September Vegetable of the Month is Lubi-lubi (Ficus pseudopalma)

Lubi-lubi young leaves

LUBI-LUBI or PALM LEAF FIG

Scientific name: Ficus pseudopalma

Family: Moraceae (Fig family)

Common names: Lubi-lubi, Niog-niogan, Palm Leaf Fig, Philippine Fig

The Philippines is home to thousands of endemic species, and one of them is a fig locally known as Lubi-lubi. I’ve known about this plant since I took up a plant taxonomy course in college, but I only learned that it was also eaten as a vegetable during my field work in La Mesa Watershed when I was already an Assistant Professor.

Lubi-lubi plant
The only lubi-lubi plant we have in our garden is in a pot that’s too small!

This is such a strange-looking fig plant, that when encountered for the first time by an American botany professor whom I hosted when I was still working in UP Diliman, he was puzzled for several moments before he realized that it was indeed a fig. The ‘pseudopalma’ part of its scientific name means ‘fake palm’, due to its palm-like appearance.

Lubi-lubi leaves
The leaves of lubi-lubi are arranged in a palm-like manner, hence the scientific name Ficus pseudopalma.

Be proud that Lubi-lubi is endemic to our country, which means it’s found only here! (Note: It has been brought to other countries as an ornamental, but they don’t bear viable seeds).

This shrub or small tree grows in early successional areas that don’t get too dry during the summer. The ones I’ve seen are not cultivated at all, but are rather “hulog ng langit” (fallen from the sky); they are easily dispersed by fig-eating animals. As long as its fig wasps are present, the fruits will get pollinated and ripen.

Lubi-lubi fruits
Unripe figs or syconia of Lubi-lubi.

We got Lubi-lubi plant in these photos from a friend at the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, Inc. when it was still tiny. It’s now bearing fruits (syconia, if you want to be more technical), but unfortunately, I think there aren’t any of the specific pollinator wasps in our area, hence the figs do not ripen. As you can see, the plant is thriving, even though it is in a pot.

The young shoots are the ones consumed, and you’ll maybe notice in the photo that we’ve been picking them. Usually though, the entire apex is harvested, but that kills the apical bud. That may encourage lateral branching, but we don’t do it for fear of killing the plant. Let me know if you’ve ever done it and whether the plant lived or died.

Lubi-lubi in the market
The entire apex is harvested and sold in markets in the Bicol Region. (Photo courtesy of Market Manila)

Pick the young leaves while they’re still reddish. Otherwise, they’ll be too fibrous to eat. This vegetable is popular in the Bicol Region, where it is usually cooked in coconut milk, onions, garlic, and of course lots of hot chili peppers. It also has folkloric uses for the treatment of hypertension, diabetes, kidney stones.

Vegetable Gardening at Home: How To Grow Bok Choy In Containers

Bok choy in containers

JULY VEGETABLE OF THE MONTH IS BOK CHOY or PECHAY

Scientific Name: Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis
Family: Brassicaceae (Cabbage family)

How to grow Bok Choy in containers is fairly easy. But before that, a little background. The word Bok Choy comes from a Chinese term that literally translates to “blue-green vegetable.” And if you stare at the dark green leaves of this vegetable, you may indeed detect a bluish hue. A mainstay in Chinese cuisine, this has very low calories (20 calories per cup!), and is full of Vitamins A, C, and K, and lots of minerals like Potassium and Calcium.

How to grow Bok Choy in containers
Bok choy can grow quite well in 1.5L soda bottles.
Tips on how to grow Bok Choy in containers

When growing Bok Choy in containers in your home garden, keep in mind the following tips:

  1. Use containers that are at least 15 cm (6 inches) deep. In my experience, 1.5 liter soda bottles seem to work fine.
  2. Well-drained, loamy soil is best. These plants hate watery soil
  3. Germinate seeds in a seedling tray.
  4. Transfer seedlings to containers when at least 2 or 3 true leaves have appeared. Make sure to keep that the center of the whorl where the new leaves appear above the soil level.
  5. Keep plants in sunny area with at least 6 hours of daylight.
  6. Never allow soil to dry up. These plants wilt easily.
  7. To avoid cabbage worms, loopers, etc., you may choose to cover plants with a net or spray with an organic pesticide.
  8. Harvest only outer large leaves to keep the supply going for a longer time.

Note: These tips on how to grow bok choy in containers are based on my experience. Other gardeners sow the seeds directly in the pots. I prefer to transfer so that the hypocotyl (lower stem) can be planted below soil level (see photo below).

bok choy seedlings
Bok choy seedling showing hypocotyl. I prefer sowing before transplanting, so the lower part of the stem can be planted below soil (Photo courtesy of gardentowok).

