Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wild Edibles in Hawaii - Edible Flowers and Spices

Plants on Hawaii have many different origins, some indigenous, others alien. Endemic plants are those species that evolved in isolation on the Hawaiian islands and are found nowhere else. Indigenous plants are those that colonized the island before the arrival of humans, such as those that arrive on the winds or over the ocean. Plants introduced by the first travelers to Hawaii, the Polynesians, are regarded as native. Most of these plants have important uses for food, fiber, medicine, and spiritual significance. Alien species are the plants introduced after the late 1700s since contact with European explorers. Some plants were brought purposely, many were accidental weed introductions. Many alien species are escaped cultivated plants and fruit trees, and many are causing damage to the native and less hardy Hawaiian plants. Here we'll discuss two edible flowers and two other plants, parts of which are used as spices. Three of these plants were shown to us by Matt Kirk of the Kauai Nature School on the walk we took with him on Kauai.

Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) is only found here in Connecticut as a greenhouse curiosity, but on Hawaii it is a common weed. It is native to South and Central America, and is now so common it is considered naturalized. It grows along roadsides, in agricultural areas, and edges of the forests, preferring full sun. It is a small creeping herb with pinnately compound leaves, with 10 to 26 pairs of oval leaflets along the stem. When touched, the leaflets droop and fold up along the stem, happening right before your eyes. The leaflets also close at night. The sensitive plant produces a pink puff-ball flower that is edible. While pretty, it is a bit bitter, and is mostly used as a garnish or for Ayurvedic medicinal treatments.

Another much tastier flower we tried was Jamaican vervain (Stachtarpheta sp.), also known as porterweed or rat's tail. It is native to tropical Central America, and there are several species found in Hawaii. It grows along roadsides and disturbed areas at lower elevations, we found plenty on seaside cliffs. The leaves are opposite and toothed, with a rough surface. The plant produces a long, spindly flower spike about 12" above the leaves, and there are a few tubular, 5-petaled, blue or purple flowers blooming along this flower spike at a time. This flower tastes like shiitake mushrooms, and Matt explained to us that the flowers have a slight sedative effect when eaten in quantity.

Ti (Cordyline fruticosa) is a common plant in Hawaii, brought by the Polynesians for its many uses. It is used in traditional Hawaiian cooking as a food wrapper, and thereby food flavoring, and it is useful medicinally. The roots of mature plants are starchy and also edible. Ti is planted in yards for good luck, and is a common landscaping addition with its many possible color varieties. It is found in shaded areas of wet forests in mountainous areas of Hawaii. Ti  has a long, spindly stalk topped with a whorl of long, oval leaves, 18"-30" long. It can produce sprays of white 6-petaled flowers from the center of the leaf whorl. The leaves were once used to thatch the roofs of houses, in the making of skirts, twisted into cordage, and to wrap and cook food in the traditional volcanic rock ground oven. The mature roots can be cooked into a sweet treat, or fermented into a potent liquor.

Finding a cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum sp.) was not at all on our list of expectations, but it may be one of our favorite finds. There are several species on Hawaii, each with varying levels of the essential oil that gives cinnamon its distinct flavor. Cinnamon is a recently introduced alien native to southeast Asia and Indonesia. It grows as an understory tree in wet forests and has the potential of becoming a pest. It has dark green, glossy pointed elliptical leaves with 3 prominent veins running from the stem to the tip. New leaf growth is coppery red. What I noticed first were green, unripe berries on a tree that led to closer inspection. The bark is light brown, and Robert peeled off a chunk. All parts of the tree are aromatic, with the distinct spicy-sweet smell of cinnamon. We dried a bit of bark and are grinding it to use fresh at home on oatmeal and in drinks.
Cinnamon bark


Anonymous said...

Now you can easily grow your own sensitive plant more commonly known as the TickleMe Plant. http://www.ticklemeplant.com

Yang said...

BTW, I am organizing wild food foraging tours in a plant hunter's paradise as well. You are welcome to visit:

Zoƫ Whitney said...

Aloha 3 Foragers,

I am a UHH Student who is trying to organize a Locavore Festival. We will have a culinary competition that runs concurrently with the local boar hunting tournament. Hunter and farmers who donate ingredient to the competition will enjoy free promotion at the event. The winners of the invasive species hunting tournament will have the option to be judges of the culinary competition. The culinary students would only be allowed to use the local ingredients from Hawaii. We'd also have a tabling event for local farmers, stores and restaurants that locally source, and fishing companies. We would also love to have a couple workshops. This is where 3 Forages comes in. We were wondering if you'd like to host a foraging workshop during the Festival at HCC campus?

Zoe (zwhitney@hawaii.edu)