I was introduced to this “potato that grows above the ground” on an organic farm tour in Dominica. It was one of the plants we were most excited about, but because we only got the Patois name (and it turns out I heard that wrong, too), were never able to identify it. Davin and I spent hours searching various spellings, and even guessed at what it could be (a yam) with no luck.
And then just like that Davin found it! Dioscorea bulbifera, aka “air potato” is an African yam (of course) that produces potato-like bulbils along the vining stems. There’s quite a bit of controversy around the plant because not all varieties are considered edible. Many uncultivated forms are very bitter if not poisonous, and there is some debate about how to prepare it to make it safe.
The plant is currently considered an invasive threat in warmer parts of the United States. It’s a very fast-growing vine that can grow up high into large trees and disperse itself easily via the bulbils.
For all of these reasons, the air potato is one weird edible that I would advise against growing.
It’s mid-September (let’s pretend I did not say that out loud), and the glorious Morelle de Balbis plant is bearing ripe fruit. This process began a few weeks ago but I withheld my judgement until several were ready for picking.
I’ve had several opportunities to try them now and can report that the taste is, in a word, insipid. I read several descriptions shortly after purchasing the seeds and the fruit I am picking from our yardshare garden does not meet some of the more flattering accounts. They do have a slight citrus note, but watermelon and cherries… Please. Either my palette is unrefined or others’ are overambitious. Mind you I am basing my entire assessment on a single plant grown in a rather wet year, but still.
The texture of the fruit is very similar to a tomatillo or ground cherry. I suspect that cooking might be in order for the remaining harvest. If I can manage to harvest it all. Those spikes are deadly. Like a tomatillo, the husks pull back from the soft part of the fruit as they mature. This leaves a little bit of room to manage them but not much. Davin was unable to pick even one the other day without spearing his fingers on those spines. He claims they are poisoned in some way and that the ensuing welt was bigger and more painful than it should have been for a spine of that size. This is one crop I’d happily leave to the critters, but I doubt they’ll be bothered when there are still so many passive foodstuffs left to steal.
So let’s tally up the score. Litchi tomato is a hostile and belligerent plant that threatens personal injury at every turn and produces tasteless fruit that is damned near impossible to harvest.
Will I grow it again? YES!
Regardless of the outcome I’m glad I tried this plant and will definitely grow it again, especially when I’ve got more space. The flowers are gorgeous and have attracted an abundance of pollinators to the garden. Watching it’s progress has been a delightful experiment and a good start to my explorations in Solanum Family oddities. In the future I will grow it for show only without the expectation of a useful food crop at the end of the season.
Blackberries and greenberries aka Morelle verte (Solanum opacum)
The harvest is so bountiful this year. It’s no surprise really, considering the weather we’ve had. Dry and hot, then wet, followed again by heat. The plants love it. I collected enough herbs from our community garden plot yesterday to cover the kitchen floor. Literally. I then spent hours preparing it all to preserve by varying methods. Let’s just say, we’re not going to be short on herbs this winter.
If you’re looking for a way to use up some of those baseball bat-sized zucchinis, I highly recommend this zucchini bread recipe from Heidi of 101 Cookbooks. It is a revelation. We’ve made it several times, altering the optional ingredients, and it comes out perfect and incredibly delicious every single time. I will never use another zucchini bread recipe again. Go make some now. You will not regret it.
I made this last batch using a giant roll of cinnamon I brought back from Dominica. Look at the size of it against a typical supermarket piece! In fact, the small, locally purchased piece is probably not cinnamon, but cassia, a cinnamon substitute more commonly found in North American supermarkets. Grinding that big piece of cinnamon was very satisfying, the smell so wonderfully sweet and aromatic. I love that every time I use this spice — which judging by the size of it will be for a very long time — I will be taken back to our trip.
What are you making with your bounty?
Earlier this year I discovered that the fruit from the Kousa Dogwood tree (Cornus kousa) are edible and I’ve been waiting until the end of summer to get a taste.
The first fruit on my friend Barry’s tree are starting to ripen and I managed, over the weekend, to collect a few from out of the clutches of the neighborhood squirrels. The fruit are ripe and optimal eating when they turn from green to bright red, and from hard to squishy. You should be able to squish the orange fruit from the centre easily. That happens to be just how I ate my bounty. The skin is unpleasant tasting. It looks like a lychee, with the texture of some of my favourite tropicals, sugar apple and sour sop. The insides are bright orange and soft, with a couple of hard pits. It tastes like papaya.
I’ve read that there is a lot of variation between trees and varieties, so if you have the chance, I’d suggest trying fruit from a sampling of trees. The fruit I ate are small but tasty. They are from a landscape tree that is bred for the flowers, not the fruit. But there are varieties with much larger fruit that are worth searching out if you’re looking for more than a light snack.
- Paw Paw (Asimina triloba): A local and unusual tree fruit that is also coming into season.
- Search this site by the tag, Weird Edibles to find out about other unusual vegetables, herbs, and fruit to grow or forage.
Back in June I wrote in my Globe & Mail column about growing beans. Within the piece I mentioned a favorite pole variety ‘Trionfo Violetto.’ It’s been years since I have grown this particular variety and now that the plants are in full swing and producing a little crop of beans daily, I can’t understand why I had set it aside and turned to other, inferior varieties for so long.
First are the dark, pinky-purple flowers depicted in the photo, above. And the way they are set off against the green foliage with a hint of burgundy that almost seems to be applied with a water-color brush.
All of this accented against slender, dark stems, and long, thin, purple beans that are delicious fresh off the vine. I can buy all manner of green beans at my local Farmers’ Market, but the French fillet-style beans are less popular and cost a small fortune.
Stunning, prolific, and delicious. Next year I will double my planting efforts and stop trying with other less interesting varieties.