan is to grow my own (it propagates from cuttings or you can collect the seeds) and to add it into salads.

First published in The Sentinel 7th April 2022.

To Avoid

If someone shows you a plant which they call Diddlidite don’t eat it - it’s the local term for ‘Deadly Nightshade’.


According to the website www.daysoftheyear.com, 28th October is ‘Wild Foods Day’, where you’re supposed to go out and forage for your lunch. Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, however, and we don’t see why collecting nature’s bounty should be restricted to one day a year. But if you want to celebrate, the detail is on the website.

Read More

More about health in St Helena on our page Health Issues.


{a} Henry David Thoreau, Walking(1862){b} Stedson Stroud


{1} We have not included his contact details because of the activities of spammers and scam artists. Stedson Stroud is very well-known and most people will know how to contact him. If you don’t please contact us and we’ll pass on your comments.{2} …including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology, by John Melliss, published in 1875.