Thursday, October 27, 2011

DIY Simple Plant Markers

As I started collecting more and more plants, I realized that my brain may not be able to hold all the identification information I was forcing into it. To prevent my forgetting what plant was where, I would have to mark them. I was going to buy plant markers but realized that I could easily make some from supplies I already had. (Plus, the ones I envisioned were cuter in their rustic simplicity than the mass produced markers I found for sale.)
DIY plant marker made from a waiawi branch
Simple is the right word. It's almost rediculous to post a "tutorial" for these, but since our busy lives don't always allow room for thoughts of the obvious I thought this worth posting.

Once you have a dried branch of waiawi (strawberry guava) or other overly abundant wood ( I usually use a diameter of about 1/2 inch),  takes about a minute to make a few of these. All you need to start is a dried stick and a clippers.
basic materials: stick and clippers
Using the clippers, cut the wood into pieces that seem to be the right length. I make mine about 8 inches long, but I don't bother measuring. I generally use straight pieces, but a little curve at the top end won't hurt, and even can look cute.
shaved marker sticks
Next, shave off an inch to 1.5 inch of bark at the top end to expose some lighter wood. I hold the clippers open and use the top blade to do this, but you could also use a pocket knife or any professional whittling tools you may have.
labels added with a permanent marker
At this point, I used to wait a few days to make sure the inner wood was dry, but now I skip that step and immediately write the labels with a permanent pen - a micron pigma type works great. I briefly entertained the idea of using a soldering iron to burn in the labels, but that just didn't fit in to my need for immediate gratification. I bet it would look cool, though, so if you do that please send pix.

These have held up well for me, even in this wet climate. And none have grown into happy waiawi trees in the middle of the garden, so all is good. Best of all, my brain needs to keep track of fewer things.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pua Kalo: the taro flower in our garden

We were completely surprised and delighted to find this flower in the kalo patch. I'd never heard of taro flowers! Since the plant is propagated through vegetative means, I guess I assumed that it didn't flower.

We only discovered this treasure it because of the sound. The sound of dozens of swarming fruit flies, that is. They were all over that flower for the first day it opened, when it had a wonderful rose-y-butter-y smell.

kalo flower just opening, surrounded by swarming fruit flies
oriental fruit flies on kalo flower
 By the next day the flies had completely disappeared, and the flower was open.

kalo flower day two, fully open and without scent or flies
So, of course, I researched a bit about kalo flowers. The "petal" is a leaf that protects the flower stalk. The stalk has female flowers on the bottom, male flowers on the top, and some sterile flowers in between. It turns out that flowering is rare, and the anatomy of the flower discourages natural pollination. If our kalo flower does get pollinated, it will form a bunch of berries at the base of the stalk (maybe looking like this). Plant breeding programs have found a way to induce flowering and hand-pollinate to attempt to make new and interesting varieties.

Since kalo is propagated vegetatively, by transplanting corms, the strains we use are clones of ancestor plants and don't have much genetic variation. The potential for breeding kalo is kind of exciting.

But, there are already a ton of kalo types and the ancient Hawai'ians were quite adept at knowing where and how to grow each. I should learn to handle the kalo we have before daydreaming about new varieties!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Moringa - a vitamin pill in a leaf

Moringa (Moringa oleifera) is a beautiful tree native to India. Because its leaves can be used as a very nutritious, low-maintenance perennial vegetable, it should be a part of every tropical homesteader's yard. Check out this advertising copy from a Big Island company selling moringa powder (comparing gram for gram:

"7 Times The Vitamin C of Oranges
4 Times The Vitamin A of Carrots     
4 Times The Calcium of Milk
3 Times The Potassium of Bananas     
2 Times The Protein of Yogurt"

Sounds pretty good, huh? Overlooking the fact that several grams of milk are probably easier to fit into your diet than the same number of grams of moringa, it is pretty good. Actually, really good.

And that's just the leaves. So many other parts of the plants are edible that its been called a grocery store in a tree. Moringa pods are long and thin (giving it the common name "drumstick tree") can be eaten immaturely (and supposedly taste like asparagus) or the inside can be scraped out of mature pods similarly to an artichoke. The flowers are edible and said to taste like mushroom. Young roots and bark are sometimes used as horseradish, but there are conflicting reports about when/how you do this, so please research it first. I'll almost certainly be trying this it at some point and will report back.

The seeds are also edible and oil from the seeds (which are 40% oil) can be used as cooking oil, or even biofuel - if you can get enough! Also, the seeds can be used to purify water. I'll be trying that, too... stick with me!

Convinced you need a moringa tree or several? You do.

