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The Tropical Salad: Leaves of a Different Cut (Panama)

Leaves of a different cut

I love the tropics as a place for permaculture, specifically the ability to grow tropical fruits and the capability to plant stuff year round. I like the interplay between rainy and dry season, the way things get incredibly green and grow uncontrollably in the wettest of times, and all that fodder for composting when things get parched. Still, living here is not without its sacrifices.

One of the major issues I’ve run into is what can’t grow here because of the heat. When things can’t grow in cooler climates, people have the option of greenhouses, but I’ve not really discovered a good way for cooling the tropical climate down for some rhubarb or broccoli. And, the one that stings the deepest — especially for a salad-loving vegan such as myself — is the lettuce.

Lettuce doesn’t do well. Of course, iceberg and romaine, all those tightly wound balls of greenery, are out of the question, but even the looser leaves, known to be a little more resilient to heat waves, don’t cut the mustard in my neck of Panama. And, so, I’ve learned a lot about making salads from other kinds of leaves. Here are some of my favorite solutions for a tropical salad.

Hibiscus Plant

Hibiscus leaves: Locally, there is a strain of hibiscus called rosa de Jamaica, which is used mostly to make tea, and another called cranberry hibiscus which has a great tart flavor. Whichever is around, we’ve taken to eating the leaves because they are fantastically flavorful and a perfect addition for a mixed leaf salad.

Okra leaves: (Actually, it is also in the hibiscus family, but we look at it differently.) Okra grows readily in heat, which is great, and the raw vegetable sliced thinly is good in salads too. However, the leaf is especially great and the most lettuce-like of all the ones we’ve sampled.

Okra Leaf

Sweet Potato leaves: We have loads of sweet potatoes, as they grow well here and are nitrogen fixers for the soil. Plus, I love sweet potatoes, and now I especially love that the crop is doing another duty for me in providing salad greens. Regular old potatoes just don’t compare.

Basil leaves: This is already used in all sorts of salads, but it’s usually a featured element, such as tomato-basil salad. However, we grow some of the fattest, fullest basil plants imaginable, so we readily harvest a dozen or so leaves as run-of-the-mill greens. Plus, this herb is medicinally delicious.

Sweet, sweet basil

Katuk leaves: Katuk is not a well-known plant, but it often gets thrown into the fabled superfood category, with the likes of chaya (grows readily in the tropics but shouldn’t be eaten raw) and chia (prefers cooler climates). Katuk is around 50% protein, has a delicious nutty flavor, and comes in abundance.

Malabar “spinach”: Not actually a spinach as we know it, this leafy vine has a very spinach aura about it, including flavor and appearance. In truth, the leaves can be a bit waxy/chewy, but it’s super healthy, as its namesake suggests, and cutting it up before adding it to a salad makes a difference.

(Young) Bean leaves: Get them while they are young and tender and bean leaves of many varieties make for great greens. Lots of legumes, including mung, cowpea, pea, lima, fava, soy, runner… lots, have edible leaves; however, be wary of eating the actual beans raw as it can be dangerous. The older leaves get a bit tough.

Cranberry Hibiscus

Okinawan “spinach”: Another non-spinach, this is actually a plant we’ve not tried/found yet, but in my research, I’ve learned it’s a renowned tropical salad component. It’s an easy-growing perennial plant, and it keeps the greens coming. Like beans, the younger leaves are said to be choice.

Kale: Not supposed to work here, but we’ve managed to get some going, and the key, yet again, is to eat the leaves young. The steamy climate causes the older leaves to get bitter. We grow ours in a shady spot, with indirect sun and a nice breeze, and we keep it small by harvesting when there are only six to eight leaves.

Amaranth leaves: The tropical version of quinoa, amaranth can take the heat and provides very nutrient-rich seeds. It also provides edible greens. At the moment, we have tiny amaranth plants, but we are waiting patiently. Supposedly, they are supposed to be a delight.

This is moringa… (see also)

So, that’s what we’ve got going on in the salad department, which oddly — seeing as we have no lettuce — provides a more diverse bowl of greens than I was previously accustomed to. Plus, the leaves make for a beautiful, insanely healthy combination in the salad bowl once or twice a day. We also put them on sandwiches and burgers, where one would normally find lettuce. And, this is how it’s done in the tropics.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. There are some lettuce varieties from Hawaii that are heat tolerant. I read this a while back in a book called Edible Leaves of the tropics which you may find very useful

  2. Sesbania grandiflora grows well in Thailand. Try Asian Lettuce / Indian Lettuce. Heat tolerant, and grows up to about 2 meters. Long leaves. It’s really a lettuce. Also, try Edible Hibiscus (Abelmoschus manihot). Tender young tips from Tamarind trees. Here in Thailand, even where I am in the deep south, some lettuce varieites aside from the one I mentioned above do well. We’ve got Green Cos, and Red and Green Oak growing okay. Talinum paniculatum is nice too. If these Thai words (โสมไทย) come up for you, then try a cut and paste and look at the pictures that come up. When doing internet searches for this scientific name, I often see pictures that don’t look much like what I know, and eat. For me, typing the Thai words into Google came up with pictures of the plant that I know and eat. It’s a bit sour and I think it has a fair amount of oxalic acid in it so don’t overdo this one. Purslane is good.

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