Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wild Edibles in Hawaii - Starfruit, Noni, and Java Plum



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 three trees very foreign and exotic for us: starfruit, noni, and Java plum.

Starfruit tree

Starfruit (Averrhoa carambola) is a tropical fruit you might be able to find in the supermarket at home. It is native to southeast Asia and India. It is likely a recent introduction to Hawaii as a fruit tree that has escaped into the wild. It is evergreen and will produce fruit all year in tropical, wet forests. We encountered one tree in the woods on Maui, and saw several planted on Kauai in people's yards, as well as the ripe fruit for sale at the local Sunshine Markets. Starfruit is a bushy tree has compound leaves with 5-11 leaflets that are sensitive to light and will fold up at night. Each leaflet is bright green, ovate, smooth on top and slighly hairy and lighter colored on the underside. Purplish-streaked flower clusters and fruit are present at the same time, continually producing. The fruit has a thin, waxy skin that is edible, and ripens to yellow from a light green. The taste is difficult to describe, depending on the ripeness of the fruit. It can taste like grapes, apples, or citrus with varying degrees of sweetness. Starfruit is eaten raw, sliced along the fleshy midribs to display its star shape, or made into chutneys or juiced. The fruit are high in vitamin C and contain oxalic acid.

Ripe Noni and Noni leaf
Noni fruit and flower
Robert recognized the noni (Morinda citrifolia) fruit I pointed out to him at once. He is familiar with some of the medicinal claims of the juice of the noni, while I remain skeptical. Noni is a Polynesian introduction to Hawaii, originally from southeast Asia. It has many medicinal uses, its roots are used to dye fibers, and it can be eaten as a famine food. Noni grows in shady, wet forests and among lava-strewn coasts as a shrub or small tree. It has large, glossy green  and deeply veined leaves that seem much too big for such a spindly trunk. It produces white flowers and fruit all year. The fruit looks like a giant mulberry, a lumpy oval about the size of a grapefruit with spots on the outside in each many-sided section. The fruit ripens to white from light green, and smells awful when ripe, like vomit or bad cheese. The Hawaiians only ate the fruit as a last resort, since there were other, better tasting fruits available. Robert did add a bit of a ripe one to a smoothie, but I thought it was too gross to drink.

Java plums
Java plum (Syzygium cumini) was likely introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century for its fruit, and is now considered an invasive. It is spread by birds that eat the fruits and spread the seeds. Java plum is native to India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia. It makes massive amounts of purple fruit in autumn and winter that stains the roads and any unlucky car parked beneath a tree. It is a fast growing tree with lance-shaped leaves that provide plenty of shade. It produces small, white flowers in March, and fruit in June. The fruit is abundant, ovoid, ripening to purplish-black from green. All of the Java plums we sampled were incredibly astringent with a bit of a resinous aftertaste, but it was suggested to us that different trees have different levels of sweetness. The ripe fruit can be eaten raw, or juiced and made into ice cream.



Sunday, January 22, 2012

Resources: Identifying Wild Edible Plants in Hawaii


When the weather in Connecticut is cold and dreary, we like to head out to someplace warm and lush. Robert and I are not luxury-seeking travelers, looking for pristine beaches with personal butlers and jacuzzis. We like to rough it a bit, and find some small, out-of-the-way lunch joints and hidden paths, meander without schedules through forests and play on secluded beaches without umbrellas and chairs. Foraging on vacation is just a perk for us, visiting tropical islands with new environments and finding fruits and trees we would never encounter at home. It is difficult to prepare for what we might find, but we did find some resources to help.

After taking the long, winding sunrise drive up to the volcano on Maui, we stopped at the station of the Haleakala National Park to warm our chilled bones. We picked up a souvenir, and saw a book on the shelf called "A Pocket Guide to Hawaii's Plants and Shrubs" by H. Douglas Pratt that we grabbed. The pictures are a bit small and the information is limited, but this is a good starting point to identifying many of the trees and shrubs on Hawaii. It is arranged by environment from the high alpine hillsides of the volcanoes down through the wet forests and onto the beaches. There is not really a lot of information on edibility, but this book provides the Latin names and I was able to use the Latin names to look up more extensive information on each plant. The book is small in size (13cm x 18cm x .5cm), which makes it convenient to carry. This is also a reasonably priced pocket guide. I referenced the pictures in this book many times in the two weeks we were in Hawaii, and is proved useful immediately after we bought it as I recognized the edible 'ohelo 'ai or Nene berry (Vaccinium reticulatum) growing on the alpine lava flows of Haleakala.

