Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tindora (Coccinia grandis)

Coccinia grandis is a perennial cucurbit commonly known as tindora or ivy gourd. The striped fruits are about 2 inches long and are edible raw or cooked. When approaching maturity, they start turning red from the inside out, and from the distal end of the fruit to the stem.

They are edible while still green and have a crunchy texture. As they turn red, the flavor doesn't change much, but they become very soft.

They make a very attractive addition to a vegetable tray. Young leaves and stems are also edible after cooking.

Tindora is a climbing vine which attaches itself by tendrils. The leaves are palmate and about 3 to 4 inches across. Vines can grow up to 9 feet in length, branching at any point along the stem, and rooting if they touch the ground.

Flowers are white, open for a single day, and are about the same size as the leaves. Flowering and fruiting can occur nearly year-round in frost-free climates, but it is most productive during the warm months when the plant is in active growth. Male and female flowers occur on separate plants.

Coccinia grandis is native to tropical Asia and Africa, and is recommended for USDA Zones 8-11 (perennial in the coldest zones and evergreen in frost-free areas). It will grow in nearly any soil type, and needs full sun to be most productive.

Unharvested fruits drop seeds, and over time the offspring can become invasive. It has naturalized in tropical regions around the world, and is listed as a noxious weed in Hawaii and Western Australia.
There is a sterile cultivar that is preferred for home gardeners, and this variety produces parthenocarpic fruit, so no male plant is required.

According to WebMD, research suggests tindora might improve blood sugar control in patients with type 2 diabetes. Studies have also shown Coccinia grandis has anti-cholesterol, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer and anti-oxidant properties.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tithonia diversifolia (Bolivian sunflower)

Bolivian sunflower is sometimes known as Mexican sunflower, but that common name also applies to another Tithonia species, so to be completely accurate, just call it Tithonia diversifolia! Some sources also list tree marigold as a common name.

This species grows fast and large, so give it plenty of space in the landscape. Plants can easily grow to 12 feet tall and wide in a single year.

The bright yellow, 6-inch diameter flowers can appear anytime there is active growth, but bloom production peaks in late summer and fall. There is a slight, pleasant fragrance if you put your nose right up to the flower. They need a full sun location for best flower production, but the plants will also tolerate some shade.
The leaves are large, hairy and deeply lobed. They can reach up to a foot in length.

Stems are rough and covered with prominent lenticels.

Stems often form aerial roots. If they bend over and touch the ground, they'll start a new plant.

The inside of the stem is filled with a lightweight, spongy xylem.
This quality makes the cut stems decompose quickly and is why Tithonia diversifolia is frequently used as a "chop and drop" plant; the chopped leaves and stems can be used as a nutrient-rich mulch or compost. In poor soils, the chopped leaves and stems can be used as an alternative to commercial N-P-K fertilizers. Inter-cropping with Tithonia has a positive effect on crop yields, provided you prevent it from taking over the other crops.

The base of the plant becomes trunk-like with age.

This species is native to Central America and Mexico, but has spread throughout tropical and subtropical regions world-wide. It is recommended for USDA Zones 9-11, but can be grown as a perennial in Zone 8.

The leaves are suitable fodder for cows and goats, and deer also love to browse on the nutrient-rich leaves.
Propagation is by seed or cuttings.

An infusion of Tithonia diversifolia leaves has been used in some folk medicines as a treatment for a wide range of maladies, including diabetes, cholesterol, sore throat and measles. Lab studies indicate both positive and negative results. Another study shows promising results as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Still other studies have indicated a potential treatment for malaria and also use as a topical mosquito repellent.

Buy Tithonia diversifolia cuttings!

Friday, June 13, 2014

How to grow Dyckias from seed

So your Dyckia has produced a bunch of little seed pods and you want to try growing some bromeliads from seed. Each pod contains dozens of seeds and they're fairly easy to grow. Note: this method also works with other members of the Pitcairnioides group, like Hechtia, Encholirium, Puya and Pitcairnia. These all produce dry flake-like seeds that are easy for a beginner to work with.

There are probably many different ways to germinate bromeliad seed, but this is an easy way that works for me. Keep in mind that a self-pollinated species will produce seedlings of the same species, but there may be slight variations between the plants. Seeds of hybrids will produce plants with a wide variety of characteristics due to their more diverse genetic makeup.

