Plants of Syria: Sowing Seeds of Resilience

Plants from their homeland offer comfort, joy, and hope to displaced Syrian families.

Osama and Falak Herkal share their molokhia knowledge with their community during a cooking demonstration at the Free Library of Philadelphia, showing how to prepare a traditional dish using the emerald-green leaves. Photo by Owen Taylor 

When I presented chef Osama Herkal with a bucket of freshly harvested molokhia greens from my farm, he tenderly hugged the stalks and buried his head in the vibrant emerald leaves. It’d been eight years since he’d last touched the plant. Osama and his wife, Falak, hadn’t seen or tasted fresh molokhia since they fled their home in Damascus, Syria, as refugees after he was arrested for participating in demonstrations. For them, the cooked leaves of the molokhia plant provide an essential taste of the home they had to leave behind.

Chef Osama Herkal embraces a gathering of molokhia. Osama and his wife, Falak, were reunited with the plant eight years after they fled from Syria. Photo by Owen Taylor 

You may know molokhia (Corchorus olitorius) by its English name, “jute,” and recognize it as a widely cultivated fiber crop. My partner and I have a rustic, store-bought jute rug on our porch, for example, where we sit and pull molokhia leaves from their stalks to be used in his West African-style cooking. As an edible green, molokhia is grown throughout the Middle East, most of Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Brazil, and the Caribbean. It grows wonderfully in the warm, wet summers of our temperate climate in Philadelphia as well. While it’s a perennial in Zones 10 and higher, it grows as an annual in cooler climates, such as ours.

Planting Hope

There’s debate about where molokhia originates, but in tropical Africa you can find the largest diversity of its close relatives within the same genus, as well as different varieties of the same species, with a secondary center of origin in Indo-Burma. It’s also known as “Jew’s mallow,” “jute mallow,” “okra leaf,” “okra greens,” “lalo,” “saluyot,” and “Egyptian spinach.” You can best experience its family resemblance to okra and other mallows by the signature mucilage of its cooked leaves.

Photo by Owen Taylor



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