Down to Earth

Gardeners snag rare plants on the web.

| August/September 2008


  • Brian Orr

I have a passion for plants, especially those with special flavors, fragrances or uses. Truth be told, I am more likely to remember the name of a new herb than I am to remember the name of a person I’ve just met.

So whenever I travel, I opt for off-the-path activities—where I might encounter new or rare plants—rather than visit popular tourist destinations. Last year in Acapulco, Mexico, for example, I missed seeing the famous cliff divers so that I could visit the local farmers’ markets to photograph and sample their interesting herbs.

Recently, I’ve also turned to blogs to visit with other gardeners about their plants. (A blog, you probably know, is a web diary others can read at their leisure.) Last year I grew achocha (Cyclanthera pedata), an interesting herb I received from a correspondent in Bolivia. Cataloged in the book Lost Crops of the Incas (National Academy Press, 1989), achocha is a prolific vine with cucumber-fragrant leaves and fruit that resembles the seed pods of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Reportedly used in folk medicine to lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and increase urination, the plant primarily is grown for its beautiful vine—which can reach 40 feet—and for its fruit, which is stuffed, steamed, or fried and tastes a bit like sweet bell pepper. The young vining tendrils also can be steamed or stir-fried and have a pleasant cucumber-like flavor.

Gardeners in the United Kingdom and Bhutan recently contacted me via my blog, with news that they have different achocha varieties from the Bolivian variety I grew last season. Now I’m growing these, as well.



I also acquired Udorn dancing tea plant (Codariocalyx motorius) from Thailand this way. I’ve been posting photos and information about it on my blog, and it has generated interesting discussions with others who grow unusual plants. The dancing tea is known most for its odd ability to move in response to sound. Singing, whistling, radio music and even meditation, supposedly, will make the plant "dance." Videos of the plant’s antics even appear on YouTube.

Recently I’ve begun speaking about these "cutting-edge plants" at state Master Gardener conferences, flower and garden shows, and Herb Society gatherings. "Cutting-edge plants" is the term I use to describe herbs the average gardener has not yet discovered. Interest in many of them is growing, though, along with increasing interest in various ethnic cuisines.



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