Growing coriander in Townsville

Herbs are rewarding to grow in our backyard gardens because they are best when fresh, are used frequently and are only needed in small quantities. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to be self-sufficient in basil, parsley (except in the wet season), rosemary, lemongrass (we have enough to give away – just ask!) and so on. Coriander, however, has been a problem: in our climate, it “bolts” – that is, goes very rapidly to seed and then dies. That’s doubly frustrating because it is an essential flavour in Asian cooking and, when bought by the bunch, it doesn’t keep well.

whte flowers and feathery leaves
Flowers and top foliage of Coriander

Just to be clear, this is the ordinary Coriander I’m talking about (from wikipedia):

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), also known as cilantro, Chinese parsley or dhania, is an annual herb in the family Apiaceae. Coriander is native to regions spanning from southern Europe and North Africa to southwestern Asia. It is a soft plant growing to 50 cm (20 in) tall. The leaves are variable in shape, broadly lobed at the base of the plant, and slender and feathery higher on the flowering stems.
Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, also deriving from coriandrum. It is the common term in North America for coriander leaves, due to their extensive use in Mexican cuisine.

thistle-like plant
Sawtooth Coriander with flower stalk

A few months ago we found an alternative, which we bought in a pot labelled “Sawtooth Coriander (Eryngium foetidum)” and planted out in the garden. Its appearance doesn’t suggest any relationship with coriander but crushing a leaf puts the connection beyond doubt: the aroma is exactly the same. The common names recognise the connection, too: Sawtooth Coriander,  Thai Coriander, Pointed Cilantro or  Thorny Coriander. The only tricky one is “Culantro”, just one letter away from “Cilantro”.

Botanically they are both in the family Apiaceae (which I guess is how they came to share the genes for these particular aromatic oils) but not in the same  genus. Wikipedia says:

E. foetidum is widely used in seasoning and marinating in the Caribbean, particularly in Panama, Puerto Rico … and in Peru’s Amazon regions. It is also used extensively in Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and other parts of Asia as a culinary herb. It dries well, retaining good color and flavor, making it valuable in the dried herb industry. It is sometimes used as a substitute for cilantro (coriander in British English), but it has a much stronger taste.

A couple of weeks ago our plant put up a flower stalk, seen in the photo above, making it even more thistle-like than it had been. The flowers are like minuscule pineapples nestled in rosettes of extremely spiky leaves:

green flower
Sawtooth Coriander flower

The cultivation notes that came with our pot said “remove flower stalks when forming” and we did remove them once we realised what they were. The notes also gave another common name for the herb: Perennial Coriander. So far, so good!

spiky flowers
Sawtooth Coriander – “flower spike” acquires a new meaning

Just for completeness, there is also a third herb which is sometimes known as coriander. As far as I know I have never seen it here in Townsville and it might not be called coriander here anyway. Here’s wikipedia’s description:

Persicaria odorata, the Vietnamese coriander, is a herb whose leaves are used in Southeast Asian cooking. Other English names for the herb include Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese cilantro, Cambodian mint and hot mint. The Vietnamese name is rau ram, while in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore it is called daun kesum or daun laksa (laksa leaf).

It’s in a different family (buckwheat or knotweed family) and looks quite different from either of the other two – more like a grass – as you will see if you click on the wikipedia link.

Sweet potatoes

sweet potato tuber
Home-grown sweet potato

We have always had a few food plants in our garden and have very gradually been moving towards growing more.

sweet potato foliage
Lots of foliage

The list at the moment includes tomatoes, at least half a dozen herbs, chillies (the same old bush is still producing), bananas (two varieties with another one promised), jaboticaba (if a handful of fruit every year or two can be counted) and the macadamias and mangoes which were already established when we bought the house.

Sweet potatoes keep better on the bench than in the fridge but early this year we left some there a bit longer than usual and they began to shoot.

Why not plant them? No reason at all, so they went into a styrofoam box full of soil and compost, the box went against the pool fence, and we waited.

Then waited some more, because Leonie Norrington (in Tropical Food Gardens) is adamant that they take four months to mature.

sweet potato foliage
Close-up of foliage

Eventually we decided that it must have been four months since we planted them, and dug them up. The good news was that we had succeeded in growing sweet potatoes. The not-so-good news was that the tubers were not very big at all – click on the top photo to see just how big that one is.