We visited the Kokee Visitor Center on Kauai and found a second useful guide, "A Hiker's Guide to Trailside Plants in Hawaii" by John B. Hall. This is another light, small guide(13cm x 20cm x 1cm) that is convenient to carry. It contains a bit more information, as it covers greens, herbaceous plants and vines in addition to shrubs and trees. This book also discusses the invasive nature of many of the plants you would find while hiking along the many trails in the wilderness. Again, the pictures are small and the plants are arranged by environment. The descriptions and histories of the plants are much longer in this book, but there is still minimal information on the edibility of the plants so you will still have to do additional research. This book is very helpful with the vines in the wet forests, which are incredibly abundant and beautiful.

Matt Kirk
The best resource we found was a human guide that we found by chance. Kauai Nature School runs educational programs for children and adults about wilderness skills, nature tours, and nature connection and appreciation programs. We chose to take a private tour with Matt Kirk to a site along the shore of Kauai that we would have never found on our own. In a very short walk, he showed us some edible flowers and herbs, how to eat tropical almonds and sprouted coconuts, and helped pry some opihi limpets from the rocks at the beach so I could eat them raw. This is the kind of tour we were looking for, and would recommend it to anyone who wanted a personal experience with the wild edibles of Hawaii. This vacation was a fantastic introduction for us to the wild food adventures and experiences we can look forward to in the future.

Tropical almonds: from green to opened

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wild Edibles in Hawaii - Breadfruit and Banana Poka

Waimea Canyon, Koke'e State Park, Kauai
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 a native plant, breadfruit, and a very destructive alien, banana poka.

breadfruit leaves and male flower
Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is a fruit we have encountered before on a few Caribbean islands. It was one of the trees brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians as a food source, as lumber, and its sticky latex sap was useful as a glue. It grows in the forest lowlands where it was most likely planted on now-invisible homesteads. It can be a tall tree, up to 60 feet. The leaves are very large, hairy, deeply lobed, and glossy dark green with light green veins. All parts of the tree will exude a sticky, white latex when cut. The breadfruit tree produces two types of flowers, male and female on the same tree. The female flower develops into the fruit, which is about the size of a cantaloupe when fully grown. The flesh of the ripe fruit is light green, and it is starchy and needs to be cooked before eating. The tree produces the fruit all year around on Hawaii. It is closely related to another tree we spotted on Maui, jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus).

sprouted seeds in breadfruit!
Most literature we have read on the Hawaiian breadfruit states that it cannot produce viable seeds, and all breadfruit trees have been planted. We found several fruits in the forest, and inside of one of them, we found 3 large seeds, one which had sprouted and was starting to grow! We also questioned this bit of information when we spotted breadfruit trees growing in impossibly steep ravines off the side of the road. Who would have planted a food tree there, where you can't pick the fruit?

breadfruit
Breadfruit tastes a lot like potatoes, so we boiled up some we foraged from a large tree in Hana, Maui. Robert served it with a sprinkle of soy sauce, and Gillian gobbled it up. On Kauai, we purchased a breadfruit at the Sunshine Market, and Robert boiled it to mash. It may have been more ripe than the ones we found, since it was a bit sweet like a pumpkin. In Barbados, we ate breadfruit at a restaurant scalloped like potatoes.

ripe poka
One of the many destructive alien plants on Hawaii, banana poka (Passiflora mollissima), is a variety of passionfruit. It prefers to grow in wet forests at a higher elevation. Banana poka is spread by pigs and birds. It was originally introduced from South America as an ornamental plant for its beautiful pink flowers. Banana poka is a vine that can climb trees very easily, often smothering the plants below. Its leaves are 3-fingered and veined, and the vine uses tendrils to grab and climb. The 10-petaled pink flower dangles from a long stem, and develops into a green, cucumber-shaped fruit, about 3 inches long. The fruit ripens to yellow, and inside is an orange pulp with black seeds, tasting like a tart passion fruit.



sliced banana poka
We saw thickets of banana poka in Koke'e State Park on Kauai and Polipoli Springs Recreational Area on Maui. As we drove up the mountainsides into the wet forests, we noticed the vines over large areas, and then noticed the pretty pink flowers. We stopped to examine the yellow fruits hanging from the trees, and sliced one open to see the orange pulp and seeds, and the smell was fragrant and sweet. The taste was a bit tart, it needed a bit of honey to make a good juice. Some people don't like the flavor, but we thought it was fine for juice.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wild Edibles in Hawaii - Common Guavas and Strawberry Guavas

The 3 Foragers on a black sand beach on Maui

Every winter we take a trip to some warm, tropical location to escape New England winters. This year we headed to Hawaii, which we thought would become a once-in-a-lifetime trip experience. It turns out, we are already planning to return to this fantastic environment, lush and filled with edible plants, vines, and trees in every forest, beach, and mountainside. We did partake in many typical touristy activities, but we also got just a sample of the wild adventures that we hope to find on future trips.