How to grow bok choy in containers successfully may take a little bit of dedication, but it’s a rewarding experience to have readily available fresh, chemical-free Chinese greens at home. The challenge lies in keeping the cabbage worms at bay. Make sure to harvest before they proliferate in your area.

Stir fried Bok Choy
Use minimal ingredients to bring out the mild flavor of bok choy (Courtesy of Not Just Baked)
Cooking Suggestions for Bok Choy
  • Stir-fried is still the most popular. Use minimal ingredients (garlic and soy sauce) to retain the delicate flavor.
  • Boiled in soups, like the Filipino “Nilaga” or “Pochero”.
  • As ingredient in stews, like “Kare-kare”, a type of peanut stew.
  • Chopped and eaten raw with tomatoes, onions, and vinaigrette dressing.

 

Amazing Arugula is Super Healthy and Easy to Grow

Arugula or Salad Rocket

Among the many members of the cabbage family that I have tried planting, Arugula (also called Salad Rocket or Rucola) is the absolute winner in terms of ease of growing and resistance to pests. And I was pleasantly surprised to find out how good it is for your health, packing as much nutrients as its close relatives broccoli, brussels sprouts, and kale.

This is very good news, as our very warm climate here in the Philippines (except in the highlands) does not allow successful growth of those other leafy greens. When I sowed seeds of Arugula months ago, I didn’t really have high expectations because of two main reasons: 1) It sounded very exotic to me, and is not very popular in the Philippine market, and 2) I just lost a difficult organic war with insect pests that targeted members of the cabbage family.

But surprise, surprise… Arugula was the only man (or vegetable) left standing after that great battle. I didn’t even have to fight the pesky cabbage worms — Arugula did it all by itself! The variety I planted seemed to be resistant to those caterpillars. What a treat!

And your body will definitely be treated to loads of good stuff when you consume this salad green, which has a flavor that some have described as spicy or nutty. One of the main natural components found in Arugula and other cruciferous plants are glucosinolates. These sulfur-containing organic compounds give cabbage and mustard their pungent smell and taste. Several research studies have shown certain anti-cancer properties of glucosinolates. Scientific studies on these compounds in Arugula have also demonstrated that they have antidiabetic, antioxidant, and anti-ulcer properties. What a great and yummy way to be healthy!

I really recommend planting Arugula in your home gardens, as it takes the utmost minimum effort to grow. It does well even in small containers. All it needs is a sunny spot and a little bit of watering. It’s very low-maintenance, it grows well in the tropics, it’s better at tolerating wilt than a lot of other leafy greens, and it has very good defenses against common garden pests. Try planting it, and do let me know about your gardening adventures. 🙂

Medicinal Herbs that are Mistaken for Weeds

“A weed is a plant whose virtue is not yet known.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

There was a time when people went to their gardens rather than drugstores to get medicines. But did you know that 80% of people in developing countries still rely on traditional medicine, which for the most part uses medicinal plants?

Cracks on the pavement, tiny recesses in concrete walls, empty or abandoned lots, waste open areas — these are some of the many places where you will find weeds growing. But take a moment to look, as those weeds just might be one of the most potent medicines for some of the common (and sometimes not-so-common) human illnesses.

I went around in our garden looking for weeds that have known medicinal properties, and it didn’t take me long to identify a few of them. Here are five medicinal weeds found in our garden, their short descriptions, illnesses they cure, and typical ways that they are prepared. Take note that I am including here only those that are often considered weeds, i.e. herbs that people don’t usually plant on purpose, and that typically grow everywhere voluntarily. Disclaimer: I am not in the medical profession, so I am not giving any exact formulations or dosages for these plants. Please use these plants, or any other medicine, with caution. I referred to the website  http://www.stuartxchange.org for a lot of information, so please visit that site for more details.

1. Oregano (Plectranthus aromaticus)

Description: Like its scientific name says, this plant has aromatic leaves. It belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae), but unlike the mint, it has larger leaves that are a bit succulent and have fine velvety hair.

Used for: Cough, asthma, dyspepsia and many other conditions.

Preparation: Leaves can be boiled or steeped in hot water and drank as tea.

2. Tawa-tawa (Euphorbia hirta)

Description: Leaves are small, and dense tiny greenish flowers are found in the axils. Has a milky white exudate, like many members of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae).

Used for: Asthma, Malaria, Dengue fever and illnesses associated with blood.

Preparation: Whole plant is boiled and drank as tea.

