Thursday, January 28, 2016

Water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis)

Eleocharis dulcis is commonly known as water chestnut or Chinese water chestnut. The edible part of the plant is the underground corm, which is typically harvested when the plant dies down in the fall.

Prepare water chestnuts for eating by peeling away the brown covering on the corm. Inside you'll find the white edible portion. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

Water chestnut prefers to grow in boggy soils, or submerged under a few inches of water. The hollow leaves grow to about 1.5 feet tall, giving it a grassy appearance.

Water chestnuts are easy to grow in backyard ponds or water gardens. Even a 5-gallon bucket will do. Simply plant them in the spring and they will continue to multiply throughout the growing season. Here's the result of one season of growth in a 10-inch diameter pot:

Eleocharis dulcis is native to Southeast Asia and Australia. It is perennial in USDA Zones 8-11. In colder regions, the corms can be dug and stored in wet refrigeration for the winter, then re-planted in early spring. A full sun or mostly sunny location is preferred.

Here's a short video on growing and harvesting water chestnuts from a 5-gallon bucket:

Friday, December 18, 2015

Giant Vine Fern (Stenochlaena tenuifolia)

Giant Vine Fern (Stenochlaena tenuifolia) is an impressive species with large fronds up to 4 feet in length. It makes an excellent tall groundcover for large areas under trees, or a lush background planting for other colorful or flowering plants.

The leaves have heavy substance and are long-lasting as cut greens in floral arrangements. Young fiddleheads are edible if cooked until tender.

Once established, this fern spreads by rhizomes that run along the soil surface. The rhizomes are also able to climb trees, preferably those with rough or fibrous trunks for easier attachment.

Mature specimens of Giant Vine Fern grow a few specialized fertile fronds that produce spores, by which this plant can be propagated, although it's much simpler and faster to use sections of the rhizome. In the next photo you can see a thin, fertile, spore-producing frond compared to the typical foliage.

Here's a closer view of the spores:

This species will grow in sun or shade, and wet or dry conditions. The foliage looks best with at least a little shade in tropical regions. In the sunniest locations moist soil is preferred. I've never had to provide any irrigation beyond our natural rainfall when growing it in morning sun. Its tolerance for adverse conditions also make it a good houseplant.

Stenochlaena tenuifolia is native to equatorial Africa, and is recommended for USDA Zones 9-11. It can be container-grown anywhere.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Sword bean (Canavalia gladiata)

Everything about the sword bean (Canavalia gladiata) is impressive. From the time the first true leaves emerge from the seed, until the pods split open to reveal their giant pink seeds, there's something awe-inspiring about this plant.

The pink seeds are about the size of a quarter, and get even larger if soaked before planting.

The cotyledons are pulled up out of the ground as the roots head downward, and when the first true leaves emerge, they can be 6-8 inches in diameter. Here's a seedling next to a 4-inch pot for scale:

From there, they quickly shoot up and start twining around, looking for something to climb on. Yes, this bean is a climber, so give it a sturdy support that will endure throughout the growing season. I like to grow them on dead trees, since many types of garden supports will collapse under the weight of the vines.

By mid-summer, the lavender-pink flowers appear in clusters all up and down the vine.

If pollination is successful, the bean pods start to develop, and eventually reach over a foot in length. It takes about 90 days from planting for the beans to reach a maturity at which they can be picked and eaten.

For fresh eating, the pods should be picked while they're still tender, and before the beans start to swell up too much inside. At that stage, the pods can be sliced cross-wise and boiled until tender. Discard the cooking water.

If you wait too long to eat them fresh, just let them finish maturing until the pods are dry. It will take an additional 2-3 months of growing to get to this stage.

Then the beans can be shelled out and cooked, but require soaking overnight and thorough cooking in  2-3 changes of water to rid the beans of potential toxins. For this reason, they are usually picked and eaten when the pods are still tender.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Taro, Dasheen (Colocasia esculenta)

Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is a tropical starchy root crop. The large, "elephant-ear" type leaves can grow 2-3 feet long and 1-2 feet wide. Each leaf emerges from an underground corm and the overall plant height can be 5-6 feet.

In addition to the corm, the leaves and stems are also edible. The immature leaves are boiled or steamed and served as greens. The stems are peeled and boiled, and served as a vegetable. They must be cooked to break down the oxalates in the tissues. Varieties with naturally lower levels of oxalates make better cooked greens.

