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Short Notes on Nature Singapore

2 October 2016 | Elephant / Horse Grass | Pennisetum purpureum |

photo This giant grass species was a mystery until I met Uncle Tan, who is an experience self-taught herbalist last Saturday. He shared with me a Chinese article that described the health benefit of consuming the juice from this grass. On the article was a botanical name, Pennisetum alopecuroides. But, when I checked the pictures of Pennisetum alopecuroides later, they did not look like the giant grass. Then, I tried searching using the few Chinese names offered in the same article. One of them proved to be the lead to the potential identity of this grass. As I had suspected in the past, it should a variant of the Elephant Grass (Pennisetum purpureum), which is very common in Singapore. Elephant Grass is also called Napier Grass.

photo This grass variant or hybrid was concocted in Taiwan in 1996 and was designated a local Chinese name 狼尾草台畜草二号 (Napiergrass Taishigrass No. 2). In Taiwan, the more common name is 牧草 (domestic animal grass) while it is commonly known as 马草 (horse grass) in Malaysia. Compared to the parent Elephant Grass, this variant is almost hairless. The plant content was said to be much sweeter than the wild Elephant Grass.

In May 2011, I saw a small population of this grass cultivated in a park. At that time, I thought it was the popular horse grass. When I learned about the differentiation based on the quantity of hairs on the plant recently, I realised that it was not the horse grass since it had many hairs along the leaf blades. It was likely to be another variant since it also resembled Elephant Grass except for the shorter height. There was another variant known as sweet elephant grass (甜象草) or Napiergrass Taishigrass No. 1 (狼尾草台畜草一号), a cross between 2 species --- Pennisetum americanum and Pennisetum purpureum. This variant was shorter with a higher foliage to stem mass ratio but it should also be almost hairless.

Although horse grass juice was touted to have many health benefits, it might not be suitable for everyone especially for people with poor kidney function. I come across a report from Taiwan that folks with mild to moderate kidney problem ended up with kidney failure that needed dialysis after drinking excessive amount (3 glasses a day) of horse grass juice. The causative agent might be the oxalate content present in the plant. Though oxalate is a naturally occurring molecule in plants and animals, too high a concentration might result in kidney stone (a combination of oxalate and calcium). Regardless of whether this is true, it is always not advisable to consume excessive quantity of a single type of food over a prolong period of time.

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