It’s been raining in our area of North Queensland, which is known for its reliable rainfall and beautiful waterfalls.
“Reliable rainfall” is what the real estate agents write on their rural property descriptions. Locals know that they could just as truthfully write that for half of each year everything will be covered with mould and mildew, and the only things growing in the garden will be tough tropical perennials and rampant heat-and-moisture-loving weeds.
While we wait for a break in the weather to transplant our annual seedlings into the garden we still have to eat, and we’re still (in very much a “two steps forward three steps backwards” fashion) working to reduce our dependence on the supermarket.
So, we’ve been eating salads made from what grows easily around here at this time of year: tropical perennial plants that can withstand heat, water-logging, and high humidity without collapsing into sad little smears of slime.
Here are six that I’ve been putting in our lunch and dinner salads through these wet months.
And there is one more at the bottom of the list which, while very small in stature and not fitting the tropical perennial profile, none-the-less makes a super-sized contribution to the salad bowl.
Other names: Timor Lettuce, Indian Lettuce (Lactuca indica)
Indian Lettuce is a relative of lettuce but grows faster and taller and can cope with heat and high humidity.
The young leaves taste (to us anyway) so much like regular lettuce that we can base a salad on it and think we’re eating the real thing.
Tree lettuce, Indian lettuce, or Timor lettuce, grows almost as tall as me and will self-seed prolifically.
Other names: Katuk, Sweetleaf Bush, Star Gooseberry, Tropical Asparagus, (Sauropus androgynus)
This shrubby plant thrives in warm, wet conditions, likes a bit of shade, and can (should) be pruned into a thick, edible hedge.
The more its pruned, the more delicious, crunchy, tender green shoots it produces, and these are what we put in our salads throughout the warm growing season.
Some references suggest going easy on the consumption of raw Sweet Leaf; I play it safe by making sure that our salads are well coated with an oil and vinegar dressing (see the note on this near the end of this article) before we eat, and by cooking the older leaves.
Sweet leaf, or Katuk, produces a delicate tiny flower that hangs under the branches, followed by this little seed pod.
Other names: Goa Bean, Asparagus pea (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus)
Winged bean is a perennial tropical climber which produces pods with four “wings” along their length.
The young pods, chopped, provide an interesting shape in the salad and add crunch and body.
The flowers make a delicate, sweet decoration on top (unless you or your children eat them before they make it back to the house).
Winged bean. This image was taken after the weather turned cool, so the vine has stopped flowering. These large pods will be left to dry (if it ever stops raining here) and saved for seed, or the dry beans inside the pod can be used like any other dried legume. This vine will come alive every summer and keep producing for approximately 7 years.
The choko vine’s salad bowl contributions are its tender tips, curly tendrils, flowers, and also the smallest fruit, from almond sized to a bit bigger, sliced.
I’ve learned not to underestimate the humble choko vine.
Chokos can be a bit tricky to get going, but once they’re established they are zero-maintenance and very abundant. I use excess runaway vines to feed to the pigs, and the spent vines at the end of each growing season to mulch the ground around the vine.
Other names: Stonecress, (Aethionema cordifolium)
Lebanese Cress is a low-growing perennial with fern-like leaves which forms an attractive ground cover. It likes to be moist and will grow very happily at the edge of water. It will cover a large area so long as there is adequate moisture and a bit of shade.
Lebanese Cress is a great salad ingredient, with a faint carroty flavour.
I don’t think you’ll win any cuisine awards by serving a salad made from the tips and smallest new leaves of the sweet potato vine. But if you put just a few of them in no-one will notice, and you’ll be raising the nutrition profile of your salad as well as making better use of an-always-ready plant that’s just begging to be better used.
Sweet potato – an attractive, zero-maintenance ground cover. Every part of the plant is edible, though the tough older leaves are not very palatable to people. All of our animals will eat them, though: chickens, pigs, cattle, goats and horses are all happy to deal with excess sweet potato runners.
Other names: Water Spinach (Ipomoea aquatica)
A ground-covering, water loving Thai vegetable that likes moist soil and can also thrive in standing water. Its related to sweet potato and looks quite similar. The leaves of kangkong are less tough/more palatable (to us, anyway,) than those of sweet potato.
Young kangkong leaves, stems and tips are said to be good cooked in a stir-fry or steamed, but for me this makes them go a bit too mushy unless literally thrown in and tossed around right before serving.
My favourite (easiest) use of it is to put the youngest leaves and the tips into a salad.
The first part of Chickweed’s botanical name—Stellaria—means “stars”, and to me that’s just what the tiny white flowers of chickweed look like – little stars scattered in a green sea of salad just waiting to be transferred to my harvest basket.
This special, delicate, low-growing plant is a bit different to the others in this article, in that it doesn’t fit the tough/hot/tropics profile. Chickweed is a lover of cool, shady, moist conditions. But if you live in the semi tropics and if, under the wet season jungle, you have a little niche that chickweed wants to fill, you should rejoice and make room for it. In the right conditions, you won’t find a more generous, abundant, delicious ground covering salad plant.
I very often go out to the garden late in the day to collect a basket of chickweed, nothing else, for a salad that is very nourishing and that everyone in our family, children included, enjoys.
This article talks about harvesting chickweed in an English winter (it also shares good information on chickweed’s nutritional profile and medicinal uses).
From an English winter to a subtropical wet season – such is the versatility and value of chickweed!
Chickweed creeps into cool, moist little niches and makes a wonderful ground cover. Here, it’s volunteering among the strawberries. Snipping off these leafy tips for your salad bowl will encourage it to grow back thicker and with larger leaves. It self-seeds with wild abandon and the lawn industry spends a fortune on trying (and failing) to control it.
A note on predigesting your salad greens
Susun Weed suggests that we consider eating some of our meat raw and all of our vegetables cooked. She explains that plant cells have a tough wall around them (as opposed to the thin membrane around animal cells) that needs to be “cooked” or processed in some way using heating, freezing, dehydrating, or fermenting in order to break down the cell wall and allow us to digest the nutrients therein.
Ruminants—the planet’s most successful herbivores—“cook” green plants by fermenting them in the rumen (or “foregut,” an “extra stomach”) before trying to chew and digest them (“chewing the cud”).
Lacking a rumen, we can pre-digest our salad greens with an application of oil and vinegar in a salad dressing to make raw greens more digestible and their nutrients more available.
Don’t be afraid to dress your salad a little while before you’re going to eat it – it will look less crisp but be more digestible and you’ll increase the availability of its nutrients.
I often put the tougher greens in the salad bowl with dressing first and let them sit for an hour or two before adding the more delicate things, tossing, and serving.
Even an overnight dunking is okay. We often save a dressed salad in the fridge and eat it the next day, soggy but nourishing.
Salad dressing recipe
Here’s the homemade salad dressing we use:
Naturally fermented soy sauce
Apple Cider Vinegar (Homemade herbal vinegars are good because they’ll add a healthy dose of minerals in addition to the minerals that the vinegar mobilises from the greens in your salad. Who needs mineral supplements?)
Optional – finely grated garlic, and/or ginger, and/or turmeric
Fill a jar 1/3 to 1/2 full with olive oil. Add small quantities of the other ingredients. Shake, taste, adjust. Douse your salad greens with it and enjoy.
About the author