Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cool Weather Crops, Hawai'i Style

Of course it’s warm year round here, but now on some days there’s actually a nip in the air in the very early mornings here on the Big Island, which reminds me that cool weather crops are starting to develop sweeter flavor. Swiss chard is getting tastier, for example. My friend Carol likes to grow Swiss chard in a big plastic container that’s set upon one that’s turned upside down. This keeps the plants off the ground, away from snails and slugs and at a workable height.

More on cold weather crops later. Right now, a botanical conundrum.

Why is Swiss chard called Swiss? Is there such thing as Hawaiian chard?

And what is chard, exactly?

Since gratuitous slacker googling is now good for your brain, I felt justified in wasting part of a Sunday researching this heretofore superfluous plant-geek question. As it turns out, there’s more than one explanation floating around in cyberspace.

Wikipedia claims Swiss chard was named that by a 19th century seed company that wanted to distinguish it from French charde or chardon, a spinach. Swiss chard didn’t actually originate in Switzerland, but in Sicily. That’s right, it’s Sicily chard. So I guess if you were growing it in Hawai'i, you could call it Hawaiian chard, though maybe you’d have to serve it squid lu'au style to get away with it.

However, this theory just brings up more questions. Did the seed company anticipate some negative marketing issues associated with that southern Italy region? Did it therefore do some 19th century style marketing and rebrand the chard as Swiss to give it wider appeal among European tastes?

One google leads to more, and pretty soon dinner is late. Again.

Oh, and here’s also why more googling can be bad for your brain. One website claims Swiss chard is called that because the botanist who gave the plant its scientific name, Beta vulgaris Linnaeus subsp. cicla, is Swiss. Sorry, but I’d bet my meatballs that this was written by someone who flunked Botany 101. Carl Linnaeus, the famed father of modern taxonomy, Mr. Genus species himself, is Swedish.

Cool Weather Vegetables and Fruits

Snow Peas
Bell Pepper
Cole crops: broccoli, cauliflower, kale

Also, don’t forget Citrus – cool nights make better fruit.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Pia in Haupia

I don’t often see pia growing in home gardens. However, I was able to obtain some tubers of this relative of the bat flower at the seed exchange at Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Kona earlier this year, and I’m pleasantly surprised by its unusual inflorescence and how easy it is to grow.

Pia (Tacca leontopetaloides, Polynesian arrowroot) is a “canoe plant,” brought here by the first Polynesians who sailed to these islands. I’ve been told that if you go through the trouble of preparing them correctly, pia tubers can be made into a dried starch and used as a thickener that is more nutritious than cornstarch. According to Isabella Aiona Abbott’s La'au Hawai'i, the tubers have to be carefully processed: First grated, then soaked and rinsed many times until all trace of bitterness is completely gone, then strained through the fibers of 'ahu'awa. “The resulting starch was then shaped into cakes and dried in the sun,” writes Abbott.

Whew. I get exhausted just thinking about all that work, so for now I just like looking at my pia, which is planted in a raised bed next to some young kalo from Waipi'o. Still, I’m curious about the potential nutritional payoff.

Traditionally, dried pia starch was mixed with water or coconut cream and baked in an imu. Haupia, the melt-in-your-mouth sweet coconut dessert, is thickened with cornstarch but no doubt has its origins in the healthy Hawaiian diet that included pia.

For a great haupia recipe and more explanation, click here.

And of course, pia was also used in traditional Hawaiian medicine.

For more ethnobotanical info on pia, click here.

If you’re experienced in making pia starch or have info on any scientific documentation of its nutritional value, I’d love to hear about it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Community of Sustainable Gardening

This past weekend was packed with things to do on the Big Island, including the first E Malama ‘Aina sustainability festival in downtown Hilo. Visitors swarmed the Hawaii Island Master Gardeners booth, picking up free seedlings of edibles such as tomato, eggplant, sweet basil and jicama, and buying locally grown UH seeds for dirt-cheap. A display on sheet mulch “lasagne gardening” showed how to make rich soil to enable growing a garden atop solid lava rock, and I was there with container gardening displays of a hypertufa pot, herbs and a hanging cucumber grown by master gardeners.

What got the biggest response was the simple yet effective fruit fly traps made of empty soda bottles baited with pheromone – flies fly in, and they never check out! It was great to see so much interest in easy organic gardening methods.

If you didn’t get to the festival, you can still call the HIMGA helpline at (808) 981-5199 if you would like more info on fruit fly trapping and to purchase a fruit fly trap kit.

Here’s a short video on some of the happenings at the festival, courtesy Big Island Video News.

Hui Malama Ola Na ‘Oiwi was also there with info on their excellent Mai Ka Mala’ai program, a 10-week educational program for Native Hawaiians with diabetes to encourage healthy steps toward managing the condition. The program teaches clients how to grow fresh vegetables in small, easy-to-maintain raised box gardens and containers. They also provide a health support team: nutritionist, community health educator, fitness trainer, outreach workers, pharmacist, dentist, podiatrist and other professionals.

“In the beginning of the class, everyone is shy and quiet. But then as they learn, share, and start working in their gardens, they all start to bond,” says Edna Baldado of Hui Malama Ola Na ‘Oiwi. “ By the end of the 10 weeks, everyone can’t stop talking – no one wants to leave!”