The corms are peeled and baked, boiled or steamed. When cooked and mashed with water, taro becomes poi, a traditional food in Hawaii.
The flesh color of the corm may be white, yellow, lavender or pink. In ancient Hawaii, where Taro had been extensively grown for generations, there were as many as 300 named varieties. There are both upland and wetland varieties. Upland cultivars are also known as Dasheen.

Taro grows best in partial shade, but will grow in full sun if given plenty of water. Best growth is in soils high in organic matter. It will also grow in standing water up to 12 inches deep.

As it grows, multiple smaller plants form around the original corm.

By the end of the growing season, most of these corms, or "eddoes", will be big enough to eat.

Taro is propagated by dividing the clump, and re-planting the smaller corms surrounding the original. These are planted 2-3 inches deep and 2 feet apart.

Taro is perennial in USDA Zones 8-11, but can be grown as an annual elsewhere.

Colocasia esculenta also has many uses in traditional medicines:
Some infections respond to the use of Taro leaves mashed with salt. This poultice can be applied to an injury, covered and wrapped with a large Taro leaf (I wouldn't do this on any open wounds!). 

Undiluted poi is sometimes used as a poultice on infected sores. A piece of Taro stem can be touched to the skin to stop surface bleeding. For a sting from an insect, the stem leaf (petiole) can be cut and rubbed on the afflicted area, preventing swelling and pain. (Whistler,W.A. 1992. Polynesian Herbal Medicine.) Note: people with sensitive skin can experience irritation from contact with the sap.

Taro is native to tropical Southeast Asia, but was long ago spread around the world by ancient travelers.

There are similar-looking plants that belong to other genera, other species, or are different cultivars of this species, but the true taro is the only one with peltate leaves (the petiole is attached to the center of the leaf blade).

There are also ornamental varieties of this species that are grown only for the attractive leaves, and are not considered good eating varieties.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Aechmea weilbachii forma leodiensis

Aechmea weilbachii forma leodiensis typically blooms during the late fall through early winter period. The inflorescence is held erect, well above the foliage, for a beautiful display. The spike is red and the flowers are lavender-purple. The vivid color combinations are attractive long before the flowers even open.

The plant grows up to 2 feet tall and wide. Leaves are thin and flexible with soft spines near the base. The foliage is dark green, and some cultivars have a maroon or reddish blush on the new growth.

Shade or filtered sunlight is preferred for the best-looking plant.

The flower spike is long-lasting, often remaining in good color for 3 months or more.

There are two other forms of Ae. weilbachii. See also
Ae. weilbachii forma viridisepala and
Ae. weilbachii forma pendula

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Katuk (Sauropus androgynus)

Katuk is an edible leafy shrub that thrives in tropical or subtropical climates. It's botanically known as Sauropus androgynus.

Nearly all parts of the plant can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaflets are easily stripped from the petioles and added to salads, sandwiches, soups or stir-fries. Tender young shoots are usually steamed, and the flowers and fruits can be added to salads or vegetable dishes.

The pinnate leaves can reach up to 2 feet in length, and the overall plant height can be 6-7 feet or more if not kept cut back. The tall, thin stems seldom branch and easily fall over in wind or heavy rain. It's best to keep them cut back to 3-4 feet in height to form a more sturdy bush. The trimmed parts can be eaten.

Some cultivars show a silvery mottling on the leaflets that may be randomly scattered or in attractive patterns, depending on the individual plant.

Katuk prefers a little shade in hot climates, but will grow in full sun as long as the soil is kept moist. An evenly moist soil is also conducive to faster, more lush, growth.

The unusual flowers form on the underside of the leaves in the spring and fall. The fruits develop quickly after pollination.

Some cultivars may require cross-pollination with another cultivar in order to set fruit. Others appear to be self-fertile. The fruits are creamy-white, marble-sized balls that hang from the leaf on a short stem.

When fully mature, they split open to reveal up to 6 black angular seeds.

For propagation, the seeds should be sown immediately, and usually take at least 2-3 months to germinate.

Katuk is native to Borneo, and is recommended for USDA Zones 9b-11. Elsewhere, it can be container-grown and protected from the cold.

