MARIANNE WILLBURN appreciates the bold and often vertical element that some favorite tropical plants add to her temperate garden. But maybe the best of all are the ones that also provide that something extra: ingredients for cooking, which is her other passion besides gardening, tender edible ornamentals from showy turmerics and gingers to lemongrass and more.
Marianne Willburn, a longtime garden writer who gardens in Virginia, is a contributing editor to the collaborative blog called Garden Rant. And she’s also author of the 2021 book “Tropical Plants and How to Love Them” (affiliate link). She offered guidance on which of these tempting tropicals at the garden center to indulge in for the combination of visual and culinary enjoyment, like ‘Snowdrift’ turmeric in her garden, above.
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Read along as you listen to the March 27, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
tropical edible ornamentals, with marianne willburn
Margaret Roach: We recently did a “New York Times” column together, which was fun. And I’ve been wondering, are you getting ready to wake up some of your babies in the garage there? [Laughter.] What’s going on down there?
Marianne WIllburn: That is exactly what’s going on right now. I am. And I’m trying to juggle it with my travel schedule as well, so that adds a little extra issue. But it’s going to take a couple weeks for them to start thinking about sprouting, so I think I’ll be able to do it this year without problems.
Margaret: And so you have this frost-free garage, this garage that you have a shelving unit in, I think. And you keep certain of your tender plants that you grow year-to-year in there. So who’s in there? And who’s getting awakened right now?
Marianne: The ginger family basically are the first ones out, because they need as much time as possible, so that’s the classic turmerics, is Hedychium, gingers, which is… I don’t keep the official ginger [Zingiber officinale] in there, because I just buy it again from the grocery store or from a seed supplier. I don’t want to take the extra space for that one, but there’s all of the unusual ones that are in there right now. And then in another week, I’ll start pulling out the cannas. And I’ll be repotting the bananas, and getting everything going for the season ahead.
Margaret: O.K. So yeah, you’re right when you’re not home all the time, it does get tricky once they wake up, because they want water or they want something [laughter]. [Below, turmeric rhizomes in storage.]
Marianne: They do. They want warmth right now. And they don’t necessarily need light yet, because they’re just starting to put those roots down and there’s nothing to be using that light. So I’ve got a little bit of a nice grace period there. And then they’ll go into the coldframe, which is right now… I used to use smaller coldframes in my garden, and now I’ve put in a greenhouse, which is unheated, which I think of as a big coldframe.
Margaret: Oh, you’re just really getting fancy. That’s great. Good for you. I’ve never had one.
Marianne: It totally took me 25 years [laughter]. I was going to say that it really is a coldframe, because it’s not heated. And at some point, I may heat, it if I start to get more obsessive. But my guess is I’m not going that way. We’ll see. Check back with me in a few years.
Margaret: O.K. So in the book, which is “Tropical Plants and How to Love Them,” you have this kind of fun conceit, the chapter structure. You’ve grouped the plants into relationship categories, like the “long-term commitment,” those that start in the outdoor season and then work as houseplants indoor, so they’re like all the time with you. And the “high-maintenance partner,” the ones that even though it’s worth it, they require a lot of effort. And the ones I wanted to talk about, that we also talked about in “The New York Times” column, are these “friends with benefits.” [Laughter.]
Marianne: I know, that’s so cheeky, isn’t it?
Margaret: So who are those? What does that mean?
Marianne: Those mean the beautiful tropical plants, big ornamental value, but also edible, or used in a culinary way, even if it’s on a tablescape on your table. So they’re plants that give you something else for the work that you do with them.
Margaret: O.K. Something else, especially having to do with food, or related with entertaining and so forth.
Margaret: So you mentioned a minute ago the idea that you don’t give space in your precious above-freezing garage on the shelf there… You don’t give space to the ones that you can get easily, either at the market or at a seed or bulb company or whatever each year, like the traditional ginger, the kind that we see sort of knobby and brown and so forth in the supermarket bins, right? You don’t store that, but you do grow it?
Marianne: Yes, I do grow it, but, yes, I don’t store it. And that is because of how easy it is to pick up at the world markets. And the same thing with Curcuma longa, the sort of traditional turmeric. And those-
Margaret: Is that the yellow one? Is that the one-
Marianne: Yes, it’s yellow, very small, finger-like rhizomes. And those are easily sprouted. The Zingiber officinale is very easily sprouted.
Lemongrass, I don’t need to bring a huge lemongrass into the garage and try and give it light and try and give it water, because it doesn’t want to go into a fully dormant place. So it’s much easier just to sprout them from new stocks found at the market.
And also taro, if I just want to have a little bit, which is Colocasia… If I just want to have a small interesting leaf in a container, and I’ve used all of my others taros in other places, I can sprout taro as well, or even sweet potatoes, Ipomoea. Just for an extra little trailing, if I feel like doing that, I can do that.
So I think this is true with quote regular “normal” vegetable gardening, is you figure out what makes the most sense for you to grow yourself or to store. And that’s where that sweet spot is for me. I don’t need to store any of those.
