Growing gacs and gow gees in NSW

A Vietnamese woman farmer bundles Artemisia for market. Inset: Football-sized 'gac' on sale in a Dalat market.
A Vietnamese woman farmer bundles Artemisia for market. Inset: Football-sized 'gac' on sale in a Dalat market.

An orange bitter cucumber called gac, a berry known by several names including gow gee, and a wild pepper are among 26 plants indigenous to Vietnam that have been identified as having commercial potential in Australia.

A number of these are believed to offer health benefits. Gac and gow gee, for instance, both contain high levels of lycopene, which is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as prostate and other cancers.

Other plants have unusual flavours. A type of magnolia tree (Michelia mediocris), which grows in northern Vietnam can be used to make a peppery spice. Another vegetable tastes like fish (Houttuynia cordata), a close relative of wormwood makes a bitter herb (Artemisia vulgaris) while the plant known here as “arthritis herb” (Centella asiatica) is used in soup.

NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) researchers drew up the list after visiting Vietnam to assess the benefit to women from poor rural and peri-urban areas of developing new products based on indigenous vegetables.

DPI resource development officer, Virginia Brunton, said the project offered mutual benefit to growers in Vietnam and Australia.

As part of a scoping study for the Australian Council for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Ms Brunton and postharvest researcher, Jenny Ekman, looked at ways of reducing poverty among Vietnamese women while enhancing their important role in producing, promoting and using indigenous vegetables.

“Vegetable growing represents a large part of the Vietnamese economy yet most of the vegetables grown are exotic to the country,” Ms Brunton said.

“However, Vietnam itself is the origin of a huge number of indigenous vegetable species – and there is evidence that some of the wild plant species are on the verge of disappearing.

“This is due both to changes in land use and disappearing knowledge of how to produce, keep and use traditional vegetables,” she said.

Dr Ekman said many of these plants have the potential to be much more widely cultivated and used.

“Some are also reported to have medicinal value.”

The spiny or Chinese bitter cucumber known as gac (Momordica cochinchinensis) reputedly contains 100 times the lycopene content of tomatoes as well as significant concentrations of beta carotene.

The fruit of gow gee (Lycium chinensis), also known as koi tu and cau k tur, also contain high concentrations of lycopene.

Dried and marketed as “Tibetan goji berries”, they are an extremely popular health food in Europe, America and Australia.

Dr Ekman and Ms Brunton concluded that “there is great potential to market these fresh berries as a higher priced alternative in these markets”.

They argue the project could have significant benefits for NSW, as it will identify a number of new crops that could be grown here.

Many of the materials developed to help growers in Vietnam are also likely to be useful for people who grow vegetables in the Sydney region and who do not speak English.

The extension and production strategies developed as a part of the project will provide NSW farmers with new opportunities to improve market access and profitability.

The next stage of the project is to narrow down to 12 the number of fruit and vegetables to be further investigated.

This process will be undertaken at a workshop in Hanoi in May.