Collect the seeds as soon as the pods start to split. The seeds are lightweight and if you wait any longer they're likely to blow away.

Soak the seeds overnight in water. This speeds germination, but makes it difficult to separate them for planting. I dump the seeds and soak-water out onto a fine mesh.

The water quickly drains through and the seeds can be easily separated and picked up with a flat wooden toothpick.

Any kind of clear, closed container makes an excellent humidity chamber perfect for starting bromeliad seeds. Plastic clamshells or pastry trays are ideal. I like the ones with aluminum bottoms. You can quickly punch drainage holes in the bottom with a pencil or ice pick, then fill with sterile potting soil or seed-starter mix.

I like to get the germination tray going a few days ahead of time. Fill it with soil and water thoroughly. Close the top and place it in a bright, but shady location. Humidity will build up and run back into the soil creating a moist environment perfect for germination.

Carefully spacing the seeds on the soil makes transplanting so much easier later on as the plants develop.

Tightly close the container and keep it in a bright shady location. The water should recycle providing all the moisture needed by the developing seedlings, but check the soil periodically and add water if needed.

Airborne moss or fern spores often find their way into the germination chamber, but their growth rarely causes a problem for the bromeliad seedlings.

Within a few months the seedlings will have several leaves and it's time to start venting the germination chamber to harden off the plants. Start by propping open the lid a small amount to allow humidity to escape. Increase the amount of venting over a period of a few weeks, keeping a close eye on the soil moisture and watering as needed. Once the seedlings have been hardened off, they can be carefully transplanted to small individual containers. Keep them shaded until they become well-established in pots and then gradually acclimate them to the light levels they'll get in their permanent location.

Congratulations! You've now grown your own bromeliads from seed!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Dyckia leptostachya

Dyckia leptostachya is a spring-blooming bromeliad that has thick, succulent leaves with an attractive reddish tint. The margins are armored with small sharp spines pointing outward.

 Individual plants are about 18 inches across, but they pup freely and form large clumps with time.

Flower spikes appear in mid to late spring from the base of the plant, rather than from the center. This allows the rosette to continue growing after flowering, unlike most bromeliad genera.

The yellow flowers are quite showy as they open in sequence from the bottom of the stalk to the top.

The inflorescence eventually reaches a height of about 3 feet.

Dark brown, three-sectioned seed pods develop from most of the flowers.

When these are mature they split open to reveal a multitude of dry papery seeds that are scattered by the wind.
Dyckia leptostachya grows well in full sun to light shade. Temperatures as low as 26° F can be tolerated for short periods of time without damage.

Next up: Growing Dyckia from seed

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Jicama (Pachyrhizus tuberosus)

Jicama (Pachyrhizus tuberosus) is tropical vining legume that forms a large edible root. The vines climb by twining and can reach a length of 20-30 feet, given sufficient support. The trifoliate leaves are opposite on the stem and can be up to 18 inches across. As a legume, this plant is capable of nitrogen fixation and therefore has low fertilizer requirements.

Flower buds start to appear in the leaf axils by late summer.

These quickly open into bright blue pea-like blossoms as the inflorescence elongates.

For maximum root production you should clip off the flower buds as they form so all the plant's energy goes into the storage root, rather than seed production. The root continues to increase in size as long as the vine is green and growing, so a long growing season is also beneficial for maximum production. Note that all parts of the jicama plant should be considered poisonous except the root, even though stems and leaves are used as animal forage in some regions.

Each pollinated flower develops into a bean-like pod.

The pods grow to about 5-6 inches in length over a 2-3 month period, turning dark brown or black as they reach maturity.

When they have fully dried, the pods split open to release the seeds.

By this time the vines have also started to dry and decline and you can dig the edible root. Each vine produces a single, sometimes lobed, storage root, which varies in size and shape. Roots can become quite large, often weighing several pounds, but smaller ones are much more common. They have a thin tan skin and a crisp white or sometimes yellow interior, depending on the cultivar. Jicama may be eaten either raw or cooked, and they retain their firm crunchy texture even after cooking.
Peel and slice the root in salads, soups and stir-fries or serve with fruits. Cut into sticks and use with your favorite dips. Jicama is a very good source of vitamin C and also a good source of potassium. The root contains oligofructose inulin, which is a sweet inert carbohydrate that is not metabolized by the human body, so is a good sweet snack for dieters and diabetics. Oligofructose is also prebiotic.