Margaret: Right. So if I want to go pick up right now some starts of the traditional ginger and some… You said lemongrass, you wouldn’t store it, but you grow it every year. Am I looking for something in particular at the market or…?
Marianne: Yes, you are, because, A, you probably want to go to a world market, because there’s going to be a high turnover of these rhizomes. Whereas in your neighborhood grocery store, maybe not as many people are buying them, and so they’re sitting there for a while and aging. Also, they are often treated. They’re almost always treated with a compound that stops them from sprouting or tries to stop them or retards that, like potatoes.
So you’re scanning those rhizomes for those that have the look of a little bit… And you’ve got a gardener’s eye, right? So you’re looking at them carefully for that, just that tiny little bit of yellow or green bud, a bump really, little eye that tells you there’s something going on in that plant. And you’ll be the weirdo standing in front of the ginger going through all of them and people looking at you, but that’s O.K. [Laughter.]
Margaret: So that I could get in the market, and I look for the ones with the eyes. And I could probably buy a young plant pretty easily of the lemongrass at the garden center even.
Marianne: Well, yes, you can, absolutely. Those have gone up in price in the last couple years. They’ve gotten more popular, and things are a little more expensive. So that’ll be a juggling game of whether or not you want to start with a plant that you can cut in half. You can cut one of those garden center plants in half and have them in a couple different places. This is a 4- to 6-inch pot. Or you can go ahead and sprout them [from the market].
At this point in the year, I would say it would be better to go ahead and get the plant, because it takes a little while to sprout these guys. But if I was doing this for the first time, I’d be trying to sprout them right now. The days are starting to get longer. And just see, just experiment, so that you know next year, “O.K, I want to start that a little earlier,” or, “I think I’ll just stay with the plant.”
Margaret: Right. And that’s almost kind of looks like an ornamental grass-y kind of an element in the garden. I know I saw some pictures. You used some of yours in containers on your deck and things like that. So those are two where it’s not a big investment plan. It’s something every year the same way we might get our starts for our potatoes or whatever, all of our other edibles.
But some are more precious and very ornamental; we’re looking for a very ornamental variety, a special variety that’s not going to be at the market, like some of these other ginger relatives, like you’ve talked to me about myoga ginger [Zingiber mioga] and again the turmerics. So let’s talk about those, because that’s where it’s really, what’s that word, edimental [laughter]? It’s ornamental and edible. You’re really looking for both qualities.
Marianne: Yes. Myoga is a perfect example of that, particularly the variegated varieties, like cultivars like ‘White Feather’ or I think it’s ‘Dancing Crane.’ [Above, ‘Dancing Crane’ from Plant Delights Nursery/Juniper Level Botanic Garden.]
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Marianne: And I grow both of those. One’s a little whiter; one’s a little creamier. And those have a real vertical presence in the garden. And they also grow in a partial shade location. A lot of gingers want that full sun. And these can help you in the shade garden, particularly those variegated cultivars, because they’re bringing light into those shadier areas. And then those create that beautiful ornamental value during the season.
And at the end of the season, in sort of late August, September, if you look down at the base, at the ground, and you’ve got to be checking almost every day, at soil level you start to see the very beginnings of the flower buds. And that’s the gold dust; that’s the edible buds. You cut it. If you missed the budding stage of these little lobster-claw purple flower buds, and you went straight into the flowers, you can use the flowers to put on a salad or what have you, if you want. And they’re yellows and whites and things.
But those little tiny… And they really do look like lobster claws. You dig those up and cut them, and then you can make tempura with them, which is some of the best tempura, because it has that ginger bite without the sock-you-in-the-face, just-bit-into-ginger [laughter]. And they’re also used a lot to slice very thinly and use as a fresh garnish on salads or other foods. And so it’s just a fun, very seasonal, at-the-end-of-the-season vegetable, just like asparagus.
Margaret: O.K. And sometimes it’s referred to as Japanese ginger, because I think it’s popular there culinarily. But we’re not looking to dig the root, the rhizome, like with the traditional ginger that we just were talking about. We’re looking to harvest these little flowers, these tender little-
Marianne: The shoots [below].
Margaret: … shoots of unopened flowers and so forth. And it’s a hardy plant. It’s hardy for you in the ground?
Marianne: It’s hardy for me. The variegated ones are a little less hardy. I’m in 6b/7a. The straight species, I think, is hardy to 6a or 5b. I mean, it’s pretty hardy. The variegated is somewhere in 6 to… I don’t think it’s 5b. I think it’s sort of 6a.
Marianne: And if you’re growing a straight species, which is just a very strong vertical ginger-looking plant, probably about 4 feet tall, that is extremely vigorous. And so it may be that at the end of the season, in that time that you’re going to look for the flowers, that’s a great time to do your thinning, and pull it out away from the center of the clump. And then you can just cut off the flowering shoots or the flowering buds. And often, I’ll do that. It’s, “O.K, it’s time to thin the myoga.” The variegated are a little less vigorous, but a whole lot more ornamental, but isn’t that always the case, right?