And it doesn't take much room. Moringa is a small tree (30ft/10m) but is often trimmed to be a shrub, so that picking leaves and pods is convenient. A moringa hedge sounds like a great idea! It grows well in tropical regions. It likes full sun, well-drained soil, and can tolerate drought.

A woman I recently met at the Puna Sustainability Fair said, "Uhg, moringa tastes terrible!" It turns out she was referring to moringa powder, which has rapidly been gaining shelf space in the vitamin section of natural foods stores. I don't have any experience with moringa powder, but I've found that fresh moringa leaves taste great.

I first learned about moringa in the book Perennial Vegetables. which has some basic information on growing and using moringa. I ordered seeds from, and about 2/3 germinated after soaking overnight and planting in potting soil. I kept a few seedlings and gave most away at the last BISS potluck.

moringa seedling
While I'm waiting for my plants to mature, I've been buying big bouquets of young moringa branches being sold as "moringay" for $1.25 at the Maku'u Farmer's Market. The fresh leaves plucked from the branch disappear almost without a trace into guacamole or on top of stir fries. It's a very easy way to pack more nutrition into a meal. I'm looking for recipes that use moringa in a sort of pesto-like spread. I think that would be delicious, but I haven't been able to locate on on the Internetz. I might have to invent one, and I'll it post here if it is a success.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fubu - or blueberry guava or downy rose myrtle or whatever

We were introduced to the berries at a local farmer's market. "Try some blueberry guava," we were told. Blueberry guava? Of course - it was a small, deep purple-blue berry with the characteristic guava-propeller at one end. Months later, the name immediately resurfaced in my mind when I found them growing wild on our land. We have blueberry guava!

blueberry guava
Then the darnedest thing happened. Google had never heard of blueberry guava. After hours of searching, I was convinced that the bush I had picked berries from did not exist and would just *poof* disappear. I became obsessed to find out what it was, and - too many hours later - found a match. Rhodomyrtus tomentosa is not a guava, but it is a myrtle. It goes by a lot of names: Ceylon hill cherry, Ceylon gooseberry, downy myrtle, downy rose myrtle, hill guava, and other many acrobatic combinations of the aforementioned. According to the Internet, it is not known as "blueberry guava," and I hope here to correct that oversight. On the Big Island of Hawai'i, at least some folks refer to this plant at blueberry guava. Hopefully the next person searching for information when they randomly come across these on their property will not waste many, many hours in a wild gooseberry-chase. (If this is you, you have my permission to spend those hours in a hammock nursing a liliko'i margarita.)

You will notice that many of the common names are inaccurate - it's not a cherry or a gooseberry or a guava. The one that does pass would be downy rose myrtle, which honestly is not something that makes me think of yummy jam and that's what I wanted to do with these berries. So, my sweetie came up with the name "fubu" for fuzzy blueberry, and I quite like it.

The fubu plant comes from southern and southeastern Asia and is an invasive here, although not as common as waiawi strawberry guava. Despite being a pest, the plant has some nice qualities. The flowers are pretty and frequented by carpenter bees. Fruit flies seem to leave the berries alone. The specimens we've seen are more bush than tree, overshadowed by the waiawi.

fubu flowers, buds, and immature berries
Even when you know the right names to call these plants, the internet is not brimming with detailed information on them. I couldn't find nutritional information. Although I did note that some parts of the plant many be medicinal, including the leaves, which have some antibacterial properties.The leaves and stem also contain

Picking the berries is easy, since the plant has no stickers, and bugs don't seem to like them. Still, it took me a month to collect enough berries to make a batch of fubu jam.

fubu jam

First I sliced the berries and discarded the flower end. In this batch of jam are about 20 oz of slices. In the photo bellow, some of the berries are still a bit unripe. I found it was best to wait until they turn a deep purple color and become a little soft. They will ripen in a bowl on the table after you pick them, if they are already reddish.

fubu slices
I covered the slices with water and boiled about 20 minutes. (The smell pleasant, but quite unusual. I don't think I've smelled anything like it before.)

boiling fubu berries in water to extract juice
I then strained the berry water through a mesh strainer. I wanted some fruit fiber, not just the juice, so I forced that through with a spoon. The seeds were too big to fit through the strainer, and the skins were also left behind.

using the spoon, I mashed the boiled fubu through the mesh strainer
I collected this puree-like-substance for the jam. I had a little less than 4 cups. I added the juice of one large lemon and 4 tsp of the calcium solution you make for the Pomona pectin recipes. 

In a separate bowl, I mixed 1.5 cups of organic cane sugar with 2.5 tsp Pomona pectin. After the fubu juice reached a vigorous boil, I added the sugar/pectin and stirred until it reached a heavy boil again. At this point, I tasted the mixture to make sure it was worth putting into jars. (I had never had fubu jam, so I knew there was a chance it would be icky.) It was good! So into jars it went.

