Down to Earth

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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.

In my program, I talk about curry tree (Murraya koenigii), the true curry plant. Both Thai and Indian cuisine use this herb, and it’s worthy of wider cultivation. I also grow Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) because of my love of Asian foods. When I was in Thailand for cooking classes a few years back, I became very fond of the flavor of this herb.

Another plant I feature in my talks is green pepper basil (Ocimum basilicum). My start of this plant came from the extensive herb collection of Madalene Hill, who lives near Round Top, Texas. This remarkable native basil of Oaxaca, Mexico, retains the flavors of both sweet pepper and basil, and unlike other basils, it will withstand light frosts in fall.

For me, garden blogs have been a wonderful source of new plants and new friends. Blogs connect people around the globe, just as though they were talking across the garden fence. Interesting plants can be photographed, posted on the web and discussed in mere seconds. People like me, who have a passion for plants, can share information more easily now than at any other time in our history. Travel need not be limited to an airline ticket: A garden blog is a fantastic way to share your passion for the plants you grow.

— Contributing editor Jim Long writes and gardens at his farm, Long Creek Herbs, located in the Ozarks Mountains. To contact him, link to his blog, or to learn more about the herbs mentioned here,

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