Leaf of the Day: The Devil Nut and All Hallows

My very good friend and gardener, Pedro, delights in finding new and exciting things for me to draw and write about. Today he was so pleased to give me this strange and wonderful nut as a Halloween gift. It couldn’t be more apt! This must be the oddest pod I have seen to date.
This is the seed pod of Trapa bicornis, the Black Horn Nut, Bat Nut, Devil Pod, or Buffalo Nut, an aquatic plant native to western Europe, Africa and Asia. As far as I know it doesn’t grow at Leu and in fact is another invasive and unwelcome plant here. It is forbidden to import this plant into Florida as a living species but it is easy to find them in the wonderful Asian supermarkets here, where you can buy them to cook. Somehow it seems even more strange that these odd “nuts” should be edible.

They do have to be cooked to remove the toxins but were a staple food of early civilizations and were eaten in the UK by Neolithoic man. They are also confusingly known as “water chestnuts” but are completely different from the canned variety of water chestnuts much used in Chinese food which are the tubers of Eleocharis dulcis.
The taste is apparently very much like chestnuts. This lovely photograph is from Kiki Rice’s blog where she has a simple recipe for the boiled nuts and some other delicious Vietnamese recipes here

They are toxic if uncooked but they are delicious (edible, of course) when cooked with rice and vegetable. I love to eat them boiled just like roasted chestnut. They taste like chestnut but have more texture. An average nut is about 3 inches long. Cover them in water and some salt, bring to a boil and simmer for 25-30 minutes.

It is a rampant and invasive aquatic plant and there are other Trapa species, one Trapa natans has four stout horns rather than two.

Picture from Invasive Plants of eastern USA site here

This little nut may look sinister but in China, where the plant is known as the Ling nut, the bat is considered lucky because the name “Bat” (Fu) sounds just like the word for happiness (Fu). Bat Nuts are eaten at the lovely mid autumn Moon festival in China where you can see the goddess Chang’e dancing on the moon, eat moon cakes, and sing moon poems and watch the full moon rise in company of friends and family.
It is also considered a lucky talisman to place over the door to keep the devil at bay.
This photo probably gives the most sinister view of this innocent little thing, is the germinating pod with a snaky devils tail growing from the top!

Images from Texas and AM University, vascular images page here

This will be my first USA Halloween. When I was young we marked this evening as All Hallows Eve, more for the “All Souls” aspect of it, remembering the dead rather than tormenting neighbours. Then, we would be much more excited about the imminent arrival of Guy Fawkes night and the promise of the magic of fireworks and sparklers and bonfires. We did occasionally make Soul Cakes though. “Souling.” was a old custom where Soul Cakes” ( a sort of flat current cake with spices, saffron and marked with a cross on the top) , were baked and given to relatives, neighbors or the poor on All Souls’ Day. In return, those who received the cakes would pray for the deceased relatives of the giftor to speed their soul’s passage to heaven.
When we lived in Spain there was a particularly lovely custom in the village of the all souls candlelight procession to the cemetario where the lives of deceased are celebrated with respect, affection and a picnic the following day. Food is left out for the dead, whose souls were expected to return to their former homes on All Souls’ Day. It is a time for family gatherings and memories.

This nut is such a perfectly formed object that drawing it probably doesn’t do anything more for it. It is different on both sides, dark purple brown and if you knew no better you would think it was made of plastic, it even seems to have a seam around it. So today just a couple of sketches .. And anyway I am going to be busy making soul cakes…
On this night of mischief, if I were so inclined, I think I would slip away to the side roads around the lakes here where the elegant houses display their mixture of Obama and MaCain garden signs and swap them all around..

