Friday, 22 February 2013

Why Buy a Bayabang?

To which my witty retort would be - why not? Bayabang is a fern, Nephrolepis cordifolia, which has been on my wish list for decades. Also known as the tuber ladder fern, or sword fern, it is a relative rarity - a fern with edible tubers. The plant itself isn't rare, being found in a broad swathe of the tropics and subtropics from Hawaii and the Philippines to India and Nepal. It's a close relative of that well-known houseplant, the Boston fern (N. exaltata); where the climate is suitable, like Florida, it can become established outside its native haunts and be quite invasive. It's described by the RHS as half-hardy, so it might pull through a mild winter here in Cornwall. I like the name bayabang, which originates in the Philippines; other names include kupukupu (Hawaii) and pani amla (Nepal).

My recent interest in bayabang was rekindled when the paucity of quality television viewing led me to flick through one of my old notebooks from sometime in the last decade of the 20th century. My gaze fell on the page where I had scrawled N. cordifolia. In those distant pre-internet days, I had been unable to locate a plant, but I was pretty sure things would have improved in the brave new world of electronic communication. The same cannot be said of my handwriting, which, I'm sorry to report, has remained unchanged.

I hurried away to the interwebs to secure the biggest bayabang for my bucks. My first attempt failed, as eBay's hive mind seemed to think that "Sword Fern" showed I was a maladjusted loner with a penchant for plunging offensive weapons into innocent people; the transaction was denied. I suppose someone could be whipped to death with a frond, or crushed by a falling tree fern, but I doubt that Nephrolepis really constitutes much of a threat to the public. In fact, bayabang has a long history of use as a folk medicine and has many beneficial properties.

The value of its tubers has been investigated by researchers at Kathmandu University. They concluded that they are a rich source of carbohydrates and calcium. Seeing as they are a favourite snack of children, this is obviously a good thing. With bayabang, the portions are conveniently child-sized, with the tubers resembling small, scaly grapes. Perhaps tuberlets might be more appropriate a name. They're designed to help the fern survive periodic desiccation - N. cordifolia being frequently epiphytic or even epilithic.

I confess that I am a little chary of fern consumption. Bracken has a long tradition of being eaten, both its young unfurled fronds as well as the sinuous, starchy rhizomes.  I've never managed to extract the rhizomes in anything like sufficient quantities to justify cooking and eating them. The ground has always been far too rocky and unforgiving. As for the fronds - the dread word ptaquiloside rings in my ears, not just for its impenetrable pronunciation, but its fearsome reputation as a carcinogen; its presence has apparently been linked to higher incidences of stomach and oesophageal cancers in bracken-eating populations.

My bayabang plants duly arrived. On opening the box, I was assailed by that strange ferny odour that reminded me of the summer afternoons of childhood, whooping and charging through towering bracken stands. The sun did seem to shine a lot back then and ticks and Lyme disease were seemingly unknown. Happy days.

I potted up the offsets and I'm hoping that the little croziers unwind and ferny foliage fills the house before too long. Come the summer (soon, please!) I will try them outside.

As I manipulated the root sytems into their pots, I couldn't resist plucking one of those shaggy little grapes and trying it. It was crunchy, sweet and tasted distinctly brackeny. If not exactly epicurean in quality, I can see how kids might rehydrate themselves by devouring them as they tear through the forest. Trust me, I've tasted a lot worse in the world of edible roots, I really have.   

And as everyone knows (I hope!) ferns reproduce sexually by means of spores, which they produce in vast quantities. It wouldn't be too difficult to select for a fern with outsize tubers - there are already several horticultural varieties of N. cordifolia available commercially, suggesting that new forms appear quite readily. With such plants, the Radix project can spread indoors, onto the windowsills, into the bathroom and beyond. When the plants get too big, I'll knock them out of their pots and divide them, not forgetting to eat the tubers as I go.

Terms such as "edimental" are now all the rage - so I have no compunction in coining my own: pteridedible - a fern fit for food. I shall look forward to growing and harvesting my bayabang and exploring other edible ferns, of which there are a surprising number. And maybe I'll head out to the woods one day, crowbar in hand and have a go at harvesting some bracken rhizomes.

In a coincidence reminiscent of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace's independent work on evolutionary theory, as I was researching this post, I came across this article on N. cordifolia on the Eat The Weeds website. It predates mine by several years, so it's far too late for a joint publication like Messrs. Darwin and Wallace's 1858 classic. I suggest you head over there and read what Green Deane has to say. You even get a video.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Many Roots to Bedroom Bliss - Part One

It's Valentine's Day; in my youth this was an occasion on which tokens of affection were given to one's beloved - flowers and a card, perhaps. Nowadays the store windows seem to focus more on sexy lingerie and erotic fiction. Attitudes towards love and sex change over time and this may merely be a return to a more overt and honest celebration of an important aspect of human existence before the prudery of the Victorian era stifled it.
Arum maculatum Wikipedia

In the not-so-distant past, people were obviously not in the least bit coy about giving objects from the natural world suggestive or bawdy names. Plants did not escape their attention. Take cuckoo pint (Arum maculatum) for instance. This is also called lords and ladies, because of the apparent resemblance of the flower to male and female genitals. And the aformentioned pint is not what the milkman is supposed to deliver to your door on a daily basis: it refers to none other than a penis. The fact that a cuckoo doesn't actually have a penis should not hinder our enjoyment of the symbolism of the arum's upstanding member. Oh and if you're so minded, you can dig up the root and cook it: properly prepared, it's edible.