This recipe yielded seven 4oz jars. I then steam-canned them for 15 minutes.

fubu jam in the steam canner
The jam is a seductive color but honestly its taste is a little bland. I asked my sweetie to describe its flavor: "Like grape." Like grape but with a guava texture. I spent all that time to make grape jam? I think it is a bit more subtle than grape, though. And I do love the idea of eating invasive species, so I will probably make more. Next time I will probably use less sugar and could use less pectin, too.

That it tastes like grape has me thinking... fubu wine? Wikipedia says they make these into wine in Vietnam. I may have to try. That would take a lot of fubu berries.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

PotMaker: a clever, low tech gadget

As soon as I came across the PotMaker, I knew I needed one. This two-piece wooden toy helps the eco-conscious gardener roll small pots out of newspaper. The pots are quite small, but they are big enough to start seeds. An added advantage is you can transplant the entire pot, since the newspaper will soften and degrade in moist soil.

Perhaps the main attractor for me was that the newspaper pots are much cuter than the boring plastic pots.

bean seedling in a PotMaker pot

Making pots with the PotMaker is definitely craft-time of the Third Grade variety. In other words, it feels completely satisfying. The easy directions are clearly stated on the box. First, the newspaper needs to be measured and cut. While the length of the newspaper can vary from 10 inches or more, the width of 3.5 inches should be adhered to. I was quite pleased to come up with an adaptation to the basic protocol. I started adding an extra flap that can be tucked in the pot at the end to keep the end from unraveling out.

pots from the PotMaker
At first, striving too hard for perfect pots, I rolled the newspaper strips too tightly on the wood dowel. The newspaper should be wrapped loosely or it will take some effort to pull it off.

This would be a great project for kids. If I had one, I'd certainly keep him or her busy making me cute, re-purposed, DIY, biodegradable seed pots.

I love how many more of these newspaper pots fit in my seed germination area than of the larger, plastic pots I was using. I have noticed that they do dry out more quickly, so best to check moisture more often. That's no problem for me, since I love to moon over my seedlings.

All in all, a satisfying project and a good product.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Breadfruit Tamales

My plans for future food sustainability definitely include at least one breadfruit tree. Breadfruit is the carbohydrate meal staple that grows on a tree! It just makes more - year after year - without much effort from me! Plus, a tree can provide fruit nine months out of the year.

When mature but not completely ripe, breadfruit can be used like potato, like wheat products, like kalo (as poi), and like corn masa flour (as you will see below). I've heard that prepared some ways it is like freshly baked bread, but I'm still looking for that recipe. Ripe breadfruit is sweet and can be used for dessert recipes. Like many high starch foods, breadfruit can be a blank canvas taking on other flavors depending on how it is prepared. In my - very limited - experience, I've noticed that it can have an artichoke-like smell and flavor.

a 2.5 lb breadfruit steamed for 1.5 hours
Not only does breadfruit hold these mad culinary chameleon powers and not only is it easy to grow and prepare, it is as or more nutritious than other starchy foods. Check out the info at the Breadfruit Institute, located on Kauai. (I truly am convinced that growing and using breadfruit is a big part of the secret to food sustainability in Hawai'i. I will confess here to a secret fantasy of placing a breadfruit tree keiki on the doorsteps of homes in Hilo which have big, open lawn-yards. Just to fill in some details, I picture the little gift trees with impressive red bows around them.)

All this coming from a girl who had barely heard of breadfruit a year ago. Recently, I've been inspired to try my hand at preparing breadfruit. The Breadfruit Festival  gave me courage me to tackle some breadfruit recipes. Since our beautiful, keiki Ma'afala tree won't be giving fruit for 2-3 years, we have some time to develop some favorite preparations.

Sonia Martinez has posted recipes from the Breadfruit Festival's cooking contest on her blog. Of the recipes she posted, the breadfruit tamales caught my attention. In this recipe, which won culinary students of Kua O Ka La New Century Public Charter School and their kumu Mariposa Blanco first prize, breadfruit completely replaces corn. The outside of the tamale contains only breadfruit and oil. Since the options for the filling are limitless, this could be a fantastic meal that needs to be in every sustainability-seeking tropical gardener's recipe box! If it actually is yummy, that is. We attempted to find out.

We loosely followed the recipe, putting a small amount of steamed breadfruit (about 1/3 of 1 2.5 lb fruit) in the mostly-green-with-dark-lines-between-the-plates state of ripeness into the blender. Blending it really did not work. We moved the mixture of crumbles and chunks to a hand-crank food processor, which did much better. After it became ground and crumbly, we added some olive oil until it seemed that it could be formed into and hold together as a tamale shape.

