Friday, January 30, 2015

Bebida de Pennywort

Feeling adventurous in an Asian market the other day, I decided that I would buy one thing completely foreign to me and give it a try. Having adopted a vegetarian diet about a decade ago made my choices a bit easier. I passed by the stacks of fish sauce, ogled at the  gruesome display of pork uteri, pork bungs (slang for rectum) and other assorted animal parts, and wondered about what it took to harvest the creatures now filling freezers packed with squid rings and frog legs.

Overcome with thirst, I contemplated choices in the canned drink display: Mangosteen or white fungus drink? Coconut or guava? The latter two have long been adopted into the standard line of American refreshments, so I reached for a cheerfully illustrated can of Pennywort Drink, aka Nuac Rau Ma in Vietnamese. Back home, I poured the beverage into a wine glass, held it up to the light, whiffed and swished. This brand looked and smelled a lot like bong water to me. Having never actually drank bong water, I cannot compare the taste, but it was sickeningly sweet. Sugar, it seems, was the main ingredient.

However, I was intrigued to learn that Pennywort (Centella asiatica) is more commonly offered as a medicinal herb in the U.S., usually referred to as Gotu Kola.  Gotu kola is a Hindi name for the herb, a common ingredient in memory enhancing tonics and pills. In the Indian tradition of Ayurvedic medicine, Gotu Kola is revered as a spiritually beneficial plant, aiding in meditation and therefore attainment of enlightened states of mind. As with many herbal remedies, the curative powers of Gotu Kola are legendary, used to treat everything from wounds to male impotence, as well as neurological disorders.

The plant grows wild in wetlands and is especially common in sewage ditches throughout southeast Asia. This does nothing to calm my mind, knowing that toilet facilities are often coincident with roadside ditches in Asia, so after a few delicate sips, I tossed the brew. Next time, I'll go for the mangosteen juice.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Yum Approach

“There are only two mantras, yum and yuck; mine is yum.”                                                                -Tom Robbins

On a visit to the Seattle area back in August, we were fortunate to arrive in the middle of peak blackberry season. We took the "yum approach" to dealing with the thorny hedges that armor every roadside around Puget Sound, stopping to feast on fruit and gather enough to bake a pie. As we munched, it was easy to imagine the edenic world based on the virtues of berries and briars advocated by Bernard Mickey Wrangle in Tom Robbins' treatise to Rubus armeniacus in "Still Life With Woodpecker." Plenty of food to feed the masses and brew sweet wine; shelter from the elements provided by arches of sturdy stems and broad leaves; elegant dusky-hued light filtering through the bowers; blackberries for biofuel; a natural thorny defense system.  Although the plant is considered a "yucky" noxious invasive weed in the region, even vegetation management agencies have surrendered to these vigorous vines, and no longer require landowners to exercise any attempt to control them. 

Plants like these make me think that perhaps the species we label as pests are the ones we need the most. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

24 Carats

Weighing about 200 milligrams each, the seeds of a Carob Tree (Ceratonia siliqua) have been used as a unit of mass for hundreds of years, and also became an expression of purity for certain mineral alloys.  Today we use finer measures for gems and minerals, but no jewel could have been more precious than the tree that bore these seeds. Providing shade, lumber, food and fodder, a single carob tree would have been a valuable asset in anyone's territory, especially if it was a female tree.  Carobs are "dioecious," meaning that an individual is either a pollen-bearing "male" or a seedpod-bearing "female."
A large Carob tree in central Phoenix

Carobs were imported from the Mediterranean region as ornamental trees and are common in older neighborhoods of the Phoenix metro area. They bloom during the winter months here, producing long (4-6") catkins with small green "female" flowers that look like tiny elephant trunks. Male flowers are star-shaped with five simple stamens. Both kinds of flowers release a slightly putrid aroma that serves to attract pollinators. In order to produce seedpods, pollinators need to navigate from a male tree to a female tree with a full load of pollen.
Carob pod, female catkin & male catkin

Another name for carob is "locust," a common term for many kinds of trees in the bean family. It was the seed pods of the locust tree, not insects, that are referred to in the Bible as a source of food, also known as St. John's bread:
"….and his meat was locusts and wild honey." Matthew 3:4
"And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate…" Luke 15:16

The pods are the source for sweet edible flour that has been concocted into products marketed as a chocolate substitute. But any discerning chocolate gourmand knows that these efforts generally result in nothing resembling chocolate except in color, and is best left to swine.
Carob leaves and catkins

Friday, January 9, 2015

A is for Asphodel

"Others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel."
-from The Lotos-Eaters by Lord Alfred Tennyson

While botanizing at the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve recently, we spotted a strange plant thriving in a shallow muddy basin near the Apache Wash trailhead. About two feet tall and sporting dozens of tiny white, bell-shaped flowers and a rosette of long, thin leaves, it was unlike any I'd seen in this desert before. 
A single specimen of Onion Weed mingles with Sahara Mustard,
Filaree and Globe Mallow in a shallow mud pit.

Long thin leaves of Onion Weed are hollow and slightly succulent.
After a lot of wandering around in plant keys, ranging from the tome of Arizona Flora to local garden center websites, we finally pinpointed this lovely member of the Aloe Family (Xanthorrhoeaceae) as Onion Weed (Asphodelus fistulosus).  This species is a cousin to more than a dozen species of Asphodel, all of which are native to the Mediterranean region.  Onion weed only superficially resembles true onions, and doesn't have an onion smell at all, lacking any noticeable fragrance. The rosette of long, smooth, hollow leaves does remind of onions, garlic, leeks and their relations though, which differ most distinctively in having a globe-shaped flowering head. The family includes many popular ornamental species such as Bulbine and Haworthia, as well as the Aloes. Unfortunately, this species has been dubbed a noxious weed on several continents, including North America and Australia, because it rapidly colonizes disturbed ground and is not palatable to livestock. Large roadside populations are common in southeastern Arizona.

How it got here, far from any other known population, is anybody's guess. Did it arrive on duck feet after monsoon rains created puddles in the desert? Or did it come on the treads of heavy equipment that was used to help transform this patch of desert into a parking lot? Perhaps a sentimental gardener tossed a few seeds by the roadside to see if they would grow. 

However they arrived, the plant has many intriguing ethnobotanical associations. White Asphodel (Asphodelus albus), which is a jumbo version of Onion Weed (growing to about twice times its size with larger (1.5" diam.) flowers), is a legendary plant in Homer's Odyssey and earlier Greek and Egyptian mythologies. Asphodel Meadows represent the ethereal world of the afterlife. Depending on which story you are attracted to, they are the heavenly home, or Elysian fields, of heroes and goddesses, an eternal Eden for ordinary folk, or the fate of unfortunate souls held in limbo at the gateway to the underworld.  

Asphodel plants also serve numerous uses for mortals: leaves and stalks are used to build huts by nomadic tribal people, the Tauregs, in North Africa; edible buds and roots are savored throughout the Meditteranean region; leaves are used for basketry and cheese making in Italy; abundant nectar is transformed by bees into a prized delicate honey. Asphodel also made it into the annals of Harry Potter as an ingredient in a powerful sleeping potion called Drought of Living Death. 

Whether you are fascinated by plant systematics, Greek legend or the intriguing transformations in plant geography wrought by inter-continental trade, Asphodel has something to offer. If nothing else, it's a pleasure to behold and just might become part of your personal paradise.