Water spinach (botanical name Ipomoea aquatica) grows on moist soils as well as water. Normally, the stems of water spinach grow up to a height of 2 meters to 3 meters (7 feet to 10 feet). Some plants are seen to grow taller. They root at nodes and since the stems are hollow, they are able to float on water. The shape of water spinach leaves varies from arrow-head shaped (sagittate) to lanceolate. The leaves are usually between 5 cm and 15 cm (2 inches and 6 inches) in length and between 2 cm and 8 cm (0.8 inch and 3 inches) in width.
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Water spinach bears trumpet-shaped flowers that are 3 cm to 5 cm (1 inch to 2 inches) in diameter. Usually, the flowers are white, while the center is mauve. I. aquatica is propagated by two methods. Either the stems shoots are cut into small pieces and planted so that they develop roots along the nodes, or they can be propagated from their seeds. These seeds are produced in seed pods that appear after the flowers have withered.
Water spinach is an aquatic or semi-aquatic plant that mainly grows in the tropical regions. This plant is cultivated as a vegetable and its tender and fastest growing leaves and shoots are consumed after cooking. In fact, Ipomoea aquatica is found growing all over the tropical as well as sub-tropical regions of the globe. Sometimes, water spinach is erroneously referred to as "kale" in English. However, kale is basically a mustard strain, which belongs to another species called Brassica oleracea. Moreover, kale does not have any relation whatsoever with water spinach. Ipomoea aquatica belongs to the species known as morning glory.
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The first documentation related to Ipomoea aquatica as a vegetable dates back to the Chin Dynasty in China (304 A.D). Water spinach has its origin in India and other regions of Southeast Asia, where this is a main vegetable in various food cultures all over the region. Since then, water spinach has been naturalized in Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, Australia and South America. In the United States, Ipomoea aquatica was introduced in the form of a non-crop as recently as 1973 and it did not receive much fanfare. However, the plant has grown so fast in Florida's waterway regions that now it has been listed both locally as well as federally as a "noxious weed" and prohibited plant.
Aside from its culinary uses, water spinach is also used for a variety of therapeutic purposes. The buds of this aquatic and semi-aquatic tropical plant are used in the form of a poultice for treating skin diseases like athlete's foot, ringworm and many others. Furthermore, this herb is said to be useful in treating poisoning. It is taken internally to induce vomiting in poisoning cases. The juice of water spinach is blended with water and used in the form of a cold compress to cure fever.
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The juice extracted from water spinach plant is boiled and taken internally to alleviate constipation, as it helps to loosen the bowel. It is also an effective herbal remedy for dealing with intestinal worm infestation. In Ayurveda, an ancient Indian medicine system, the juice of water spinach is employed to treat liver problems and jaundice.
Aside from using the water spinach buds for treating skin diseases, consumption of this vegetable also aids in preventing development of skin cancer. Moreover, it is also employed for treating other skin related problems like acne, eczema and psoriasis.
Since water spinach is packed with several different kinds of antioxidant compounds, this vegetable is an ideal diet to prevent various forms of cancer, especially skin cancer. The antioxidants present in water spinach are said to be effective in combating and getting rid of free radicals from our body, thereby changing the conditions that help carcinogenic cells to multiply. As a result, this vegetable also helps to reinforce the natural environment of the cells in our body. It is said that consumption of water spinach helps in preventing stomach, colorectal, skin and breast cancers.
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The leaves of water spinach are also employed for treating diabetes, especially in pregnant women. Moreover, this aquatic and semi-aquatic tropical vegetable is also employed in the form of a sedative with a view to support relaxation as well as sound sleep.
Ipomoea aquatica contains elevated levels of vital nutrients like vitamin A, carotenoids and lutein. These nutrients are essential for the health of our eyes. In addition, water spinach also helps to perk up the glutathione levels, which are essential for preventing cataracts.
Since water spinach is loaded with the essential mineral iron, the tender leaves of this herb are very helpful for people suffering from anemia. At the same time, they are beneficial for pregnant women who require enough iron in their daily diets. Iron is a vital mineral that is essential for our body for various purposes, especially by the red blood cells (erythrocytes) for hemoglobin formation and transportation of oxygen to the cells.