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. Two alien species we found very often were these guavas, the common guava and the strawberry guava, both edible.

The common guava (Psidium guajava) is a small tree usually found along roadsides in wetter areas, in disturbed habitats, and in wet forests. Guava is an alien pest on Hawaii, spread by pigs and birds, and often growing in single species thickets crowding out other plants. It is native to the tropical Americas. It has smooth reddish-brown bark and bears opposite leaves that are oval with blunt points, 2"-6" long. The leaves are a matte green with many prominent veins. The fruit is green when unripe, turning yellow and about the size of a lemon when ripe. When cut in half, the inside is pink or white, filled with many seeds. The taste is tart, but wonderfully aromatic. The skin and seeds are edible, adding a touch of bitterness and crunch to the fruit. The fruit is used to make juice, jams, and jellies, and the small tree has some medicinal properties.

The first time we saw this tree, we thought is was a lemon tree on the side of the road in Maui. Robert stopped the car, and I got out to pick a fruit. Immediately I noticed the fruit was not a lemon, since there was a crown at the end of the fruit. I sliced one open to see the beautiful pink flesh dotted with many seeds, and the aroma was pure tropical perfume. We scooped out the flesh with a spoon and Gillian adored the tartness, we all enjoyed the exotic tropical flavor. We picked many of these during our stay in Hawaii, eating them raw as dessert after dinner.

Strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) is the second guava we encountered in great quantities on Maui and Kauai. This small tree is found at higher elevations than the common guava, in damp forests and dry roadsides alike. It is spread by wild pigs and birds, and the tree produces soil chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants. It is native to Brazil and tropical South America, and was introduced in 1825. The bark is light brown and smooth, and the leaves are shiny, smooth and lance-shaped, without veins. Unripe fruit is green, ripening to bright pinkish-red, and about the size of a quarter, often growing in clusters. The inside flesh of the ripe strawberry guava is creamy-white with many yellow seeds, and the flavor is like a tart strawberry. The skin and seeds are also edible. The leaves can be brewed into a tea.

 The Koke'e State Park and the trails at Waimea Canyon in Kauai are sadly turning into mono-forests of strawberry guava, but we were able to pick many of these as a nibble. We first encountered them in Maui on the Waikamoi Ridge Trail, where the forest was thick with strawberry guava trees. There were so many ripe guavas fermenting on the forest floor, Robert said it smelled like someone was making wine.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Sassafras Recipe - Sassafras Root Beer


This was the second time we tried to make sassafras beer, and the result was outstanding. I accidentally left one bottle in the fridge while on vacation, but it actually kept its fizz and tasted even better than it did three weeks ago. The beer was bottled in 4 quart sized hinge-lock bottles. The flavor was spicy and earthy, and the color was an odd orange. Adding in a few spicebush berries (Lindera benzoin) to the brew really added some character, and the lime juice added a good acidic taste. We used a commercial beer yeast, Munton's, available at the local brewing supply store. The roots are boiled to make a decoction, rather than steeped to make a tisane.

We gathered many sassafras roots (Sassafras albidum) during our mild autumn. This small tree grows in Connecticut abundantly, and gathering the roots, bark and leaves is relatively easy. It is easily identified in the summer by looking for its 3 different leaves: a mitten shaped leaf, an egg shaped leaf, and a 3-lobed leaf. The bark is green on the small saplings, but as the tree gets larger you can see a reddish-orange coloring in between the furrows of the grey bark. Small saplings for pulling roots will grow in dense clusters next to the mother tree. We grab the sapling and give it a slow, steady pull until about 12"-24" of root will come up before breaking. It's the roots that you will need for this recipe, and you can pull them fresh until the ground freezes.

Sassafras Root Beer                      makes about 4- 1 quart bottles

1/4 lb. fresh sassafras root
1 gallon water
22 oz. sugar
1/2 oz fresh or frozen spicebush berries (optional)
2 Tbsp lemon or lime juice
1 1/4 tsp. beer yeast

for the bottling:
4 tsp. raw turbinado sugar

1.Boil the fresh sassafras roots with the water for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and add the sugar, spicebush berries, and lime juice. Allow the mixture to cool to 90°F.
2. Remove a cup of the lukewarm water and sprinkle the yeast over the top, allowing it to dissolve and become a bit foamy. Pour the yeast mixture and the remaining decoction into a 1 gallon glass jar fitted with an airlock. Ferment for 3 days.
3. Strain the roots and berries from the beer. To the bottom of each sanitized bottle, add one tsp. of raw turbinado sugar. Pour in 4 c. of the beer, and close the hinge-lock top.
4. Refrigerate the bottles, checking for fizz in about 5 days. You may have to release some fizz if you store it for more than 2 weeks. Serve chilled.