Devil Nut

Leaf of the Day: The Coco Plum, Edible Hedge and Unpopularity Cure

It was just great to get out in the sun today after being cooped up with the plantain. I went to Leu and just wandered around seeing what has changed in the last week. Also, last week Pedro had introduced me to another interesting edible, so today all I really had to do was go and find it again and mooch about. I met Brenda my inspirational plein air painter friend who was making a lovely small oil of a particularly nice path at Leu. I will ask her if I can put it on the blog when she has finished. There were many new things in flower and some more exciting pods and fruits.

My plant today is an edible hedge plant, and if you have to have a hedge what could be nicer than to have an edible one. It’s Chrysobalanus icaco, the coco plum. It is not immediately very prepossessing but the leaves are pretty, round and shiny, and grow in 2 rows along the branch, tilting slightly upwards and the fruits are interesting. There is a slight sweet taste but the surprise is in the beautiful white flesh of this dark plum coloured fruit.
The name has nothing to do with coconuts or cocoa, but is due to some early linguistic confusion. It is also known, unappealingly as “the porkfat apple”.

It is a well known Florida native plant and there are two varieties this one the red tip as above and a more low growing green tip one which has paler pinky fruit and it is more adaptable to coastal regions
The “plums” were another food staple for the Seminole Indians and early settlers, and flavour has been described like a bland banana or peach. I did read somewhere that if I am in a survival situation coco plums will get me by, which is jolly useful to know here in Orlando.
Inside the fruit is a large nut, and inside that is a kernel that is considered a delicacy. Its little sweet smelling flowers are full of honey bee nectar which produced a rich dark honey so, as hedges go, this is sounding very acceptable.

You can see the ripe black fruits and green fruits here.. ignore the attention-seeking red flower that is something else.

Coco plums may be eaten ripe straight from the tree or you can make all sorts of jams candies and preserves from them and it seems they are more delicious cooked or dried.
I had also recently come across the curiously named “fruit leathers.” not, disappointingly, some ultra eco version of Harley Davidson bike gear, but fruit, pureed and mixed with syrups and seasonings, which is spread thinly on a baking sheet, left to dry and rolled up. They look and sound gorgeous and I will definitely try to make some with these beautiful little plums if I can gather enough. I think the colour would be wonderful.
But there are two more really interesting facts about this plant. According to the fascinating book “Florida Ethnobotony” by Daniel F. Austin and P. Narodny Honychurch, the kernels are so rich in oils “they may be strung on sticks and burned like candles, They were the original torches in the regions where they grew.”
Also the coco plum was an ingredient in a very useful Seminole medicine to “remake” a person. “In situations where a person gossips too much or whose presence makes other people no longer want that person around a “cleansing” is needed.”
It’s a complicated ritual involving burning specific woods and crawfish chimney mud, but “if the job is done correctly everyone will like the person better”
I can imagine that this would be a very useful bit of knowledge for some of those involved in the murky world of high finance at the moment, and…. unthinkable, I know…. I may even have to use it on myself one day, so it will be added to my book of spells directly.

Below, ripe coco plum with a bite out, and young still green fruits.

Coco Plum

Leaf of the Day: The Water Plantain, Day 2

There was no avoiding the plantain today so I went out to look for more specimens. Due to heavy rain (add spectacular lightning too) over the last two days, the wretched things are retreating even further off shore but I did get some leaves and one small flower spike which, combined with my earlier sketches, means I can make a start. I also rethought the layout in view of the shape of these new leaves.
I can now give this a real name, thanks to Phillip who runs the Florida chapter of the American Society of Botanical Artists. Link here
He has not only cleared up this mystery, but also provided me with a nice chunk of text for this post…thank you Phillip!

“I did some slight research for you on yesterday’s plant and think that what you are drawing/painting is indeed a Sagittaria species – Sagittaria lancifolia, the “Bulltongue Arrowhead”. At least based on what I can see from your pictures.
Also according to my resources – Alisma species in Florida anyway are now in Echinodorus. Echinodorus seems to have perfect flowers while Sagittaria has male and female flowers separate (on the same stem)females first and then males above. The females have the large round pistil that is so noticeable. Both are in the Alismataceae and otherwise very similar.