If you are Native Hawaiian and interested in participating in the Mai Ka Mala’ai program to learn to grow your own health-sustaining garden, call the Hilo main office of Hui Malama Ola Na ‘Oiwi at (808) 969-9220.

Here's another video from the festival. Guess who's talking about the Master Gardener helpline about the 2:42 mark.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Roselle, My Cup of Zing

I’m a big fan of hibiscus. We always had them in our yard when I was growing up in the islands. In the morning I’d look for a bud just about to bloom and I'd take it to school to give it to my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Chang. Throughout the school day I’d watch the bud slowly, slowly unfold, until it was a huge red blossom worthy of the Kodak Hula Show when the final bell rang and it was time to go home. I never saw her do it, but of course she tossed the spent blossom before she headed home, since the flower lasts only a day. Who knows, it probably even made my teacher a little more forgiving of my transgressions, too.

Now I grow several native and introduced hibiscus in my backyard, and this year I added an edible one called Roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa. A fellow gardener gave me some seeds in the spring, and to my surprise they actually germinated and grew into something quite spectacular and delightful this fall.

Like other hibiscus, this robust shrub is easy to grow. Its lovely pale blossoms tinged with pink are a favorite of those big black carpenter bees, but I don’t mind sharing. I’m after only the calyx, which makes a delicious tea – it’s the main ingredient in the Red Zinger you buy in the store, and it’s used in favorite beverages all over the world. Check out its other uses here.

To make tea, break up a few calyxes (discard the seed capsule), bruise up them up a little, add boiling water and let steep 5- 8 minutes. You can add sweetener, but I like it as it is just as well. So 'ono with some of my
honey-sweet Navel oranges that I share with friends and family.

To make roselle sauce, put clean calyxes in a pan with enough water to cover and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes, then add sweetener to taste. Cool and serve with your favorite dessert – ice cream, cheesecake…oooh.

What We Take For Granted

First, let me say that these are Okinawan oranges, and no, this isn’t my backyard.

There’s a lot of talk about sustainability these days, and once in a while I hear someone say sustainability is a buzzword. That’s like saying sleeping is popular.

For many concerned, pro-active citizens, sustainability is a way of behaving, a way of thinking responsibly. But it also appears it’s a way for some enterprises to wear a nice and fuzzy cloak of trendy ideas while riding a potentially profitable bandwagon.

So here’s an opportunity to put on your critical thinking cap. This weekend you can check out the 'E Malama 'Aina sustainability festival on Saturday, November 8, 8 am to 3 pm, in downtown Hilo’s Mo'oheau Park. Cruise the booths, get ideas, and see what is being proposed in your community.

I’ll be there with the Hawaii Island Master Gardeners who will have info on fruit fly trapping, sheet mulch “lasagne” gardening, growing edibles in containers, of course, seeds and more. Stop by and talk story little bit. Here’s a link to the website of ‘E Malama ‘Aina Festival.

By the way, don’t let your bumper crop fall and rot. That attracts fruit flies. Harvest your bounty and share it with friends – kindergarteners tell me that’s a great way to make new ones, too.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hawaii Island School Garden Network

Fill in the blank:

Kids nowadays ___________.

If you answered “like to plug themselves in and play indoors,” then you obviously remember a time when it was cool to play outside, where the wild things are.

In my coastal neighborhood in suburban O’ahu, my mom planted green onions next to the pomegranate bush while I lifted rocks and played with sow bugs and earthworms. I watched sassy red cardinals swoop in and peck out snacks from our brilliant yellow sunflowers growing all in a row taller than our clothesline. I chased hapless termites and geckos on hot summer nights, sucked on oranges grown at sea level that stayed green but were sweet nonetheless.

That seems like eons ago, yet the memories remain indelible. I remember the warmth of the sun and salty ocean breezes, the sweet-tartness of the lemonade I made and sold in the front yard for 3 cents a glass, the buzz of honeybees circling around the dazzling magenta portulaca along the sidewalk in front of our house. Why are these images so vivid in my mind’s eye even now?

Children experience the natural world in a very direct way; unlike most adults, their sense of wonder and appreciation of the beauty of nature is still intact. Young minds are not jaded or cynical, young bodies do not ignore the sensations of everyday phenomena the way that desensitized adults’ do.

At the Hamakua Alive! Festival at Pauuilo School, I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Koh Ming Wei, director/educator of the Hawaii Sustainable Eduation Initiative, a Waldorf-based program in Honoka'a, and HSEI student Serafima Carlson, age 11. Serafima presented me with bookmarker she decorated with her own scientific drawing of the life cycle of a butterfly, and then proceeded to explain the different herbs she had potted up and offered for sale. Meanwhile, another student practiced his math, counting up cash and figuring out the profits for the day. Whoever thinks gardening with kids is only an opportunity for socialization has some serious waking up to do.

Nancy Redfeather, program director of the Kohala Center's island-wide Hawai'i Island School Garden Network, was also at the festival with luscious produce from a one-acre market farm being worked by twelve high school students from Kohala. These youth are learning skills to make a living and gaining self-confidence through real-life, hands-on experiences. This is but a glimpse of the beauty and magic that is evolving here with kids and gardens, and it makes me proud of the spirit and energy of those involved: students, teachers, farmers, activists, and all other deeply concerned citizens of our community.

For more information on the Hawaii Island School Garden Network, contact Nancy Redfeather at the Kohala Center.