Why were they so small? I don’t think the box was big enough. The roots had formed quite a dense mat throughout the soil and I think they would have gone much further if they had had the chance. It’s also possible that they wanted more water than they got.

But we knew that the basic idea was sound enough and started looking for a better spot to grow more. Yesterday I planted out another few chunks of sprouting tuber against the fence under the bananas in ground which the scrub turkey had unwittingly helped me to clear and level. We’ll see how they go.

Custard Apples

lumpy geen fruit in foliage
Custard apples on our tree. The odd-looking pale thing at lower right is a flower.

I mentioned custard apples recently in my post about the Mangosteen and now it’s time to feature them.

We planted a few exotic fruit trees 10 – 15 years ago, not with any great ambitions of producing much of our own food but more for the interest in seeing how they went. Mostly, I have to say, the trees have been more decorative than useful. Often they don’t produce at all and when they do, the possums often get to the fruit long before we think it is ripe enough to pick. This year, though, the custard apple tree looked promising: when I took this photo a month ago, there were at least half a dozen healthy-looking fist-sized fruit. They were quite hard, however, so we still had to wait and watch.

Yesterday I looked at one of them and saw the bumps had separated, showing yellow between them. That’s the sign of ripeness, so I squeezed it – and it was so soft it almost collapsed in my hand. I picked it at once and it turned out to be a little over-ripe but still delicious. It may not have been the first we’ve ever had from the tree but it was certainly the first for some years – as I’ve said, the bananas provide more fruit than all the rest of our garden put together.

“Custard apple” is a name which is used quite loosely in our area to refer to a group of related species, all apparently native to South and Central America. A bit of research suggests our tree is more correctly called a “sugar apple” – that it is an Annona squamosa rather than the custard apple proper (Annona reticulata), cherimoya (Annona cherimola)  or an atemoya (a cross of A. squamosa and A. cherimola).

The Soursop (Annona muricata) is another member of the family but is the odd one out in terms of its fruit – no-one would ever call it a custard apple!

The in-line links above all take you to wikipedia pages.

Update, October 2015: I recommended The Australian Tropical Fruits Portal Custard Apple page when I wrote my article but it seems to have vanished. The Archives of the Rare Fruit Council of Australia may be a useful alternative.

Monstera deliciosa

Monstera deliciosa plant growing along the edge of our lawn.
Monstera deliciosa plant growing along the edge of our lawn.

Monstera deliciosa is commonly grown in northern Australia as an ornamental creeper, and it is great in that role: the huge leaves are dramatic in their sculpted form and the whole plant will grow for many metres up a tree or along the ground. It is a member of the Araceae family which includes the Arum lily. The flower is impressively large and its similarity to arum lilies is very obvious once the relationship is considered.

white lily-like flower and tall green bud
Monstera flower, showing the white hood, with a large bud (almost ready to open) just in front of it

But the species name ‘deliciosa’ means ‘delicious’  and the fruit is, in fact edible. Wikipedia describes it concisely as, ‘up to 25 cm long and 3–4 cm diameter, looking like a green ear of maize covered with hexagonal scales.’ (I reckon ours grow beyond 30cm but, hey, this is Queensland.) It also notes – and this is an important warning – that, ‘the unripe green fruits can irritate the throat and the latex of the leaves and vines can create rashes in the skin, because both contain potassium oxalate.’

The fruit takes a very long time, perhaps as long as a year, to mature and is ripe when the hexagonal plates fall off. That happens slowly, from the base of the fruit upwards, and the fruit may be eaten in stages for this reason. We picked some fruit recently after (frankly) not bothering for years:

monstera fruit
Monstera fruit on my now-standard chopping board – an almost-ripe whole fruit and ripe cut fruit with a few fallen scales.

The flavour and texture were quite pleasant in a banana-pineapple kind of way but a bit ‘grippy’ on the tongue, and it is a bit fiddly to eat; those facts, in conjunction with the long wait for each fruit to ripen, probably explain why we haven’t bothered harvesting them for so long. A friend told us that local people used them in jellies so we tried that, too; it was pleasant enough and suggests that fruit segments would go well in fruit salad.

After all that, would I ever grow the plant just for the fruit? No, but but I will keep on growing it as an ornamental and if I spot another ripe fruit I will pick it.

If you want to investigate further, the NSW Agriculture Agfacts brochure gives such a great summary of its growth, and how to treat the fruit, that I suggest you download their pdf. This blog post is also right on target, describing when and why not to eat it as well as what it tastes like. Boston Food and Whine (that’s not a typo!) was even more challenged by it; their post doesn’t add much but is quite entertaining.

