Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Always something out there

Here we are at the juncture of summer and fall; up north there is no doubt that the deciduous trees are already showing color. In the south I can clearly see the dog woods are turning their own special shades of red. That observation brings us to the annual fall showcase. As those of you who live in the south east know the tree foliage is somewhat lacking more often then not due to the large numbers of conifers. Honestly as much as I appreciate conifers and their role in the biology, they are somewhat lacking in the color department simply because they are some special shade of green all year long. Keep in mind the golden color of pine straw it self is its own seasonal color that I honestly appreciate in the landscape for what it is and does.

 Portulacaria afra - Elephant bush

In the category of unique plants you never knew you can eat today we have a very cool entry and it’s a common house plant that you can get at places at like ‘bLowes’ and ‘Home Despot’.  Perhaps some of you have heard of Portulacaria afra. This plant’s common names include elephant bush or mini-jade plant. The former name comes from the fact that in its native habitat this plant can get quite large and is in fact eaten by elephants in the wild. The second common name stems from the resemblance to Jade plants which belong in a different family. I might also add it has a number of names in its native habitat of Africa such as iGwanishe/iGwanitsha (Xosha name), isAmbilane/isiCococo/inDibili-enkula/umDondwane/iNdibili/iNtelezi(Zulu names), also it’s Afrikaans name is Spekboom which means porkwood, bacontree or fat tree.

What makes this plant interesting from a biological standpoint is that it unlike other plants performs the processes of photosynthesis. Unlike a number of other plants whom perform the functions of photosynthesis primarily during the daylight hours Elephant bush performs what is called C4 photosynthesis. Keep in mind for plants there are three basic methods of photosynthesis, CAM, C3 and C4. CAM or Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, the plant stores carbon dioxide in an acid form before it is used in photosynthesis. CAM is commonly seen in the crassula family which includes the Jade Plant. This form of photosynthesis is incredibly efficient and allows the plant to metabolize the carbonic acids whenever the environmental conditions favor thus allowing a plant to survive arid conditions for long periods. C3 photosynthesis is named as it is because it incorporates carbon dioxide into a 3-carbon compound. C3 is the method by which most plants perform photosynthesis.  Now C4 photosynthesis is different because it bonds carbon dioxide into a 4-carbon compound and the photosynthesis takes place internally as opposed to in cells near the surface of the plant’s leaves. For note this is why the leaves on elephant bush seem to be somewhat translucent. Other plants in this group include Corn, and most of the expressly summer annual plants. In short, C4 is very efficient and allow the plant to survive high light intensities and it makes the plants extremely water-efficient.

Beyond the biology, why this plant is a feature in today’s overdue post is simply because we at LITFM as noted above found out rather recently that it is safely edible. After some checking as it turns out elephant bush is a relative of Purselane. Much like Purselane and Moss Rose the fleshy leaves are edible. In fact there are two species of purselane found as common lawn weeds that are edible and were covered in detail during the ‘weeds you can eat’ series earlier in the year. I know what some of you might be thinking ‘Ugh! ok I can eat it…does it taste any good?’ The answer is simple, it is an interesting taste, the leaves are crunchy, a bit sour and they have a taste similar to some forms of mesclun mix. If it were mixed with a conventional salad or paired with a sweet salad dressing such as walnut vinaigrette it would be quite good as a fresh green. From what I have been able to find most aspects of it nutritional value indicate it is a low protein (2.3g per 100g of leaves). It is noted that the leaves generally contain B1, B2, C, Carotene, Potassium salts, glucose, Cellulose, calcium, Phosphorous and iron. The list of nutrients in the leaves goes on but the aforementioned ones are in the highest amounts.

It is important to note this information only refers to the non-variegated types and before you try this plant in any quantity you should test taste a single leaf on an empty stomach to check for allergic reactions. Also there is another plant called the elephant bush which is often grafted to P. afra root stock. This ‘name-alike’ plant is known as Ceraria namaquensis and it is not edible.

 Eriobotrya japonica - Loquat

I thought I'd post a picture of the loquat plant in full bloom. This is one of the sustainable 365 plants I've spoken of before in both lecture and blog post. Generally a loquat will bloom sometime between late September through early November and be full of fruit somewhere between late February and April. The fruits are small and orange with relatively large seeds but the flavor is tart and sweet and very strong given the size of the fruit. This is one of the few winter-ripening fruits that works especially well in North Carolina. I might add these plants with time can take on a tree form and are evergreen, so in landscape use they present evergreen exotic foliage. I might add this plant is not related to the Kumquat which is a citrus under the scientific name of Citrus japonica.


The above to pictures serve as a reminder, just because it has cooled down does not mean some pests are not out causing mischief. This was the last rainbow bell pepper of the season and as you can see it was all set to take on color and possible be the largest. If the top photo is any indicator it would have been a purple color. The second picture shows where a slug chewed away where the fleshy parts of the green cap over the fruit. The worst part about this damage is that the slug usually stops after effectively eating that part and ruining the fruit. Remember, beer traps and diatomaeceous Earth are your most effective way to handle slug problems.

 Lastly we have a picture of Siam Thai Queen Basil in full bloom Most gardeners seem to pass up siam basil  possibly because they are not familiar with it or, do not know how to cook with it. I first encountered this variety of basil in Canada at a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal. The restaurant used it as flavorful addition to the noodle soups they served. Basically they would stick a 2" sprig in the soup so the warm broth would volatilize the essential oils of the basil. The first thing you would smell when you were served your soup was this basil. Compared to Sweet basil it has a more licorice-anise effect but it does not linger on the palate long enough to be overwhelming. In North Carolina this basil will self-slow itself if given the chance but it is not a perennial..

That said this brings to an end a greatly belated episode of lost in the farmer’s market. In the next post which will be coming shortly, we will be covering a trio of house plants that are related each of which has a medicinal use. Thank you for reading and for bearing with us and the academia-related posting delays finals are coming soon so there is light at the end of the tunnel.

As always Keep ‘em Growing!

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