Sunday, October 11, 2015

Kupukupu Fern (Nephrolepsis cordifolia)


Kupukupu Fern is a common fern throughout the tropical areas of the world.  We have a native species here in Hawaii, hence the Hawaiian name.  However, there are other commercial varieties that have been brought into the islands with a lot of interbreeding going on so not all so called Kupukupu is actually a native type.  These plants can look very attractive as a single small plant in a pot or in a group in a large pot or as groundcover.  The leaves grow up to two feet long in a mature plant. Wherever they are they will expand their territory and can get a bit wild and wooly looking when old.  In the landscape I will pull out the old rough looking plants and let the younger ones take over.  As they get crowded together the leaves will gets smaller.  You also need to keep some sort of  physical boundary for them if you do not want then to spread.  Plants grown in the shade will be a darker green in color and the fronds droop over more while those that grow in the sun are more upright in growth.  They like moist but well drained soils.  I tidy up potted Kupukupu with scissors occasionally......  cutting off those old frond stems or errant stolens.  Occasional fertilizer will give them a boost.

Kupukupu Ferns propagate in  nature from spores or by sending out stolens with little tubers on them which grow into baby plants.  I have some baby plants that pop up in the lawn if the lawn is not being mowed often.  They have escaped from a small garden that has Kupukupu as a groundcover.   I just pull these up, give them a day in water to perk them up, and then plant them in 4" pots.  This is a slow way if you want lots of Kupukupu Ferns for a landscaping job.  One day a plant nursery worker shared his secret with me and so I will pass it on to you.  You just partially plant the little grape size tubers in potting mix and soon you will have lots of little baby ferns to pot up into 4" pots.  Now you can grub around in the garden for a few of these tubers but the best way is to keep a big old root bound potted Kupukupu  tucked away in the back yard to provide the offspring.  When you pull the root ball out of the pot you will find dozens of these tubers that you just pull off.  You can break open the root ball to find many more.  Unfortunately I threw out my old Kupukupu mother plant  and so I need to get a new one going so I can show you a picture of the tubers on the root ball. It will take a few years before it is really ready to do that.  However, you can see some of the tubers that look like mini potatoes in the second photo above.  Each of those will grow a plant.  Something the little kids might enjoy being part of.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Amaranth (Amaranthus)

This year we have had a sweltering hot summer in Hawaii.  Weekly storms pass by the islands and leave us sweating without our usual cooling trade winds.  It feels more like Samoa.  The only good thing about it all is the resulting rain that saves me from watering the garden and makes the countryside lush and green.  I noticed another thing on my frequent walks down the through the empty lot to the nearby beach.  The wild Amaranth weeds are coming up all over the place.  Usually I have to wait for winter rains to gather Amaranth for cooking but this year it is in full abundance in the middle of the summer heat.

There are several wild greens that I pick to eat and I have written about New Zealand Spinach ( August, 2013 ) and Purslane ( Feb, 2013 ) if you want to look back at earlier posts.  Amaranth is definitely another one of my favorite wild greens.  Locally it is often called Chinese Spinach and I have seen Amaranth sold at produce markets in Hong Kong and Malaysia.  These days you will find new varieties of Amaranth being sold at Hawaii farmers markets.  However, I am a cheap forager who likes to find free food so I will stick with the wild plants growing out in the empty lot.  There are hundreds of varieties of Amaranth which are native to Central America and it was a prized crop of the Aztecs.  Some of these varieties can now be found growing wild throughout the world.

Spiny Amaranth

The two common varieties I find growing in our area are the Spiny Amaranth  and the Slender Amaranth.  The Spiny Amaranth (Amaranthus spinosus L.), also called Pakai Kuku in Hawaiian, is the one that I eat the most.  It grows very erect to about four feet in height and is easy to pluck the leaves off despite the sharp spike thorns that grow on it.

Slender Amaranth

The Slender Amaranth (Amaranthus vindis L.) does not have the sharp thorns but it tends to spread out close to the ground and so I pick from these only when they are really lush and fresh.  I usually throw the Amaranth leaves into a soup or stir fry although the young leaves are fine in a salad.  Some people gather the seeds by shaking the seed heads into a bag and then adding the soaked seeds to oatmeal or breads.  The seeds are high in protein while the green leaves have good vitamin content.