Harvested roots should be stored in a cool dry location, but not refrigerated.

Pachyrhizus tuberosus is native to Central America, but is cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. The closely-related P. erosus is similar except with a smaller root and is the species more frequently grown on a commercial scale.
Technically, jicama is a perennial in USDA Zones 10-12 and a new vine will sprout from unharvested roots, but it is normally grown as an annual and harvested after the first growing season. I've been more successful growing a new crop from seed each year, rather than letting the old roots sprout again. A harvest can be obtained anywhere with a growing season of at least 5 months.

Propagation is by seed. Soak the seed in water overnight before planting. Any seeds that don't show signs of swelling can be nicked with the edge of a sharp knife and soaked for a few more hours. Keep the seedbed warm and moist. Germination should occur within 2-3 weeks.

Buy Jicama seeds

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius)

Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is a perennial root crop that tastes like a fruit. People in the Andes region of South America have cultivated and enjoyed it for more than a thousand years. Only now are scientists discovering its many health benefits, and commercially-produced yacon syrup is becoming widely available.

It grows multiple stems 6 feet or more in length from a densely-clustered rhizome. When they get too tall they tend to lean over and curve upright again. Stems touching the soil are able to root and start a new growing point, and new shoots may sprout from the rhizome.

The large fuzzy leaves grow opposite on the stem and can reach more than a foot in length. They have a distinctive winged petiole.

Yacon leaves may be used to wrap food when cooking, or dried and made into a tea. The leaves and stems are cooked like a vegetable, but I find they have a somewhat unpleasant resinous tang.

Yacon is in the Asteraceae family and in late summer small sunflower-like blooms appear on the tops of the stems.

It is during this time that yacon starts to grow its storage roots -- the most prized part of the plant. As the autumn days get shorter and cooler, the foliage starts to decline and the roots increase in size. The rhizomes also multiply rapidly during this time and start to push up out of the soil.

In frost-free regions, dormancy may be induced by the onset of the dry season.

I allow the plant to go completely dormant and then carefully dig around the clump and lift it up. Several of the thick storage roots will be radiating out from the clump of rhizomes. These are easily snapped off for eating, and the rhizomes can be set back in the ground or divided and replanted in multiple locations. Roots average around half a pound each, but reportedly can weigh up to 5 pounds.

The first year I grew this crop, I started with about a dozen rhizome pieces smaller than my thumb. From that, I harvested about 7 pounds of edible root. I expect I will get a much larger harvest the second year when starting with much larger rhizomes.

Yacon root is sweet, juicy and crunchy with a pleasant apple/pear/watermelon flavor and texture. When first dug, the skin is very thin and pale. As the roots are exposed to the air over a few hours or days, the skin becomes much darker.

The skin is generally scraped or peeled off before eating, but I find that to be an unnecessary step for freshly dug roots because the pale skin doesn't seem to affect the flavor in any way. The darker skin of cured or dried roots may impart a resinous flavor. Yacon root may also be steamed or baked, but I prefer them raw.
The sugar level in the root increases over time while in storage, but since I let the plants go completely dormant before digging, I can't detect any difference in sweetness between fresh-dug and cured roots. In climates with a shorter growing season, where the crop is dug at first frost, I would imagine there is a more pronounced difference in taste.

Yacon is native to the Andes mountains of South America and is cultivated from sea level up to 9000 feet. It is recommended for USDA Zones 7-11. It will grow in full sun or part shade, and produces best with a steady supply of moisture. The plants rarely set viable seed, but are easily propagated by division of the rhizome or by stem cuttings.

I like to eat yacon simply for the flavor and texture, but its sudden popularity is no doubt due to its medical benefits:
Weight loss and blood sugar: A study published in 2009 in "Clinical Nutrition" concluded that "Yacon syrup is a good source of fructooligosaccharides and its long-term consumption produced beneficial health effects on obese pre-menopausal women with insulin resistance. Daily intake of yacon syrup produced a significant decrease in body weight, waist circumference and body mass index."