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Other essential nutrients contained by water spinach include vitamin A and vitamin C. It also has an elevated concentration of beta-carotene. All these nutrients serve as antioxidants and help to eliminate the harmful free radicals from the body, thereby putting off the oxidation of cholesterol. When cholesterol is oxidized, it binds to the walls of the blood vessels. As a result, it may block the arteries, increasing the risks of stroke or heart attack. This apart, water spinach also contains folate, which aids in converting a potentially hazardous chemical known as homocysteine. Elevated levels of this chemical may result in stroke or heart attack. This vegetable also contains sufficient amounts of the essential mineral magnesium, which helps to bring down high blood pressure, thereby protecting us from the risks of developing various heart ailments.
Water spinach (I. aquatica) is a very familiar ingredient in several dishes prepared by people in the Southeast Asian region. In fact, stir-fried water spinach is a favourite dish among many in the region. People in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia usually stir-fry the soft shoots as well as the leaves of water spinach together with garlic, chili pepper, ginger and various other spices. In Ipoh and Penang, people cook water spinach along with cuttlefish and a spicy and sweet sauce. This vegetable can also be consumed boiled with conserved cuttlefish and subsequently rinsed and blended with a spicy paste locally known as rojak to prepare a dish called jiu hu eng cai.
People in the Philippines cut the tender shoots of water spinach into small pieces and cook them along with their leaves either in meat and fish stews like sinigang. You can also consume water spinach alone as in the case of adobong kangkóng, wherein the vegetable is sautéed in cooking oil along with garlic, onions, soy sauce, vinegar and bouillon cube. In addition, the local people also use this vegetable to make an appetizer known as crispy kangkóng. The leaves of water spinach are coated with a batter that is flour-based and fried till it becomes crisp. This preparation is somewhat same as the Japanese tempura.
Water spinach (I. aquatic) is grown extensively in several regions of Asia, mainly South, Southeast and East Asia. This plant thrives naturally in various waterways and water bodies even without any or very little care. People in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malay and China use this herb extensively in their cuisines. Water spinach is particularly used in the rural or village (kampung) areas. In addition, people in Taiwan, where this plant grows extremely well, also use this plant extensively. When the Japanese occupied Singapore during the World War II, water spinach was extensively grown throughout the country. People in the Philippines grow a particular variety of water spinach (locally known as kangkong) in the canals that were dug when the American troops occupied the region following the Spanish-American War. In addition, another variety of this species called Chinese kangkong is cultivated on moist land.
Ipomoea aquatica is also grown outside the tropics. In such places this herb can be grown easily in containers provided they are watered sufficiently and located in a bright sunny spot. The plant roots readily from its stem cuttings.
Water spinach is an herbaceous aquatic or semi-aquatic annual plant that can be grown easily. It can easily be propagated from its seeds or stem cutting wherever they are available. You can root the stem cuttings in damp sand or in water and later transplant those into containers or pots containing productive potting soil mix and the pots can be placed in any bright sunny place. Water spinach enjoys heat, water, humidity in addition to nutrients. However, these plants will not grow properly if the temperature is below 70°F. When the plants have established themselves well, you can make stem cuttings whenever you want.
Similar to sweet potato, which is related to water spinach, the stems of this plant also contain white colored latex. People always harvest the fastest growing and youngest tips of the plant for cooking. When the growing conditions are not very favourable, the green stems become tougher and will contain more of the latex like substance.
Chemical analysis of the water spinach has revealed that the plant is an excellent source of a number of vitamins and essential minerals. It contains vitamin B, vitamin C, amino acids in addition to iron and calcium.
Water spinach is not only edible in the form of a vegetable, but it is also rather safe for consumption by humans as well as all other animals. When water spinach is consumed raw, it may transmit an intestinal fluke parasite found in humans and pigs called Fasciolopsis buski. This parasite is known to be responsible for developing a condition known as fasciolopsiasis.
The good thing about water spinach is that its consumption is also believed to be safe for women during pregnancy as well as nursing mothers. In fact, many physicians recommend consumption of water spinach to pregnant women with a view to cure diabetes.
However, consumption of water spinach may have minor side effects like lowering the levels of blood sugar. As a result, people already taking any diabetic medication should exercise caution while consuming water spinach. It is advisable that such people should check with their physician or healthcare provider before consuming this vegetable on a regular basis.