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.



  1. I love your post about Bele (Abelmoschus manihot) and I would like to know if I could obtain seed from you of the common Hawaiian Bele?

  2. I love your post about Bele (Abelmoschus manihot) and I would like to know if I could obtain seed from you of the common Hawaiian Bele?

  3. Sorry darkhorse but I do not trade or sell seeds. There are people selling Bele on the internet if you do a search.

  4. I grew bele in Lautoka where there was dire problem with getting food. Dug up a bed, put load of compost... the gardener would mow our 'compound' each week and got huge pile of grass clippings. Instead of allowing him/them to burn it, I composted it, piled up against a shed wall, watered and turned it daily and in a week or two had stunning compost. Bought a bunch at the markets ate the leaves, and pushed the stalks into the ground. Bele grew 12" each day so I kept taking leaves and putting in stalks. had no idea it grew into a big shrub, mine just had tops eaten every few days. A stunning vegetable. Great flavour, cooked it like english spinach. Best green leafy veg I have ever found. Fijians were amazed by my bele productivity, its was because they followed slash and burn and did not nourish their soil. Thinking maybe a greenhouse to grow it in Aust temperate zone. other great was okra, needs lots of water plus the heat, lot of feeding and will grow tall and very productive. Up in subtropics in queensland you would be mad not to grow these two.

  5. I had the separated leaf kind. very good plant.

  6. Thanks for the extra useful info from the unknown gardener!

  7. I use Bele leaves to make Dolmades, blanched first then allow to dry a little before rolling up rice and lamb mince inside them.

  8. Can you eat these leaves raw, I just bought one.

  9. Some people do but I would not if you have problems with kidney stones. I always lightly cook it.