3. Pansit-pansitan (Peperomia pellucida)

Description: Soft small herb with leaves and stems that are translucent, hence the scientific name. Belongs to the black pepper family (Piperaceae), and bears flowers/fruits in a similar manner, i.e. on slender spikes.

Used for: Urinary tract infection, other fungal and bacterial infections.

Preparation: Whole plant can be boiled or steeped in hot water and drank as tea or applied to skin externally. Can also be eaten fresh as a salad vegetable.

4. Kulitis (Amaranthus spinosus)

Description: Looks very similar to the wild spinach (Amaranthus viridis), with its arrow-shaped leaves, and whitish-green numerous flowers on spikes, except it has spines on the stems.

Used for: Fever, snake bites, anemia, and a lot of other diseases.

Preparation: Leaves are usually boiled or steeped in hot water like tea. Also eaten and prepared just like spinach.

5. Golasiman (Portulaca oleracea)

Description: Succulent herb with slimy sap. Flowers usually pink or yellow with petals that bruise and wilt very easily.

Used for: Stomach problems, painful urination, wounds, etc.

Preparation: Fresh crushed or boiled leaf juice used externally on skin. Leaf infusion drank as tea. Eaten as a vegetable, raw or cooked.

Those are the medicinal weeds that I found after just a few minutes of search in our garden. I wonder what other weeds with virtues I can find if I spent more time and searched farther? Do you know of any other plants that are usually mistaken for weeds but are actually medicinal? Let us know in the comments below.

Pointers for growing culinary herbs in containers

My gardening hobby has piqued the interest of some of my friends, and quite a few of them have sent me personal messages about it. They’ve asked questions that range from simple identification of species to tips on how to grow vegetables. But one of the most commonly asked questions is how to grow culinary herbs.

I am not an expert gardener, so what I will share here are all based on my personal experience and things I have picked up from reading a number of different sources. Take note that I practice container gardening, because we have very little space to plant directly in the ground. I will just give some general pointers on the factors that you should consider when planting culinary herbs in containers.

1) SOIL. I cannot overemphasize how important good soil is for your garden to be successful. The soil should be loamy (not too coarse, not too fine), with a loose texture that drains well. To test, try saturating it with water, and if it gets waterlogged for more than 1 minute, then it is not loose enough. You should mix in organic material, like compost or cow dung to improve drainage. Too much sand, pebbles, and rocks is also bad, as it won’t hold water. It should be a nice dark brown color and should smell good. Stunted growth is one of the signs of poor soil conditions.

2) SUNLIGHT. Most herbs require lots of sunshine to be healthy. Make sure that you place your plants in an area that will get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight everyday. Your plant will slowly lose its leaves and eventually die out when it doesn’t get enough sunlight.

3) WATER. Make sure that your soil does not get dry for extended periods. Since we’re suffering from El Niño in the Philippines right now, I suggest that you water twice daily (morning and afternoon).

4) POTS. Depending on the herb, pot size requirement could vary. So to be on the safe side, use pots that are at least 20 cm tall, and could hold at least 2 liters of soil. This is to help make sure that the soil does not dry out too quickly. If you are using recycled water bottles or the like, I suggest making holes on the sides (at least 3 cm from the bottom), and not at the base, so that some water can accumulate at the bottom. I obviously sometimes don’t follow my own advice, and use tiny pots for my herbs. Smaller pots mean smaller plants, and more frequent waterings, so skimp on pot size at your own risk.

5) SPECIES and VARIETIES. Some herb species just won’t grow in your area because they are not adapted to the climate. Many culinary herbs prefer cooler climates, so here in the Philippines, which is a tropical country, you’re lucky if you live in Baguio or Tagaytay. If you don’t, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try experimenting with different species and varieties. You never know, you might chance upon a mutant that can acclimatize in your area. In my case, I live in General Trias City, and the herbs that I’ve grown successfully from seed include basil (sweet and Thai varieties), parsley, coriander/cilantro (wansuy in Filipino), green onion, and chives. From cuttings, I have been able to propagate tarragon, mint (different varieties), rosemary (not highly successful though), oregano (Plectranthus aromaticus, not Origanum vulgare), and stevia. I’ve tried planting seeds of marjoram and thyme, but haven’t been successful so far. Maybe I’ll try from cuttings one of these days.

So those are some of the main things you should consider when planting culinary herbs in pots. Other things to think about include fertilizing and keeping your herbs pest free. I will write another post about that later on.

Do you have any other pointers and suggestions on growing culinary herbs in pots, especially here in the tropics? Please share them with us!

Follow me on Instagram (regielene) to see photos of my herb and vegetable garden. Happy gardening!