We cut some banana leaves and used them to mold the breadfruit shell. We filled the tamales with cheese, red bell pepper, and tomatillo, and molded more breadfruit crumbs to finish the shape. It took a bit of experimentation to get the wrapping to work, but soon we had pretty packages.

breadfruit-shelled tamales wrapped in banana leaves and ready to be steamed
 We steamed these for about 20 minutes in a steam canner. A little nervously, we looked inside.

unrapping breadfruit tamales
Looked great! Added homemade guacamole from our avocados and veg chili from a can (Amy's) to get this feast:

breadfruit shelled tamale dinner

 The result? Ono! It really was amazing! I could not at all tell that this was breadfruit and not corn flour. Truly a success! And so filling.

This is our third success (out of three tries) with breadfruit dinners. Breadfruit already rocked us in soup, where it was like a cross between a potato and a dumpling, and a stir fry, where - fried in oil and soy sauce - it was like delicious nuggets of fatty, salty baked tofu.

More breadfruit experiments are scheduled for next week.

This post was dded to Attainable Sustainable's Blogging Bee. Click to see more blog posts about living simply and sustainably.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Liliko'i Ginger Preserves

After three months of liliko'i falling from the sky (well, from the vine overtaking one of our tangerine trees), I've started making and canning liliko'i jelly out of desperation. I mean, I love liliko'i - how could I waste it? Even though I am an anti-sugar person, mostly, I decided to make liliko'i jelly/jam. (Well, more accurately, I'm a person who *lurves* sugar but knows how bad it is for us human organisms, so I do my best to stay away.)

Liliko'i is not just a tangy, tart ball of delicious, it is also high in beta carotene (Vitamin A), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), iron, potassium, and dietary fiber (ref). Parts of the plant have been implicated to help a variety of ailments including high blood pressure, asthma, osteoarthritis, and maybe even some cancers (ref). I enjoy squeezing the juice of one fruit into a tall1 glass of water (and maybe a little muddled mint). It's a very refreshing drink for hot days.

just a small fraction of our liliko'i harvest

This was my first jelly making and canning experience. I found a basic recipe and protocol on Kris Bordessa's Attainable Sustainable blog. I fiddled with her recipe a bit to fit my own needs. In my recipe, I've added ginger, which is wonderful with liliko'i. In this recipe I use a steam canner (not a water bath or a pressure canner). I realize there is some controversy about steam canning, but after some research I'm convinced (enough) that it is safe for acidic foods. You can adapt it for any method of canning you choose. I also use Pomona pectin, which allows jellies to be lower in sugar and still jell. It includes a separate calcium solution that promotes pectin jelling. The recipe below calls for less than half the sugar used in typical jelly recipes.

The yield for this recipe is about 5-6 8 oz jars. I've calculated that it has less than 10 calories per teaspoon.

1a. Wash and rinse jars (used 8 oz jelly jars), set out (inverted) to dry on steam canner rack on counter.
1b. Wash lids & rings then bring to boil in the bottom part of steam canner. Turn off burner and let sit in hot water until use.

2. Use 4 cups liliko'i juice, about 8oz grated ginger with juice, and the juice of 1 lemon. Add 4 teaspoon calcium water (following the Pomona directions).

3. Measure a scant 2 cups sugar (I have been using organic sugar) in a separate bowl, thoroughly mix with 2.5 teaspoons Pomona pectin.

4. Bring juice and calcium mixture to a roiling boil, stirring frequently.

5. Add sugar/pectin mix, stirring vigorously to dissolve pectin.

6. Let boil, then turned off heat.At this point, you can skim off the foam that's formed, skim it off in the individual jars, or just leave it in. It is perfectly edible and only jelly snobs should care too much.

7. Use a ladle to fill jars to about 1/4 inch from top. Wipe off any jam sticking to the side of the jars. Pull lid and rings out of hot water (using tongs) and screw on to finger-tight.

8. Put rack in water bath (water is still warm) and put jars on rack. 

filled jars in steamer

9. Put top on, bring to vigorous boil. You want it as hot as possible to sterilize the jars.

10. Start timing 15 min when lots of steam is coming out through the holes in the canner lid. (The instructions say 8 in continuous stream.)

11. Turn off heat and let sit a few minutes before (carefully) opening lid. You should hear a *pop* pop* *pop* as the jars seal within a few minutes.

12. Bring jars (careful! they are hot!) to a towel on the counter and check seals.

I'm not capable of doing anything without wasting time with extra, crafty touches. *sigh*
Jelly making and canning was much easier than I expected. The chemistry and science involved were quite satisfying to my ex-researcher brain. I have since become a little bit obsessed with jelly making and canning. (A good thing, since liliko'i is still falling out of the tree... and now there is guava by the ton!)