Friday, December 27, 2013

Ginger root (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger root (Zingiber officinale) has been one of the most widely used spices since ancient times. It has a variety of documented health benefits and is easy to grow as well.
The ginger "root" is actually a thick rhizome that grows right at the soil line and supports upright canes of leafy green foliage. The canes get 3-4 feet tall and the leaves are long and narrow, giving a bed of ginger a grassy appearance.

A long growing season is required to get a good harvest, and commercial ginger farms are usually in tropical regions with regular rainfall throughout the growing season.
Ginger can also be grown in containers, but the yield will generally not be as great as plants grown in the ground.
Late in the growth cycle, flower buds emerge from the rhizome and reach about 8 inches in height above the soil line. Small cream-colored flowers with a reddish-brown lip emerge from the bracts of the flower bud a few at a time over a period of a few weeks. Each flower is only open for a few hours in the morning, and the inflorescence is often hidden by the foliage.
The rhizomes continue to increase in size and weight during the growing season. In the top photo you can see the progression in the size of the rhizome as it grows from left to right.
Late in the year the swelling rhizomes may even push up out of the soil as they grow. The ginger may be harvested at this stage and is sometimes marketed as "baby ginger". Because it is more tender and less fibrous, this is the stage in development used for pickled and candied ginger.

In late fall, the canes wither and dry up as the plants go dormant.  At this time the mature ginger is ready to harvest. Since the rhizomes are very near the surface, they are easy to dig. In loose soils, you can just brush away the dirt from the top of the rhizome and gently dig it up with a trowel or small shovel. Store it in a cool dry place until ready to use. Rhizomes left in the ground will sprout again in the spring and have a larger yield the following year. If you dig more than you can use immediately, you can freeze the excess harvest for later use.

Note that fresh ginger is light in color with only a thin skin, as seen in the top photo. It does not have the thick brown peel usually found on dried and imported ginger root, even though imported ginger is often marketed as "fresh". Newly harvested rhizome only needs a light scrubbing to make it ready for the kitchen, while dry imported ginger will have a tough fibrous skin that needs to be peeled before use.

Ginger root is used in the kitchen to flavor tea, cookies, cakes, and many other sweet or savory dishes. The fresh leaves can also be chopped and added to soups or stews for a milder ginger flavor.
Medicinally, ginger is used to treat nausea, headache, muscle and joint pain, and arthritis.

Zingiber officinale is native to Southeast Asia and is recommended for USDA Zones 8-12. It is propagated by planting pieces of the rhizome about 1 inch deep at the start of the growing season.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sweet lemon (Citrus limetta)

Sweet lemon (Citrus limetta) is an acid-free or low-acid variety of citrus. The same species is also sometimes known as sweet lime.

On the outside they are a typical lemon-yellow color. The flesh inside is pale yellow-green to nearly colorless.

They taste like a very mild lemon, without the acid bite.They are popular in Asia and the Middle-East, but somewhat difficult to find in the U.S. If you see them in a local market, buy some and try them.

Sweet lemon sections can be eaten whole, like an orange. They can also be juiced and drank plain or diluted with ice water for a refreshing beverage.
Sweet lemon trees grow similar in size and shape to other lemons, reaching about 12 feet tall and wide.

Like other citrus, the trunks and branches have long thorns.

Flowering occurs in the early spring with typical, highly fragrant citrus blossoms.

The fruit grows to about 3 inches in diameter and starts to ripen in late fall. The harvest continues throughout the winter. They are very prolific, but mature fruits hold well on the tree for several months so you only need to pick them as you need them.

Citrus limetta is native to Southeast Asia, and will grow in just about any region where other citrus trees are grown. This is approximately USDA Zones 9-11.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Schefflera arboricola

Schefflera arboricola (shef-LEER-uh ar-bor-ih-KOLE-uh) is a widely-grown houseplant that is also a durable landscape plant in tropical and sub-tropical regions. It is sometimes known as dwarf schefflera or Hawaiian schefflera. The palmately-compound leaves are glossy and dark green, with a diameter of about 6-8 inches.

Stems are thick and sturdy. On lower portions of the plant they often send out aerial roots that thicken after reaching the soil to become prop roots.

Plants can grow up to 15 feet tall and wide, but are easily trimmed to any size or shape desired. In late summer there are greenish, almost inconspicuous flowers on the ends of the branches.

These develop into round berries that turn a showy orange-red in the fall, giving the plant great seasonal appeal.

Schefflera arboricola is native to Southeast Asia and is very drought-tolerant once established.
It is recommended for USDA Zones 9B to 11, in exposures ranging from full sun to deep shade,
and can be grown anywhere as a container plant or houseplant. This species is easily propagated by stem cuttings or seeds.
There are many different cultivars available including this one with variegated leaves.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cassava, Yuca (Manihot esculenta)

Manihot esculenta, also known as cassava, yuca and manioc, is a fast-growing perennial with an edible tuberous root. In common usage, the plants are usually referred to as cassava and the roots are marketed as yuca. This may vary depending on locality. The roots are the source of the starch that is processed into tapioca.

