This miniscule edition of Students of Ethnobotany comes from the keen-eyed Jonathan Heinz.
Wolffia arrhiza is a species of flowering plant from the Araceae family. What makes this plant somewhat unique among its peers is its exceptionally small size. The Wolffia genus includes many of the smallest flowering plants on earth, being about the size of a pin head (Maheshwari and Chauhan).
A native of Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, this water loving plant can be found in still, quiet bodies of water. It is highly adapted to a range of climates, possessing the ability to fall dormant in cooler conditions and sink to the bottom of ponds or lakes (Maheshwari and Chauhan). Having no root to speak of, a single frond or leaf floats on the surface of the water and supports a tiny flower with one stamen and a single pistil. The plant also has the ability to reproduce by vegetative reproduction, just in case it doesn’t feel like putting all that energy into producing a blossom (Maheshwari and Chauhan).
In parts of Asia the plant is used as a food source. Being about 20% protein and 40% starch, it is a great addition to the diet in some developing countries (Bhanthumnavin and McGarry). Laos and Thailand are two of the biggest Wolffia harvesters. It is grown on still water surfaces as a floating mat of the tiny flowers and harvested as often as every 2 weeks (Bhanthumnavin and McGarry). A very similar species, Wolffia globosa is commonly eaten in South East Asia and it has affectionately been given the nickname “Asian Watermeal”.
It might not appear on menus in North America anytime soon, but this tiny flower has proved its importance in many developing countries around the world. The largest, most colorful flowers usually garner the most attention but this is one little flowering plant that should not be overlooked.
Walking by a pond with a thin layer of green film on the surface doesn’t quite stimulate the appetite the way an apple orchard or greenhouse full of tomatoes might. The Wolffia flower reminds us that useful, nutritious plants can be found in unlikely places. A bouquet of Wolffia flowers won’t impress a date on Valentine’s Day so roses have no need to fear being replaced anytime soon.
Wolffia arrhiza as a Possible Source of Inexpensive Protein KRACHANG BHANTHUMNAVIN* & MICHAEL G. MCGARRY, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Mahidol University, Bangkok 4, Thailand Nature 232, 495 (13 August 1971). Accessed online November 23, 2012. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v232/n5311/abs/232495a0.html
In vitro Control of Flowering in Wolffia microscopic SATISH C. MAHESHWARI & O. S. CHAUHAN Department of Botany, University of Delhi, Delhi Nature 198, 99 – 100 (06 April 1963) Accessed online November 22, 2012:http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v198/n4875/abs/198099b0.html