Finally, close-up photos of the developing flower. As usual, click on them for larger versions.

white monstera flower close-up
A recently-opened flower, with tiny flies and (out of focus in the lower right) a native bee (sweat bee)
monstera flower growing green and tiles separating
The lower part of an older monstera flower showing the separation of the hexagonal ’tiles’. The hood dries up and falls off as the fruit begins to mature.


Red bananas

red bananas on cutting board
Red bananas, almost ripe

Another trip to Cotters’ Market, another banana variety – red bananas, this time, not monkey bananas, and just a hand to try, not another young plant to grow next to my sugar bananas. These red bananas are eating bananas, not cooking bananas. I had never been quite sure; I thought they might have been plantains, which are used quite differently and deserve a post to themselves some day.

They turned out to be very similar in texture and flavour to the monkey bananas, with very soft, smooth, sweet and slightly aromatic flesh. They seem to be sharing the monkey bananas’ tendency to go from under-ripe to over-ripe very quickly, but perhaps I should have started eating them earlier. They are about the same size as our sugar bananas, i.e. a bit shorter and straighter than the regular (I didn’t quite say ‘boring’) Cavendish.

The excellent Wikipedia article on them tells us that their official name is Musa acuminata (AAA Group) ‘Red Dacca’ and lists twenty or thirty ‘common’ names for them from every continent except Antarctica; I don’t think I need to reproduce them all here.

More kinds of bananas

small bananas with a teaspoon and coffee mug
Monkey bananas with a teaspoon and coffee mug

We have visited Cotters’ Market a few times in the last month and have been enjoying ‘monkey bananas’, always on sale there but rarely in shops, in consequence. As you can see from the photo, they look much like miniature Cavendish bananas (they are shorter and much slimmer than our sugar bananas, featured here with the same teaspoon and coffee mug). They don’t last so well, going from green to black in only three or four days, but they are good to eat while fresh, sweet and slightly acid with a smooth texture – although one is rarely enough.

Names of banana varieties are often problematic but I think I have this one worked out: its official name is Musa acuminata (AA Group) ‘Lady Finger’ and is a ‘Monkey Banana’ here but a ‘Lady Finger’ or ‘Sucrier’ elsewhere, a ‘Golden Banana’ (pisang mas) in Malaysia and an ‘Egg Banana’ in Thailand and Cambodia (kluai khai or chek pong moan respectively) (Sources: wikipedia ‘Lady Finger Banana‘ and this big list from Melbourne University, plus forums)

I don’t know whether I will ever grown them, since it appears that only a few varieties may be sold as plants and the monkey banana is not on the list. On the other hand, I now have a young Pisang Ceylan plant, a thoughtful Christmas gift bought from the Blue Sky stall at Cotters’. It is growing well in a pot and ready to be planted out once the wet season has come and gone and the new plant won’t be washed away before it establishes itself. Its first fruit may arrive in time for next Christmas.

More bananas

When I was writing about our home-grown bananas six months ago I wanted to include a photo of the most impressive bunch of bananas I have ever seen, but I could not find it. This week I cut down the first bunch of our own bananas since round about then, which reminded of my omission. Here is the photo at last:

monster bunch of tiny bananas
An enormous bunch of small bananas in the gardens of the Cambodian royal palace, Phnom Penh.

As you can see, the plant – obviously very well fed, but nearly dead by the time I saw it – kept on producing bananas until the flower touched the ground. It is a small variety to begin with but the fruit got smaller still as the bunch got longer; the lowest are only about the size of my little finger and, I would think, completely inedible. Still, it is an amazing achievement for such a small plant.

I have tried to learn more about banana varieties but have not had much success, mainly because their classification and naming is such a mess. In brief, there are about 1000 varieties, most of them known to be hybrids of two wild species but some (the Fe’i varieties) of uncertain origin; and many of the varieties have different names in the different countries they are grown in. The Wikipedia Banana article is the best online resource I have found. A monograph by Daniells, Illustrated Guide to the Identification of Banana Varieties in the South Pacific, published by The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) is good but the only version of it that I can find (the pdf here) lacks the photographs listed in the index.

I doubt that more knowledge will make much difference to me in practical terms, anyway, since I know what variety I already have and will simply plant whatever other varieties I can obtain locally.