If you are interested in foraging for natures free food I recommend the web site


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Curry Leaf Tree (Murraya koenigii)


I have had my Curry Leaf tree for several years now near my kitchen window where it gives light shade to several containers of herbs and vegetable greens.  The tree gets its name because you add the leaves to curry..  The leaves are not usually used to make curry powder which is a combination of several spices.  Some years ago I was introduced to the use of this leaf in cooking by a relative who had lived in Fiji and was now a curry expert.  The leaves have a wonderful citrus smell and are used rather like bay leaves to heighten the flavor of curries, stews and soups.  The leaf, although smallish, is a little too stiff to be eaten.  However, I see on Indian websites that it is highly praised for its medicinal qualities so you could grind it or cut it up tiny if you wanted to eat it to get the extra health benefits.  A good handful of  fresh leaves are sautéed in cooking oil at the beginning or at the end of the cooking process and the flavored oil incorporated into the dish..  I recently had a lovely lentil soup in Nadi, Fiji with several Curry Leaves in it.

As you would expect with anything to do with curry, the Curry Leaf tree is native to India and is mostly used in the cooking of Southern and West India as well as in Sri Lanka.  From my own travels I know that it is also popular amongst the Indian populations of Malaysia and Fiji.

The Curry Leaf tree can grow to 15 feet or so in height.  It has a light canopy and the leaves tend to fall off in the autumn months.  It helps to pinch back the branch growth to get a fuller canopy of leaves plus it makes for easier picking if you keep the leaves reachable.  I saw one tree in Samoa that had been severely cut back to 3 feet high and lots of little trees were growing up from the roots around the main tree but this is the only time I have seen this happen.  It is quite common to find little seedlings growing under the tree from dropped fruit.  These little seedlings can be pulled up and planted or the seed from the fruit can be propagated  in pots.  Either way the seedlings are quite strong but will take their time in growing into a little tree. The tree gets clumps of small white flowers and then purple/black berries in the summer.   The berries are considered poisonous by some but the fruit eating birds love them.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Green Onions (Allium)

One edible plant that is easy to grow in containers is Green Onions.  Even if you just have a patio garden, this is a plant for you.  For many years I just grew Garlic Chives.  ( See my post about growing them in July 2011.)  One day I was visiting a local gentleman who had a big container of Green Onions in his garden and I asked myself why I was not growing them too.  Duh!  I have no idea why I was so slow to get around to this as they are such useful plants and some foods just seem right with Green Onions rather than using Garlic Chives as a substitute.  I mean, Garlic Chives work well with eggs and salads etc. but a bowl of  Saimin noodle soup really needs that bit of Green Onion on top and stir fried rice only seems right  with Green Onions too.  Usually when I go pick the Green Onions I just use a pair of scissors to cut the plant off about one inch from the soil and leave the roots to grow leaves again.  On a recent trip to New Zealand I noticed Green Onion being added a lot to coleslaw and that added a nice dash of bright green to the slaw.  Being part of the Allium family, the Green Onions also provide  an extra nutritional punch to the meal.

To start off your Green Onions you could buy seeds but the easiest thing is just to buy a fresh bunch of Green Onions at the supermarket produce section.  Use the upper green part, keeping about one inch of the bottom root end.  Place the bottom roots  in water for a day or so to perk them up and then plant them in your garden or a container.   In a container you could use potting mix, but really, you need some real soil in there too for the plants to grow well and also give them the occasional hand full of fertilizer. 


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Searching for Bele in Fiji (Abelmoschus manihot)

Edible Hibiscus Leaf was the first of the alternative "spinaches" that I got interested in.  This was over forty years ago when I was living in Samoa.  There they call it Lau Pele.  It is the lazy gardeners dream plant.  Big and very nutritional leaves that you can just pick from a bush.  This is not like fussing over lettuces and cabbages.  You just stick a few feet of stalk into the ground and it will take root and produce.  Well, in Samoa and Fiji it will.  Here in Hawaii, where it is not so humid and rainy, it may take a little more care getting the cuttings going.  Usually I start the cuttings off in a gallon pot of potting mix and then transplant it out once it is well rooted.