This amusing habit of naming plants for their resemblance to intimate parts of the human anatomy is not limited to our own culture - take that marvellous Mexican fruit, the avocado. The name is derived from the Nahuatl "ahuacatl", meaning testicle, which, let's be honest, has some validity as a comparison, colour not withstanding; their tendency to hang in twos only adds to the association - avocado pairs indeed. Strangely enough, the avocado is claimed to have a positive effect on sperm production. It's all about the folate, apparently.

So it comes as no surprise that various plants have been credited with helping to ignite or rekindle sexual passion. In fact, it seems that pretty much every plant has been used as an aphrodisiac at some time or other - even mashua! By aphrodisiac, I mean something that gets you aroused and enables you to stay physically and emotionally equipped for action until such time as you are able to seek relief in the arms of another. Or words to that effect.

And the often suggestive shape of roots, recently beloved of photographers, bloggers and TV producers, has led many of them to be considered aphrodisiacs down the ages.

So let's start with that standard component of the meat and two veg dinner: the potato. Next time you tuck into a spud, consider this claim, made by herbalist William Salmon in 1710: "they nourish the whole Body, restore in Consumptions and provoke Lust".

Lust - with a capital L. I was tempted to respond thusly to Mr Salmon: "cease forthwith this idle prattle, Sir, for which there is not one shred of Evidence",  but then I came across this:

Officials in Jersey have discovered an annual baby boom linked to the Jersey Royal Potatoes season. Since 1997 the Jersey Registry Office, which records births on the island, has recorded an average of 170 more babies a year born between January and March. The increase has been directly linked to the Jersey Royal Potato season, which runs from April to June, nine months prior to the baby boom peak.

Aphrodisiac expert, James Sotte, explains the phenomenon:

"Throughout history potatoes have been considered an aphrodisiac. Amazonian women ate them to stimulate their sex drive and in late 16th century Europe sweet potato tarts were recommended to increase sexual desire. The reason is that potatoes have the same affect on the body as chocolate; they increase serotonin levels. Insulin is produced when digesting potatoes, affecting the movement of amino acid from the blood to the brain, which stimulates serotonin production. Serotonin is the chemical that makes you feel happy and is similar to the feeling of being in love."

He continues:

"Jersey Royal Potatoes are a particularly powerful aphrodisiac for women because they have a smell from their unwashed, earthy skin which is redolent of the musky aroma of the male. They also contain complex carbohydrate, which is a great source of energy for the body. Energy is fundamental to sex drive in that tiredness and lack of energy deflates the libido. "

The cynics among us might be inclined to reach a different conclusion: increasing temperatures, day lengths and light intensity might have more to do with it than potato consumption. Yes, potatoes contain complex carbohydrates and these are a good source of fuel for activity both in and outside the bedroom, but the same could be said of crumpets. And could it be that most women would rather their lovers didn't smell like a pile of rotting seaweed, the favoured fertiliser for Jersey Royals? No, this is an amusing, not to say audacious, piece of marketing, but it can hardly be taken as proof of the potato's efficacy as an aphrodisiac.

And what about another pert stalwart of the dinner plate, the carrot? Carrots, famous for enhancing the eyesight of airmen on WWII night bombing raids, turn out to do even more good things for you after the sun goes down by "inciting coitus". Do my eyes fail me - is that a typo? Do they mean exciting coitus? Nurse, fetch me my glasses and a pint of carrot juice - I had no idea that carotenoids were so damn potent. No wonder I've always enjoyed growing Chantenay Hard Core carrots.

And now the humble beetroot has burst onto the scene as the latest love aid, to be swallowed in liquid form - small shots at regular intervals. Come on, you're kidding me, not beetroot?  I'm afraid so. Not only does it improve stamina for athletes, both horizontally and vertically aligned, but the cyclic Guanosine monophosphate it contains is just what hard-pressed men need to maintain turgor so they can walk tall and stand proud. Who knew? The Romans apparently - beetroot-themed murals have been discovered in the brothels of Pompeii, for example.

Most of the supposed hard evidence for plant aphrodisiac efficacy is nothing but flaccid anecdote pumped up with wishful thinking. Still, if you're prepared to stiffen your resolve and ride out some more of the absurd claims made by the promoters of these plants, come again - I'll be posting more on this subject at a future date.

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