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

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.

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 here!

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!

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 or scrub with a scouring pad, just to be on the safe side. It's common to trim away the thickened base of the pad since this is often 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.

Nopalea should not be confused with nopales. The word nopales is used for the pads of any edible cactus species, most commonly Opuntia ficus-indica. The documented health benefits come only from Nopalea cochenillifera.

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.

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 fruit becomes sweeter and very soft.

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

Even the thick roots are edible after cooking, and have a delicious flavor.

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. The time from flower to harvest is about 2-3 weeks.

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 is the variety that I grow. It produces parthenocarpic fruit, so no male plant is required. The seeds you see in the photo of the cut fruit above never develop fully, and are not viable.

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.

The dormant bare-root crowns are available for purchase during the winter months. The potted plants are available at my local markets year-round.
Buy tindora crowns here!

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. The variety I grow is a sterile cultivar, so there's no worry about it spreading out of control.

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.

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!