Bele is a food plant that is grown throughout Melanesia and also somewhat in Polynesian gardens  I mostly know Tongans and Fijians in Hawaii to eat it the most.  In Samoa it was not greatly used until a decade or so ago when there was a terrible virus that hit the taro leaves and suddenly Lau Pele became the substitute green leaf.  Maybe you watched that season of "Survivor" TV show that was filmed in Vanuatu and the winner team of the week was shown by the locals how to use the Bele leaves that were growing all around their camp.  They had been starving while all this food was right there.

The most commonly used Bele

Bele is usually referred to as the Edible Hibiscus but it does not look like that Chinese hibiscus bush in your garden.  To me, Bele always reminds me of its cousin, the Okra bush.  With Bele, however, the emphasis is on the leaves instead of the seed pods.  The flowers look very similar, a yellow hibiscus type flower with a dark center that only lasts one day.  There is a common variety of Bele grown here in Hawaii that has large soft leaves and this turned out to be the common one in Fiji too.  I know that there are at least several varieties of  leaf shape and I decided that while I was traveling in Fiji last month for a few weeks that I would try and track down what varieties of Bele they had there.  I expected to find it all over that place in Fiji, so I must admit that I was surprised to find out that I really needed to go hunting down back alleys and farm roads to find it.

The blotchy red stem Bele.  Note the red dot in the middle of the leaf.

The large soft leaf variety that is the popular Bele in Fiji is used mainly in soups because it cooks up easily with fish or mutton etc.  There was another variety of Bele which had blotchy red stems which, I was told by a couple of people, needed to be cooked with coconut milk to make it more palatable  There were also a couple of other shape leaf types that I  found.  I met one Pele enthusiast in the historic town of Levuka who had four types in the garden by her house and she was kind enough to let me pick a leaf from each bush and take a photo of them together for a comparison picture.  I never saw any other varieties in Fiji beyond these four types.

Four different varieties of Bele in a garden in Levuka.

Bele plants can grow to several feet in height and are usually grown from cuttings of about two feet long and about the thickness of a finger. It can be propagated by seed but the seeds may need to be nicked and soaked in water to encourage them to sprout.  Bele prefers rich soil and regular watering but does not like "wet feet".  It seemed that every time we had big rains and my garden got flooded out, my Bele would die.  The plant needs to be replaced every few years as it will get old and straggly so you need to get some new cuttings going every so often for replacement.  I used to have a fabulously beautiful red stem Bele in my garden and I am still mad at myself for not getting a new cutting going before the bush suddenly died after a rain storm flood.  It was a variety that I have not seen anywhere to get a replacement.  The plant will take full sun but it does seem to do better with a bit of afternoon shade. 

Bele plants in a garden that were feeling the dry weather.

Bele does not have too many disease problems but the big African snails will glide up those tall stems and gobble up the leaves if you do not keep a watch out.  The Asian beetle likes to chomp lacy holes in the leaves too but it is easy to pull off the old leaves to encourage new healthy growth.

A leaf eaten by the Asian beetle

One crop of Bele I saw in the Suva market in Fiji was just so impressive.  Such lush and beautiful leaves.  I am sure that they must have really pushed the use of water and fertilizer to get them so good looking.  Maybe even grown with some shade covering.  I was told that the Bele is quickly bought up at the markets by the local restaurants.

Lush Bele leaves for sale in Suva Market

At home, I use Bele leaves in a stir fry or a soup.  My favorite way to use them is to add the cut up leaves to a spaghetti sauce which seems to really go well together. Some people do not like the slimy feel of the cut leaves but you do not notice it when cooked.  It has that same mucilage that Okra has.   The local Tongans will often make a chicken soup with the the Bele leaves and coconut milk which is yummy.  Bele is really high up there in nutrition with very high amounts of Vitamin A and also Iron and lots of other minerals.  It is even comparatively high in protein for a plant and is definitely one of those plants that can help to feed the starving in countries with food problems.

