Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens var. utilis)

Velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) is a legume with numerous health benefits. The plant grows as a vine so some sort of support is needed when growing it in the garden.

The vine climbs by twining around adjacent supports, but the stem remains thin all the way to the base of the plant, even though it may reach 15-20 feet in height. Leaves are tri-foliate.

This is a nitrogen-fixing legume so it has low nutrient requirements, and may benefit other inter-planted crops.

Purplish flowers appear in pendant clusters starting in mid- to late summer.

The pods swell quickly and are dark green covered in black fuzzy hairs. In some varieties these hairs are skin irritants that make shelling the beans a literal pain, but the cultivar M. pruriens var. utilis is the non-itchy variety.

At the end of the growing season the vines dry up and the pods turn completely black and hard (2-3 months after flowering). The pods retain the velvet-textured covering even after they are dried and each contains 5-6 seeds.

At this point the beans can be shelled out for home use. Seed color varies with the different cultivars and may be white, black, marbled or speckled.

The main active compounds in the seed are the amino acid L-dopa and hallucinogenic tryptamines. Treatment to make the seed edible is by boiling in water for one hour, pressure-cooking for 20 minutes, or soaking in water for 48 hours and then boiling in water for 30 minutes. The beans can also be roasted and ground to make coffee; in some parts of Central America the plant is known as Nescafe!
In some regions velvet bean is used as a green manure or cover crop in fields. It can also be harvested for forage or silage.

Mucuna pruriens is native to southern China and eastern India. The plant requires a 6-9 month growing season to mature the seeds, so it is best suited to subtropical climates if you are growing it for the beans. It can be grown anywhere as a cover or forage crop.

The health benefits of velvet bean have been widely studied. The findings reveal "it is a good source of food, as it is rich in crude protein, essential fatty acids, starch content, and certain essential amino acids ... all parts of the Mucuna plant possess medicinal properties. The main phenolic compound is L-dopa (5%), and M. pruriens seeds contain some components that are able to inhibit snake venom. In addition, methanolic extracts of M. pruriens leaves have demonstrated anti-microbial and anti-oxidant activities in the presence of bioactive compounds such as phenols, polyphenols and tannins, and preliminary studies on keratinocytes support its possible topical usage to treat redox-driven skin diseases. Collectively, the studies cited in this review suggest that this plant and its extracts may be of therapeutic value with regard to several pathologies..."

A more detailed listing of the health benefits of Mucuna shows it is effective for diabetes, spasms, inflammation, infertility, pain, growth hormone deficiencies and as an aphrodisiac.

Buy velvet bean seeds

Thursday, November 20, 2014

East Indian Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus)


East Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) is one of the quickest and easiest herbs to grow from seed or divisions. It's also one of the most useful herbs to have in your garden.

Plants started early in the growing season will produce many leaves for harvest, and become quite a large plant by the end of the year. The useful part of the plant is the long blue-green leaves, which can easily reach 4 feet in length. They are thin and flexible, so they bend over and give the entire clump a soft grassy look.

East Indian lemongrass is the species used commercially for lemon scent and flavoring in a wide array of products. The fresh or dried leaves are useful in tea or other drinks, as well as soups, stews, fish, meats, or any dish that would benefit from a lemon flavor. Leaves can be harvested any time of the year, but they do have a sharp edge which can slice your skin similar to a paper cut, so be careful when cutting them.

The essential oil from this species has also been found to have strong anti-cancer qualities.

As cool weather arrives in the fall, the leaves take on a reddish-bronze coloration.

In locations with nearly year-round growing conditions, the plants send up tall flower spikes in the late fall or early winter. These plumes of flowers can reach a height of 7-8 feet, adding to the ornamental appeal.

If you allow the plumes to remain all winter, seed will be produced and you're likely to find many lemongrass seedlings coming up in the surrounding area in spring.

As the common name indicates, Cymbopogon flexuosus is native to India. In some regions this species is known as cochin grass or Malabar grass. It is recommended for USDA Zones 8-11, but can be grown as a container plant anywhere. In fact, the plant in the top photo is about 6 feet tall in a 1 gallon pot!

Buy lemongrass seeds

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Nopalea cochenillifera


Nopalea cochenillifera is a cactus that is edible and has many medicinal properties. It also makes an attractive, drought-tolerant landscape plant.

This species grows to about 15 feet tall and can become tree-like in just a few years.

The pads, or cladodes, are about 8-10 inches in diameter and thicken up as they age to support new growth higher up on the plant. Eventually, the base becomes more rounded like the trunk of a tree.

Flowering generally occurs in spring. The blooms are very showy with their orange petals and fuchsia-red stamens.

The pads are the edible part, and should be harvested when they are near full size, but still have a few rudimentary leaves visible.

The pads are nearly spineless, but it's a good idea to scrape away the bumps with a sharp knife just to be on the safe side. It's common to trim away the outer edge and the thickened base of the pad since these parts will be tougher and not as good to eat. The rest can be diced or sliced up into strips, and eaten raw, steamed or stir-fried.

Some people leave the pad whole, make long cuts down the length (like fingers on a hand), season it, and throw it on the grill.
Nopalea can also be juiced like any other green vegetable.

Medicinally, Nopalea is used for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) and viral infections, according to WebMD, although some of their statements are contradictory.

Botanical extracts of the plant have been shown to have anti-microbial activity.

The pads are also used as animal fodder. The species name is derived from the cochineal insects that feed on the plant, and are collected to produce a bright red dye. This insect dye is used in food coloring, soft drinks, lipstick and other cosmetics.

Nopalea cochenillifera is native to Mexico and grows as an introduced plant throughout the
Caribbean. It is recommended for USDA Zones 9-10.

Buy Nopalea for planting here.

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?

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