One of the best things I did last year was treat myself to a class on perennial edible greens. The class was given by Jenn Evans at the Haiku `Aina Permaculture Initiative (HAPI) in Haiku. Jenn did a superb job of introducing us to seven plants, their cultivation and nutritional value. Afterward the students in the class prepared and ate a meal together in the open air kitchen, using the plants we had just learned about and harvested. Jenn also put together a great packet of info on the plants (that I am drawing on for this post). Ingenius class! Beautiful day! I left the class feeling high on life, and I'm still excited just thinking about it.
To my knowledge, none of the plants we learned about are to be found in Costco or Safeway, and most of them don't even make it to the shelves of our natural foods stores -- at least not yet. But they are all widely cultivated in the tropical Pacific, Asia, Africa and beyond. Go to places where many people live closer to the land, like Fiji, the Phillipines, or even the Caribbean isles, and the locals will recognize some of these plants as old friends. They will likely have their own local names and recipes for the plants as well.
What's so exciting about perennial greens?
They're nutritious. It is common knowledge by now that dark green plants like spinach, kale, chard and collards are nutritious. The plants we learned about in the workshop hold their own nutritionally, and in some cases even exceed the more mainstream greens in vitamin and mineral content. Most have medicinal uses as well.
Eat them raw or cooked. Most of the perennial greens described here -- with one exception -- don't even need to be cooked. Just break out your inner ape, pluck the leaves right off the stem, and commence masticating.
They're perennial. Once the plants are established, as long as their basic needs are met they do not need to be replanted each year. Likewise, the harvest is year-round.
They are easy to get started. Most of the plants covered here can be grown from cuttings, rather than needing to start and nurture delicate seedlings.
They are hearty. The familiar grocery store greens are temperate climate plants with largely Mediterranean origins, and even in Hawaii's upcountry locations it can be a challenge to keep insect pests away. Here in the tropics, the perennial greens do not need to be pampered and fussed with like their temperate cousins, being more pest-resistant. Full disclosure -- for an A.D.D. gardener like me, it is possible to kill these plants by not watering them, letting them get overgrown by other plants, etc.
They like it hot. When the heat of summer rolls around, chances are that the kale or spinach in your garden aren't holding up so well. That's where bele or Malabar spinach come in. Keep them moist and the heat is no problem.
- Okinawan spinach (Gynura crepioides). This beauty is native to southeast Asia. The low-lying shrub's leaves are dark green above, and a satiny purple below. Great for salads, smoothies, or stir-fries, the leaves have been shown to decrease cholesterol and help regulate blood sugar. Known to be high in the super antioxidant proanthocyanidins (as are grape skins and seeds), this plant is also valued for its anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties.
- Bele/Edible Hibiscus (Abelmoschus manihot). A quick-growing shrub with large shiny leaves that can be cooked or used for raw wraps. Like okra, the leaves are mucilaginous, especially the larger ones -- kind of slimy in the mouth. On the other hand, it is nutritionally superior to spinach, and is high in lutein -- good for your eyes. If you are a raw foodie, a bele wrap with avo, tomato, sprouts, etc is a sight to behold and celebrate -- so radiant, so green…
- Cranberry Hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella). This one is technically a "perennial red", since the maple-like leaves and stems are a deep maroon color. On this fairly spindly shrub, both the leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves add color and a splash of tartness to a salad. They can also be used to make a pink 'lemonade', as is done in Central America -- one of many such cold drinks or refrescos. But this plant is not recommended for pregnant women.
- Sweet potato leaf (Ipomea batatas) This is a great one -- tasty and so easy to grow. The greens can be found in a few small island produce markets, and usually some of the plants have enough vine that they can be saved as starts for your garden. Seriously, no need to buy a sweet potato plant in a pot. Just buy a bag of greens, eat the leaves, and plant the stems. In a few weeks you will have more greens, and eventually you may even end up with some sweet potatoes.
- Malabar spinach (Basella rubra or alba). A lovely red-stemmed vine best grown on a trellis. Its slightly fleshy leaves are high in vitamins A and C, as well as iron and manganese. Use it as you would spinach, raw or cooked. Like bele, it is also mucilaginous, but less so if not cooked for too long.
- Katuk (Sauropus androgynus). One of the most popular veggies in southeast Asia, katuk also grows well in Hawaii as a medium size shrub (6'-8' tall). Highly nutritious, katuk's leaves are 5% or more protein by weight, and a 100g serving has more vitamin C than an orange. The tender young shoots are sold as 'tropical asparagus'. Or if you prefer a literal translation of the scientific name, just ask for some 'gender-neutral lizard's foot".
- Chaya or Tree Spinach (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius). Unlike the others, this plant actually grows to tree-size, 12' or more. Also unlike the others, the leaves may have stinging hairs, the irritating sap is to be avoided, and the leaves need to be boiled for 15 minutes to remove a toxin. That being said, how many trees do you know of that have edible leaves? Chaya is native to Mexico's Yucatan region, and can also tolerate drought better than the other plants in the list.
Beyond all the info learned at the greens workshop, the camaraderie was fine. There is something wonderful and life-affirming about getting together with others who share their zest for life and plants.
Jenn even sent us home with starts for the different plants! We all helped out with the harvest, labeling, etc. Then at the end we scattered off to our respective homes, and the plants continued to spread around the island and the planet.
Growing these plants makes so much more sense than almost anything else I can think of. For someone who lives in a rural area in the tropics, or someone who survives into the future and comes across this article, growing these plants may well seem like common sense: What's the big deal? What are you getting so excited about? Of course people cultivate their own greens. But in these times, it is a curiously marginal activity.
So far, I have solidly incorporated four of these plants into my diet. I'm loving the color and flavor of Okinawan spinach and cranberry hibiscus in my salads. I've been having sweet potato leaf or edible hibiscus with eggs in the morning, or as a side anytime.
A few of these plants can be found at the Upcountry Farmers Market, Rowena's produce in Kahului, or smalll Filipino markets around the island.
Much mahalo to Kumu Jenn and my new photosynthetic friends.