Plants quickly grow to a height of about 10-12 feet and then flop over if not topped. Trimmings can be chopped and composted, or spread as a weed-suppressing mulch between plants. Stems can reach 20 feet or more in length if allowed to sprawl.

Cassava is grown world-wide in tropical regions, but originated in Central and South America. There is archaeological evidence that it has been in cultivation for at least 4,000 years and possibly as long as 9,000 years.
The leaves are palmate, about 8-10 inches across, and deeply lobed. Some cultivars have red petioles, making a nice contrast to the dark green leaves.

Older stems have a distinctive prominent stub where each leaf was attached.

Plants put in the ground in spring grow throughout the summer and flower in autumn. The cream-colored flowers appear in clusters at the ends of the branches, but they are small, and go almost unnoticed amid the foliage. Only close inspection reveals their beauty.

After about 9-10 months of growth the yuca roots are large enough to harvest. Roots that are 3-4 inches in diameter and 10-15 inches long are a harvestable size. Production volume doubles if harvest is put off until after the second vegetative cycle, but the roots are supposedly not as tender.
When grown commercially, the entire plant is dug, roots are harvested, and a new crop is planted the following spring or at the start of the rainy season. If you only have one or two plants, it's possible to dig around the base of the plant, harvest the mature roots, and leave the plant to produce another year. I've been doing that for years on the plant pictured below.

The one root at the top of this grouping weighed over 6 pounds. I'd only dug out half of the root system when this photo was taken, so you see they can be quite productive.

Yuca roots are prepared by peeling, then cooking in the same manner as potatoes; boil, bake, roast, or fry them. They must be cooked before eating due to cyanic compounds present in the raw roots. The heat from cooking renders these compounds inert. Some cultivars with very low levels of cyanide can be eaten raw, but you'd have to be certain you had that cultivar and bitterness is not necessarily an indication of cyanide levels.

The grated root is used for cassava bread, and young leaves are also edible after cooking. To prepare the leaves, remove the petioles, then finely chop, grind or pound the leaves. Cook them as greens, seasoned to your own liking, or add to soups and stews. I like to puree the leaves in the blender, cook and season them, and serve over rice or pasta. There are lots of recipes available online. 

**Cassava leaf must be cooked thoroughly before eating! Cassava leaf is a good source of vitamin A, C, B vitamins, iron, calcium, zinc, manganese and magnesium.

There is a variegated form of cassava that is primarily grown as an ornamental. It doesn't produce the large roots of the commercial varieties, but makes a showy addition to any landscape.

To start a new crop, mature cassava stems are cut into sections and laid horizontal in a shallow trench, then covered with soil. Alternately, the may be simply poked straight down into the dirt, with a few nodes visible above the soil line. In commercial plantings they are spaced about 4 feet on center. The cuttings produce an abundance of roots and quickly start growing. I have cassava plants and cuttings for sale -- click the link at the bottom of this post.

Cassava tolerates a wide range of soils and environmental conditions, making it an ideal crop for impoverished soils and drought-prone regions. In some parts of the world, cassava is grown as livestock feed or as a biofuel.
Manihot esculenta is recommended for USDA Zones 8-11. It can be grown in colder climates as an annual ornamental, but the growing season won't be long enough to produce a good crop of roots.
Buy cassava cuttings.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Vachellia farnesiana (Sweet Acacia)

The flowers of Vachellia farnesiana have a fragrance similar to grape candy, which is probably where it gets the common name Sweet Acacia (this species was previously in the Acacia genus). The flowers may appear at any time during the year, but are more numerous during the cooler months. The inflorescence is a fuzzy yellow ball of multiple flowers about 1/2 inch in diameter.

Pollinated flowers develop into 2- to 3-inch long, lumpy green pods that turn black when mature. Seed germination is improved by scarification and soaking.

The bipinnately compound leaves have a delicate fern-like appearance, but the entire plant is covered with sharp thorns.

This species grows into an open-branched tree or shrub about 15-20 feet tall. The foliage is semi-evergreen and is often retained on the plant during warm winters.
Vachellia farnesiana is believed to be native to tropical America, but it is now found growing all around the world.
It is a nitrogen-fixing plant, capable of utilizing atmospheric nitrogen as a nutrient source, and is very drought-tolerant once established.. Growth and flowering is best in full sun. It is recommended for USDA Zones 8-11 and is tolerant of acidic, alkaline and salty soils.

The leaves, roots and bark are used in folk medicine to treat a variety of ailments and an essential oil distilled from the flowers is used in the perfume industry.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Aechmea blanchetiana

Aechmea blanchetiana (eek-MEE-uh blan-ket-ee-AY-nuh) is one of the largest of the commonly grown Aechmeas. Its size makes a big impact in any landscape or bromeliad garden. Mature plants often have a spread of 5 feet or more and the flower spike may reach 6 feet in height. The inflorescence emerges in early summer and is a colorful blend of red, orange and yellow. It is long-lasting and keeps good color for months on end. The actual flowers are small, yellow and tubular.

