Herbs: Guascas or Gallant Soldier: History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
Guascas is an annual plant native to South and Central America where it is considered an herb and culinary ingredient. Over the centuries it has become naturalized in North America and Europe, where it has adapted to disturbed habitats and is often considered a common and noxious weed. In Colombia the leaves, stems and young shoots of guascas are picked and eaten as a leafy vegetable or used to flavor soups and stews. This herb is also eaten in east African countries, particularly Tanzania. Nutritionally, researchers have found that guascas contains phenolic and antioxidant compounds which could be beneficial for those who suffer with type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
In the mid-eighteenth century the Spanish botanist and physician Mariano Martínez Galinsoga identified and transported various specious of this plant, from the Andean regions of Peru to the Madrid Botanical Gardens, where he eventually became superintendent. The Spanish botanists Hipólito Ruiz López and José Antonio Pavón later named the plant genus Galinsoga, in honor of Martinez Galinsoga who passed away in 1797. The 14 species of Galinsoga were published in the CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names.
From Colombia to Chile guascas had been used as food and valued for its medicinal properties by pre-Columbian civilizations for centuries. Gauscas is mentioned in the writings of the Colombian politician, writer and educator José Joaquín Casas as being traditionally consumed by the Muisca Indians of Tunja, Boyacá, circa 1900.
A number of Galinsoga specious including guascas (Galinsoga parviflora) and quickweed, (Galinsoga cilate) were introduced to Kew Gardens, England, in 1796. By 1863 seeds form Galinsoga species had spread to an area between Kew and East Sheen, where the plant was described as “quite as common as groundsel”. Guascas spread quickly to crops, wastelands and gardens, and by the mid-nineteenth century was growing throughout many temperate and sub-tropical regions of Europe, Africa, the USA and Asia. In North America, the first recorded population of Guascas was at the Bartram Botanical Gardens, Philadelphia in 1836.
The Culinary Uses of Guascas: Guascas, sometimes called Guasca (Guasca is also a small town in the municipality of Cundinamarca,Colombia) is primarily famous as the indispensable herb flavoring in the traditional Colombian stew, ajiaco Bogotano.
Ajiaco is a hearty chicken and potato stew usually cooked at weekends and holidays, described by many as comfort food. Legend has it that ajiaco was named after an indigenous Indian chief called Aji and his beautiful wife Aco. The traditional recipe incorporates chicken pieces and three, sometimes four, kinds of potatoes from different regions of the country to give the broth substance, flavor and color. These include papas criollas, which are small yellow new potatoes that add yellow color and are the most important ingredient in ajiaco. Two other kinds of potatoes, sabanera from Boyacá and the softest thickening potato, pastusa, from Pasto, complete the slow cooking stew, along with corn on the cob and various condiments such as cream, capers and avocado. In Colombia ajiaco is flavored with finely chopped fresh guascas leaves, which give the dish its unique flavor.
Colombian ex-patriots and ajiaco fans alike living in parts of the world where fresh guascas is not available in markets can purchase dried dehydrated guascas produced in Colombia, from any good Colombian grocery store. Kiska is the most popular brand which can also be purchased online. Most people would agree that although dried guascas leaves are no substitute for the aromatic flavor of fresh leaves they are better than nothing, and one cannot make ajiaco without guascas.
In Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda guascas is collected during the weeding of crops such as coffee and maize; guascas, or gallant soldier as it is known in Africa, acts as an alternative host for insects and viruses which destroy crops. The leaves and stems are eaten like a leafy vegetable, but as in Colombia, the flower heads and buds are discarded or used for cattle fodder.
Guascas and Nutrition: Fresh guascas is extremely nutritious and compares well to other leafy vegetables and herbs. 100 grams of the edible parts of this herb contains 3.2g of protein and 1.1g of fiber, as compared with the same amount of spinach which has 2.9g of protein and 2.6g of fiber. Guascas is high in calcium, with 284mg per 100g compared to fresh parsley with 140mg. Guascas is a good source of vitamin A or beta carotene, magnesium, potassium, zinc, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and ascorbic acid.
In a 2007 study at the University of Kwa-Zulu, Durban, South Africa, 16 herbs were studied for possible ACE inhibitors. ACE inhibitors, which are also made synthetically by drug companies to treat high blood pressure, help prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease. One of the herbs found to exhibit ACE inhibitors and so help improve blood flow was Galinsoga parviflora or guascas. Recent studies have also demonstrated the antioxidants and phenolic compounds present in guascas can inhibit hyperglysemia and also hypertension associated with type 2 diabetes.