By Thin Lei Win
TURIN, Italy - When Cape Town started turning off taps to conserve water earlier this year and farmers' crops began dying, Loubie Rusch was pleased to find the plants she was growing - all thought of as weeds - were thriving.
One of the hardiest was dune spinach, a native species that grows in the wild and is popular among trendy urban foragers, but virtually unknown among mainstream chefs.
Inspired by the idea that such plants could feed a hungry population in Cape Town, where an estimated 50 percent of residents do not have enough to eat, the former garden designer, has set up her own NGO to promote them.
"Most of the farmers could no longer grow their vegetables. But this dune spinach here ... it had been unirrigated for two years," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of an annual slow food festival in Italy.
"It is very versatile. It can be served raw or cooked. It goes very well with mushrooms. You can turn it into a pasta sauce or make soup with it."
Earlier this year Cape Town, a tourist hub with a population of about 4 million, avoided a feared "Day Zero" when its taps would have run dry due to severe drought after three years of low rainfall.
The city is characterised by racial and economic divides more than 20 years after the end of apartheid.
Rusch said dune spinach was just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of edible plants growing wild in the city, but most of the population was unaware of their existence.
"They've been there for centuries and they're edible and they are growing without stressing our environment," said Emanuele Dughera, project coordinator in Africa for Slow Food, which organised the food festival in the northern city of Turin.
Rusch, who spent 30 years as a landscape designer for the city's wealthy residents, is now working with some of its most marginalised communities to cultivate these never-before-farmed plants to combat hunger and climate change.
From dune celery, which tastes like parsley, to sour figs, crowberries and peppermint geraniums, she has identified at least 40 different types of wild foods that can be cultivated.
Nine small-scale farmers have been signed up to supply these foods to 20 chefs in Cape Town. One started growing the asparagus-like veldkool at Rusch's urging, making the first delivery this month.
Foraging for these foods in the wild is popular among foodies, but they have to be cultivated to have a real impact on hunger, she said.
"Indigenous crops have incredible potential to help alleviate the stress farmers are facing with current changes in climate," said Joyce Njoro, a nutrition specialist with the United Nations.