He goes on to recommend “A Guide to Florida Wildflowers, by Walter Kingsley Taylor.
and knowing my interest in any odd facts,
“You’ll be interested to know that Taylor’s Florida Wildflowers shows Sagittaria lancifolia as its second entry with the notation that, ‘Seminole Indians used this plant for shock treatment from an alligator bite.’ !! Unless it produces complete numbness I can’t imagine its efficacy!”

Me neither. I was thinking though that I could do with a well trained alligator right now to do “fetch and retrieve” for these off-shore plants. The resident flock of ibis are no help at all and can be bought with neither kind words nor a loaded gun.

Thank you too, to Paul for the “Duck Potato” name which seems to be applied to various species and takes its picturesque name from the “edible” tubers..although ducks don’t often seem to eat them. They were once an important food source for the local Indian peoples.
These tubers can be eaten raw or cooked for 15 to 20 minutes. The taste is similar to potatoes and chestnuts, and they can be prepared in the same fashions: roasting, frying, boiling, and so on. They can also be sliced and dried to prepare a flour.
Other edible parts include late summer
buds and fruits.
Another plant for my “garden edibles” list.

I made a drawing of the leaves to the right size and a first rough draft of the flower spike followed by another more detailed one. This is such slow work !! These will form the basis of the finished work. It’s a more complicated task because no one stem is nice enough to work from excusively, so I am having to make an amalgam of several bits and pieces, taking care not to create a completely new monster species. Sagittaria pato v. valerii. The bad person in me would like to put this name on the final piece for submission…

Water Plantain Sketches

Leaf of the Day: Sample and Sniff in the Gardens and the Heliconia again

Blogs have their limitations don’t they? There are some things about my experiences in the garden that I just can’t share with you. The heady scents for one. Today it was the gorgeous White Champaca, the exquisite Chinese Perfume bush, and the Gingers. Crush the leaves of any of the Bay Rum trees between your finger and you will have a peppery nose clearing thrill. There are Camphor trees, the narcotic Angels Trumpets, fragrant Camelias and Frangipanis, Roses and the lovely Sweet Osmanthus. I have found a Star Anise tree whose little pods are still green at the moment and you can scratch, sniff and sample your way round the herb garden, with the Parsley, the Thymes, the Arugula and the amazingly sweet Sweetleaf herb which I had never seen before.
It may raise the odd eyebrow as you are casually grazing on the plants but those who don’t are missing some interesting experiences. You have to go about this with caution though. As I have said before there are probably more things in the garden that will kill you than cure you. But today, furthering my unofficial research for the possible “Eat you way round the Garden” guide for Leu and with Pedro’s expert help I sampled a few more “edibles”. I tried the tiny Strawberry Guava Psidium cattleianum and the Natal plum Carissa macrocarpa. You have to be careful with the Strawberry Guava as the very red and tempting ones often contain little worms as demonstrated somewhat gleefully by Pedro..I was not quite so keen after that, but they do taste good. The Natal Plum was Ok, slightly bitter but a beautiful deep red colour inside. I have brought back a green regular guava which I hope will ripen at home and is currently scenting the whole house..just wonderful.
My work today was interrupted by an exciting 4 hour loss of power due to the failure of the transformer which sits outside our apartment. Three large trucks and six large men arrived to replace it encouraged by all the locals who, not having any television to watch, re-lived the old days of community spirit. However I did manage to finish the heliconia, which I had just sketched before. It’s a bigger piece than usual 20 inches across, and has been sitting on a drawing board half done for over a week. I had to complete it without the plant, which is not at all ideal but it had finally given up the ghost in the fridge. This was another experiment with a different paper (this time NOT surface), because next week I have to start 7 coloured flower heads…as always there are some good and some not so good aspects to it .. but it’s all about practice.


Heliconia Clinophila