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Growing tropical

Turn your summer into a tropical food source by growing Chinese winter melon to pigeon peas to yams.

One of life's great pleasures is harvesting the heart of an evening meal from the garden. To have nurtured the soil, planted the seeds and, a few months later, to sink our teeth into a vine-ripened, pesticide-free tomato or plump head of broccoli is satisfying to the soul.

For many of us here in central Florida, a bountiful winter veggie garden is a given, a key feature of our landscape. Those winter crops prefer cool weather and once were spring crops for those of us who lived up north. Plant them in spring here, and we'll watch them quickly succumb to the heat and humidity and bugs and fungi.

Still many fertile gardens needlessly lie dormant all summer and early fall as we wait for the return of cooler weather. Summer is the only time we can grow a great many heat-loving tropical food crops that thrive in sauna-like conditions, exotic crops rarely seen in the produce market.

Thanks to a nationwide explosion of interest in home gardening, these formerly rare seeds can now be gotten by mail order, on-line, by dialing a toll-free number or even on familiar seed racks at nurseries.

A wide variety of tropical food crops from Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America are sensitive to cool weather but groove on humid heat. Okra, eggplant and black-eyed peas, all African crops, are widely known as summer crops and have been staples in southern gardens for 200 years. Like the others in the following list, they want full sun; fertile, humusy, damp soil that is not too acid or sweet; and plenty of moisture.

Many need room. They can get huge in good conditions, blessing your table with a bounty of fresh produce right up to the return of the cool season.

Winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonus). Crunchy underground tubers, crisp bean pods, young leaves delicious raw or cooked, raw flowers so full of nectar they are eaten as candy in South America. Aggressive vine to beautify fences and trellises.

Taro (Colocasia esculenta). Related to the elephant ear plant, taro produces tubers that can be fried, steamed or boiled about 18 months after planting. The Hawaiian dish "poi" is made from these tubers, which can be purchased at some Asian grocery stores, then planted.

Malabar spinach (Basellaceae). The vine bears leaves that rival spinach in flavor.

Chinese winter melon (Benincasa hispada). This staple of Chinese cuisine is covered with a natural wax, keeps for months and tastes like a very mild summer squash.

Calabaza (Cucurbita moschata). Also called Cuban pumpkin, the flavorful orange-fleshed pumpkins taste much like sweet potato. Roast the seeds with salt for snacks, snip the fresh blooms for edible colorful garnishes, and slice the young, unfolding leaves into stir-fry and casseroles.

Hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab). This beautiful vine bears sweet pea-like lavender blossoms clusters used in the floral trade. They mature into purplish red bean pods delicious if steamed with butter and sea salt. Thought of as a flower in the United States, so look for the seeds on flower seed racks.

Pigeon peas (Cajanus cajun). This 6-foot to 8-foot-tall legume can be used as a hedge in edible landscaping, with yellow flowers adding to the charm. Tender young leaves may be cooked as can the young pods like snow peas. Mature pods yield the familiar dried pigeon peas (also called Gandule Beans) seen in ethnic food aisles and which can be planted straight from the cellophane bag to grow your first crop.

Yard-long bean (Vigna sesquipedalis). Related to black-eyed peas and just as easy to grow. Pods best when 12 inches kong but can grow to 3 feet long. Long used in Chinese cuisine, its young leaves may be added to stir-fry.

Cucuzzi, or cucusa (Lagenaria longissima). Rampant vines bear elongated edible gourds with flesh like a firm, nutty zucchini. They can get as long as baseball bats but are best harvested when tender, at 20 inches long.

Chayote (Sechium edule). Also called Mirliton, this ancient Central American crop will vine way up a pine tree and drop pear-sized "squashes" in the fall. Slice the crunchy fruit, including the big edible seed in the center, and serve raw with lime juice or steamed. Young leaves make a fine cooked "green." Buy one at the produce market and plant it.

Yams (Dioscorea species). Sweet potatoes are mistakenly called yams. (They, too, are tropical vines, and their leaves are a traditional Chinese vegetable, but they are actually edible morning glories.) Yams are altogether different, generally bearing big underground tubers with white orpale yellow flesh. Buy true yams from Asian grocers and plant them; the vines will quickly cover a trellis. Don't eat the leaves.

Cherry tomatoes generally are far more heat tolerant than the large fruited types typically grown in winter and protected from frosts. The leaves are somewhat toxic.

Hot peppers (Scotch Bonnet, bird, Tabasco and others). Hailing from South America, they are frequently perennial if spared frosts. Buy ripe peppers from the produce market and extract the seeds for planting, but do not touch your eyes till you have scrubbed your hands well. The hot oils are persistent. The leaves are inedible.

SOURCES: Thompson and Morgan, free catalog, telephone (800) 274-7333; Stokes Tropicals, (800) 624-9706, www.stokestropicals.com; SeedMan, (800) 336-2064, www.seedman.com; Southern Seeds, catalog $2 from P.O. Box 803, Lutz, FL 33548

A bay area source for Octagon soap is DEI Services, 5423 Jet View Circle, Tampa, FL 33634; telephone (813) 889-8889.

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