I enjoyed my treasure hunt for Bele while in Fiji although I was surprised that I did not find more varieties than I did.  Watch this spot because if I find other varieties to take pictures of I will post them here.  Maybe I will find others in Samoa and I still have to get a picture of the lovely red stem variety I used to have in my garden.  I have also heard of a dark black leaf variety although have never seen it.  Maybe some of you readers have other varieties in your garden.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ong Choy (Ipomoea aquatica)

Ong Choy is a green leafy vegetable that I was introduced to at our local Chinese restaurant.  They serve Ong Choy with oyster sauce as one of their dishes.  Some time later I got a plant of Ong Choy but I forget how that came about.  I know that I did not understand how water loving the plant was until I saw it covering an old shrimp pond at a local farm.  From then on I made sure that my container grown Ong Choy was sitting in a deep saucer filled with water and I make sure to water it often.  Even then, I notice the plant is a lot happier in the rainy season that in the dry summer.

Ong Choy is a member of the sweet potato family, which becomes obvious when you see its flower.  It is a tropical and semiaquatic.  It grows in moist soils as well as water.  Its hollow stems allow it to spread out on top of water. The leaves and shoots are a popular vegetable through out the tropical world.  Apparently it is extremely popular in Taiwan.  There is some variation in the shape of the leaves; from arrow head shape to lanceolate.  Stems can grow 2-3 meters in length.  There is rooting at the the nodes which makes it easy to grow new plants from cuttings.  It can also be grown from seed.

Ong Choy is a vegetable that does not store well.  You really need to pick it on the day you are going to eat it.  A good reason to have some of this growing in your kitchen garden.  I have just one four gallon size container of it but it is a quick vegetable to grab for a stir fry or to add some nutrition to my packaged, instant noodle soup. My container plant has kept going for several years at this point.  I just cut the leaves and tips off to eat and occasionally cut the old stems back  and give a bit of fertilizer for new growth.  Ong Choy has a history of providing survival food for people in the tropics during war time when other food was scarce  It is also high in vitamins and minerals.  Definitely a good plant to have around and an easy one to care for.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Callisia fragrans

I have a small garden full of Callisia out in the back yard beside an old coconut stump.  At least twelve years ago I brought a clean cutting back from Samoa and planted it in a shady area where it grew and multiplied like crazy.  After that I decided that it needed to be in the sun, wind and sand of the back yard where it would not grow so robustly.  Still, even there, I have to trim it back every few years but it is worth having the Callisia around to use as greenery in flower arrangements plus it really is a nice lush ground cover.

I first saw this plant in Apia, Samoa where it was growing in a public area of town.  When I researched it on the internet, it seems quite popular in Florida and the rest of the South East area of the US.  However, the only place I really have noticed it growing in Hawaii since is at the Waimea Valley Park here on Oahu.  There it is used as a great ground cover in rocky semi-shade areas.  The plant is thought to be native to Mexico.  It is a little puzzling to find that Callisia fragrans has become a popular medicinal plant in Russia of all places.  There are various medical claims out there on the internet that you can look up if you are interested.  The most common seems to be chewing the leaves to cure a headache.

Callisia is sometimes called Basket Plant as it was once very popular as a hanging plant.  It is quick to put out runners with a new baby plant growing at the tip.  This makes for easy propagation as you just snap off those baby plants and pot them up. They will root quickly and can be used as houseplants.   Callisia likes partial shade to full sun for good growth.  If the plant spreads too much and looks a little untidy, it is easy to pull off the extra unwanted plants and pull out the older big plants to let the young smaller ones to grow.  At the end of winter or early spring, tall, slender green spikes will appear from the center of the plant and will grow quickly up to three feet or so with tight clusters of small flower buds growing out at the top.  Callisia is a little strange in its flowering routine as one day all the plants will just be in full flush of beautiful small white flowers that just last one day and then it may be another week before there is another flush of flowers again and so on.   It does seem to me that the flowers burst forth the day after a heavy rain but that may just be coincidence.  I have not seen any seeding from the flowers.