Cancer prevention:  "Food and Chemical Toxicology" published a study in 2012 finding that "yacon
and yacon plus Lactobacillus casei intake may reduce the development of chemically-induced colon cancer." Other studies have found similar results on other types of cancer cells.

Prebiotic:  The "Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry" published a study in 2003 proposing "yacon fructooligosaccharides as a potential novel source of prebiotics."

Antioxidant:  In 1999, the  "Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry" published a study identifying two major antioxidants in yacon root.

These are just a few of the many studies confirming a wide variety of healthful benefits from eating yacon. What benefits have you experienced from yacon?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Winged yam, Ñame (Dioscorea alata)

Dioscorea alata is commonly known as winged yam, water yam, white yam and ñame.
The species name alata means winged and refers to the flattened edges of the squarish stems.

This is one of the true yams that are tropical in origin. Yams are twining vines that quickly climb to the top of any available support. They can completely cover nearby trees or shrubs with leaves that are arrow-shaped and 6-8 inches in length. They are arranged opposite each other on the stem. There are other similar-appearing species with poisonous tubers so make sure you're able to properly identify the edible ones if you're going foraging.

While the plant is in active growth it will put out aerial tubers at many of the leaf joints. These aerial tubers are generally not considered good eating, but are used as propagating material for starting new plants.
They'll grow where they fall on the ground or you can plant them in new locations for additional yam production the next year. They sprout readily and in Florida this is considered an invasive species. The bumps on the tuber become roots when in contact with soil. Here you can see a fallen tuber taking root:

During the growing season the edible tuber increases in size until the vine goes dormant in late fall or winter. At this time the yam tuber is dug and consumed. Tubers left in the ground will sprout again in the spring and increase in size the following year. Yams grown from aerial tubers may only produce a pound or so of edible tuber the first year (see top photo), but over a few years time they can achieve a weight of over 100 pounds.

The mature yams are peeled and then baked or boiled until tender. When raw, the cut surfaces have a very slimy texture, but this disappears when cooked. There are many cultivated varieties with different shapes and sizes of tubers, and also some with white, yellow or purple flesh.

Dioscorea alata is believed to be native to Southeast Asia, but has been cultivated in tropical Africa for over 2000 years. From there it was brought to North America on slave ships as early as the 17th century. Its cultivation was encouraged due to its edibility and ease of growth. It is now distributed throughout tropical regions around the world.

Winged yams grow best in sun or light shade, and flourish in moist soils. It has naturalized throughout much of USDA Zones 9 and 10 in the Southeastern U.S.

Friday, January 24, 2014

White turmeric (Curcuma zedoaria)

Curcuma zedoaria is very similar in appearance to golden turmeric, although somewhat smaller-growing and not quite as prolific. The primary visual difference is that the rhizomes are white instead of the yellow-orange color of turmeric.

This species is also known as white turmeric or zedoary, although herbalists often sell several different species under the name zedoary. Sometimes they will differentiate between "long zedoary" and "round zedoary" based on the shape of the rhizomes of the different species. Apparently they have similar medicinal uses, which may explain part of the naming confusion. There was also much confusion among early plant collectors and their plant descriptions. I base my identification of this species on a scientific paper titled "Taxonomic and nomenclatural puzzles in Indian Curcuma". It's probably only worth a look if you have a background in botany or taxonomy!

The leaves are broad and thin-textured, reaching 2 to 3 feet in height. Plants are in active growth during the warm months and go dormant as the days shorten in late fall and early winter. Growth resumes by mid-spring.

The rhizomes can be dug anytime the plants are dormant. Break off the "fingers" for use in the kitchen and replant the main rhizome for next year's crop. To me it tastes something like a strong-flavored carrot-parsnip blend with a peppery aftertaste. I like it grated in a salad or finely chopped into mixed vegetables or stir-fries. It's frequently added to pickled vegetables or curries.

Zedoary is used medicinally to treat inflammation, anxiety, stress, and fatigue according to WebMD, although there has been little scientific research done on this plant. Pregnant or breast-feeding women are advised not to take this supplement. Zedoary may also be applied directly to the skin as a mosquito repellent.

Curcuma zedoaria is native to Southeast Asia. It grows well in USDA Zones 8-10 and can be grown as a container plant in colder locations.

Also see: Curcuma longa


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