The foliage color varies with the amount of sun the plant receives and may range from light green to yellow, orange or reddish, depending on the clonal variety. The best color is usually obtained in full sun.
Frost or a hard freeze can be damaging to the large leaves so it's best grown in sheltered locations or covered up on the coldest nights.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Aristolochia elegans

The flowers of Aristolochia elegans are the most stunning aspect of this plant, but it also has many other interesting features. The plant is a vine that climbs by twining around any available support, reaching a height of 10 to 15 feet.
The leaves are broad and somewhat heart-shaped, approximately 3 inches across, but the size varies greatly. Where the petiole joins the stem, there is a distinctive small leaf-like appendage.

The foliage is a favored food of polydamas swallowtail butterfly larvae. Some sources claim it is toxic to pipevine swallowtails, but others claim it is not. The evidence appears mostly anecdotal and I am unable to find any scientific research to confirm either way.

This species is also sometimes known as Dutchman's pipe, calico flower, and pipe vine. The name pipe vine arises from the appearance of the flower buds. With a little imagination you can visualize the similarity to an old-fashioned Dutch tobacco pipe.

Flowering occurs during summer and fall when the plant is actively growing. Individual flowers are 3-4 inches long.
Pollinated flowers develop a cylindrical seed pod that splits open when mature, becoming an unusual basket holding the seeds that are then scattered as the basket blows in the wind.

The seeds can be quite prolific and this species is considered potentially invasive in Florida. In the garden it can be easily controlled by snipping off the green seed pods before they mature.
Aristolochia elegans is synonymous with A. littoralis and is native to South America. It is recommended for USDA Zones 8-10, being evergreen in the more tropical climes and perennial in Zone 8. They perform best in part sun, part shade.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Portea alatisepala

Portea alatisepala provides long-lasting color through the late summer and fall months. Plants grow fairly large, with a leaf spread of 4-5 feet and an overall height of 2-3 feet.

Individual leaves can be up to 2 1/2 feet long and 2 inches wide with a serrate edge.
Foliage color ranges from olive to purplish-green.

The flower spike is erect or slightly leaning, and extends above the foliage. The inflorescence is hot pink and the flower petals are vivid blue.

When flowering is finished, the fruits of pollinated flowers swell up and continue to provide good color in the landscape for several more weeks.

Portea alatisepala performs well in shade or filtered sun. Plants tolerate temperatures as low as 26°F if grown under tree canopy where frost won't damage the leaves.
There are color forms with plain green or reddish-tinted leaves and pink or lavender-purple sepals.

Also see:
Portea petropolitana
Portea kermesina

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dichorisandra thyrsiflora (blue ginger)

Although Dichorisandra thyrsiflora is commonly referred to as blue ginger, it is not a ginger and is actually more closely related to our native spiderwort. The growth habit of the plant certainly resembles many of the costus gingers, but a careful examination of the flowers reveals a likeness to its relatives in the Commelinaceae family.
The erect canes grow new from soil level each spring, eventually reaching a height of 3-4 feet in sunny areas and up to 6 feet in shady locations. From late summer through mid-fall, these fresh canes are topped with clusters of brilliant blue 3-petaled flowers. Canes from the previous year's growth may branch from the nodes and support multiple flower spikes.
The plant grows in full shade to mostly sun, but the foliage looks best where it gets at least some protection from the intense summer sun. They thrive in moist environments, but once established, they are very drought tolerant and able to survive extended periods without rain.

They multiply slowly so it takes a long time to establish a clump, unless you take stem cuttings. Roots and a new plant are able to form at each node along the stem. On their own, the plants spread by an underground rhizome. Rhizomes are thick and clearly segmented between canes. In addition, there are golf-ball sized storage roots growing deeper in the soil than the rhizomes.

Dichorisandra thyrsiflora is native to tropical parts of America, especially Brazil. It is recommended for USDA Zones 9-11, but reportedly survives Zone 8 conditions as a true perennial, dying back each winter and resuming growth in the spring.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Syzygium smithii (Lilly Pilly)

Syzygium smithii, also known as lilly pilly, is a multi-purpose tree with attractive foliage, showy flowers and edible fruit. New leafy growth is copper-colored...
and matures to lush, dark green.
The tree has a strongly upright growth habit, but can be maintained as a hedge if regularly pruned.
The trunk has reddish-tan, finely-grained bark. The reddish tint intensifies after a rain.

Flowering occurs in late spring to early summer. Blooms are pale, cream-colored puffballs that appear in clusters at the tips of the branches. Individual flowers are about 2-3 inches across.

The pink fruits ripen in mid to late summer. They are crunchy and watery, without much flavor, and slightly astringent. They can be made into jelly. Each marble-sized fruit contains a single large seed.

Syzygium smithii is native to Australia, where a wide variety of birds and mammals feed on the fruit. The tree reportedly can reach 60 feet or more with age and the mature wood is used for flooring, framing and wood-turning. Ornamental plantings can be pruned to shape and size. It grows in sun or shade, but best fruit production will be in sunnier locations.
Most references list this plant for USDA Zones 9-ll, with some claiming it does fine in 8B.
There are several cultivated varieties selected for plant size or leaf color.