Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wild Edibles in Hawaii - Tropical Almonds

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.

Tropical almond seedlings and kernels on the beach
Tropical almond (Terminalia catappa) is a tree we have encountered before in the Caribbean on several islands. It is likely native to coastal areas along the Indian Ocean, and widespread along Indian, African, southeast Asian and Australian coasts. It was introduced to Hawaii before 1800, and is now considered naturalized along the beaches. It can grow in sandy soil and is mildly salt tolerant. It grows as a large tree with simple, broadly ovate leaves that are bright green turning to red before falling. The trees in Hawaii will flower and fruit all year long, often at the same time. The flower is a spike with many small, white flowers that will develop into a small cluster of fruits. The fruit ripens from green to red, and has very little pulp but a very large seed kernel. It is the seed kernel that is often found littering the ground beneath a tropical almond tree. The kernel is oval shaped with pointed ends, light, corky and fibrous, allowing it to float in sea currents for dispersal, and protecting a small edible seed. The tree grows very fast, and beneath each tree among its many shallow roots, hundreds of seedlings will be found. It can start producing fruit and nuts within 3-5 years. It is a somewhat messy tree with the leaves, fruit, and kernels littering the ground beneath the tree.

Tropical almonds, from green to opened nut

This kernel is a bit of a pain to open without smashing the elongated, small seed inside, but it can be managed. Matt Kirk showed us one method of selecting the largest and driest of the scattered nut kernels along the beach to open with a machete. Robert attempted a few more ideas on opening the kernels by leveling off one pointed end of the kernel and striking it in the right place along a naturally occurring seam to get the kernel to open cleanly in two halves with the nut intact. He and Robert then opened several handfuls of the nuts to let Gillian sample the nutmeat. The taste is a blend of coconut and almond, very delicious. It might seem like the effort for such a small amount of food is not worth it, but with the wonderful tropical sunshine and on being vacation with no schedule, it is almost fun. Matt told us about a Euell Gibbons book titled Beachcombers Handbook that describes his experiences with tropical almonds and his three years of living off the land in Hawaii. It is currently out of print, but I think we'll try to get a copy of it for its stories and lore. With this little bit of knowledge and experience, we look forward to opening and eating more on our next vacation.


Andrea said...

Hey, I just found your blog and it's wonderful! Wild edible plants are one of my blog's main interests too. Conventional almonds (Prunus dulcis) are in flower here in CA...still quite a while until harvest.

The 3 Foragers said...

Thanks for the compliment, Andrea. We have never seen real almond blossoms, or even a real almond tree. We have visited California, and the citrus was fantastic for some urban gleaning. Karen

Unknown said...

I grew up in Belize reading my father's copy of the Eull Gibbons Beachercombers handbook. I highly recommend it, especially if you are foraging in Hawaii!

Anonymous said...

Not sure why you are not eating the fleshy meat part of the fruit which taste and smells like red wine at least that is what the African version taste like.They are much bigger and meatier than this Hawaiian version.To crack open the nuts,place it on hard surface with on it's side and just use a rock to crack open on the seams. I laughed when u said kids are pro@ doing it,reminds me of my childhood. Have them teach u.:)

The 3 Foragers said...

This time on our visit to Hawaii, we did try to eat some of the flesh from red tropical almonds still on the trees. We did observe an Indian woman trying the same thing. There was not much "flesh" to eat, so I am thinking it was a different species than a more Australian or Indian variety, and not as good. We still really love the almonds, and find it a worthy distraction for the times we are hanging around on a tropical beach!