Sauropus androgynus is also sometimes known as Sweetleaf or Cinnamon leaf.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Billbergia amoena var. striata

Billbergia amoena var. striata generally blooms in late fall or winter, but it looks good even when not in bloom. The flower spike features bright pinkish-red bracts with contrasting pale green flowers tipped in vivid blue.

It has one of the most open rosettes of any of the Billbergias, and when not in bloom could even be mistaken for Neoregelia! Mature plants can have a spread of about 18 inches.

This striata form has leaves that are nicely striped with fine bands of varying shades of green.
New growth has a rosy tint.

In higher light the coloration endures throughout the foliage.

This is a stoloniferous species so they make large clumps quickly. If container-grown, they need repotting or dividing on an annual basis.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Papalo (Porophyllum ruderale ssp. macrocephalum)

Papalo (Porophyllum ruderale ssp. macrocephalum) is a traditional Mexican herb commonly used fresh with salads, sandwiches, soups, stews, meats or beans. It is only used fresh, or added to cooked foods at the end of cooking. It is never dried.

Many restaurants in Mexico keep a vase of this cut herb on the table so patrons may pull off some leaves and add it to their meal as desired.

In the garden it's a fast-growing annual that can reach 7 feet tall in a season, if not cut back. If you're using it regularly in the kitchen, you'll have no problem keeping it trimmed down to size. In fact, it's better if you do cut it regularly; tall slender plants are more prone to being blown over or simply bending under their own weight.

The leaves are rounded and about 2 inches in diameter. It grows best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade.

Also known as papaloquelite, yerba porosa, or poreleaf (the undersides of the leaves have large visible pores).

As the days shorten in the fall, the plant ceases leaf production and starts to bloom. At first the buds point downward, but as they get ready to open they point up.

The flowers look like brushy stubble on the end of an elongated bud.

The blooms are pollinated by bees and are prolific seed producers. After a couple of months, the seedhead splits open to reveal a buff-colored fluff-ball that releases seed onto the wind, floating to new growing locations.

Papalo is native to Mexico, but can be found growing wild in the Southwestern U.S. Many websites list various health benefits associated with this herb, but I am unable to find any scientific documentation to support these claims. Eat it because it's good, and maybe it's good for you!

Read about the closely related subspecies, Quilquina.

Buy Papalo seeds

Friday, December 5, 2014

Molokhia (Egyptian spinach)

Molokhia is a highly nutritious ancient super-green from the Middle-East. It's also known as Egyptian spinach, jute mallow or Jew's mallow. Botanically, it's Corchorus olitorius. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked; use them fresh in salads, cooked as a side vegetable, or made into soup. The cooked leaves are mucilaginous, and dried leaves can be used as a thickener in soups or brewed as a tea.

The nutritious leaves are high in vitamins A, C, E, K, potassium, calcium and magnesium, and also contain beta carotene, iron, and more than 32 vitamins, minerals and trace elements. It’s said to aid digestion, improve vision, lower stress, and increase libido among other health benefits. The leaves also contain 6 different anti-oxidants.

Seed should be sown in spring when the soil is warm. Plants grow quickly and are ready for a first cutting in about 60-70 days.
Harvest by cutting the upper 6-8 inches of growth. The tender stems from this region are also edible if finely cut up along with the leaves. Repeat cuttings can be made from each flush of new growth until you run out of summer. Alternatively, you can sow seeds in succession and harvest the entire young plant at once.

Plants have a strongly upright growth habit, but each successive harvest of  the newer growth forces more branching. Individual leaves are 2-3 inches in length. If left uncut, molokhia can reach 6 feet tall.

In fall, as the days shorten, the plant ceases leafy growth and starts to flower. For this reason, molokhia is not a good choice for a fall garden where temperatures permit; the plant just wants to bloom and you'll get nothing leafy to harvest.

The flowers are bright yellow and emerge from the leaf axils.

Soon after blooming the seedpods start to develop. They grow to about the same length as the leaves.
The plant declines as the seedpods reach maturity and dry to a tan or black color.
The pods are a 5-sectioned capsule filled with many angular, greenish-tinted seeds.

The stems of the plant are the source of jute fiber, and that is its primary reason for cultivation in India.

Although Corchorus olitorius likely originated in Africa, it is now pan-tropical and in some countries it is considered a weed (perhaps testament to its ease of cultivation). As a garden vegetable it can be successfully cropped anywhere the growing season exceeds 70 days.

Buy Molokhia seeds


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