Margaret: Yeah, exactly. So what about the turmerics? You mentioned a species called Curcuma longa, and that’s the one that’s the yellow. The rhizome is a yellow, and it’s like has all these health benefits and so forth that we’ve talked about. So you dig that up? And do you reserve some of it for the kitchen and store the rest in your garage? Or what happens with those?
Marianne: Yes. By the end of the season, Curcuma longa, for me… And that is traditional turmeric; that’s what we think of as yellow turmeric, very, very yellow-orange rhizome. When you break it apart, with a good warm season, with a good amount of moisture, it will have really spread from those small rhizomes that you put into the soil. And I will harvest those completely. I don’t save any of those, because, again, I’m just going to buy those at the store, one or two of them in early spring, I will harvest those, and I will put them into the freezer.
And from that point, as I need them over the course of the winter and in spring and sometimes into the summer, because I end up with a lot of them, I just use a microplane or just a grater to grate them into dishes, whether it’s rice or curry or what have you, just like I do with ginger. I do the exact same thing with ginger. It gives you the freshest taste of ginger or turmeric without having to go and buy fresh. And you’d think that it would be hard to grate, but it really isn’t. It’s sort of like frost. It’s like you’re ice shaving, basically. A great way to store them.
Margaret: So you’ve got that stash in there. And do you do that with the lemongrass as well? Or do you just dry your lemongrass leaves? What’s the protocol there? I forgot to ask you.
Marianne: You can do it both ways. You can dry them for tea at the end of the season. And it’s really fun to do that and wrap them in bundles and give them away actually for tea. Or you can take them and just make a nice cut of maybe a 12-inch or maybe make them smaller, 6-inch, sort of stalk down to the base, and so you have a little bundle of maybe five, six, seven of those. And put them into a Ziploc bag and stick them in the freezer depending on how many you think you might use. Then you can take them from there, and you can throw them into a curry just for flavoring, or you can throw them into a simple syrup to brew a simple lemongrass syrup for a cocktail or a ginger beer type thing.
Margaret: And so that’s the bottom part, the fleshier part, almost looks like a scallion in a way. It’s the swollen part. The leaves you would maybe reserve more for use as the way I might use a bay leaf, like that kind of culinary use, or to make the tea? Is that…
Marianne: That’s exactly right. It’s not something you want to crunch on. It’s the same thing as a bay leaf. You’re going to want to take it out of your dish, once it’s imparted that flavor. Or keep it in there for a decorative reason and to show your guests that you’re really using fresh ingredients. And it’s obvious you shouldn’t be eating that, because it’s too big [laughter].
Margaret: All right. And then there’s the other species of the turmerics. There’s another species, and some of those are pretty showy, yes?
Marianne: Oh, yes. There’s many. There’s many, many different turmerics. And one of the other ones that I love is the Curcuma zedoaria, and that is the white turmeric, much larger, fleshier rhizome. It’s a bit of a more rounder rhizome, and it’s whiter inside. There’s still a yellow to it. It’s not white-white. It’s got a yellow cast to it. But the leaves have a beautiful central veining of pink going up the leaves. And in the not early, early spring, but in the spring before the leaves come out, you have these beautiful hidden cone flowers that push up and are pink, and they look almost like little pine cones that have opened up.
Margaret: Neon pine cones [laughter].
Marianne: Yeah, they are. They’re absolutely gorgeous. And then the leaves start to take over. And these leaves can get to be 2 feet easily, big, wide, just gorgeous, really, really beautiful plant, and I use that a lot. There’s another variety of Curcuma longa, the yellow turmeric, that I love. And I think I used a picture of it in “The New York Times” article, which was… Oh, and it’s going out of my head now. I just have to think. It’s-
Margaret: It’s a variegated-leaf one?
Marianne: It’s the variegated one, and it is [laughter]… You know when you go blank all of a sudden? Oh, ‘Snowdrift,’ my absolute one of my favorites, so ornamental. And I have built up enough of that now that I can have a pretty sizable area of that. And if I ran out of the Curcuma longa, I could eat that, too. I could use that. But I’m not necessarily going to, because it is so ornamental. But you can play with it.
Margaret: So I wanted to talk about some that are probably even more familiar, and people may have tried. I think it was really fun to find out from you (and you mentioned these earlier): sweet potatoes. You could start a sweet potato, like the one from the grocery store, but the ornamental ones, the ones that we’ve all really enjoyed cascading over the edges of pots and so forth, with gold or purple leaves of different shapes: There is now a series of those that have been bred for a delicious tuber as well, not just pretty leaves, but to make a big, yummy tuber that you can eat for dinner. Right?
Marianne: Yes. And then it is specifically to make that tuber very good tasting, because some of the ornamental ones, like ‘Marguerite,’ those will create a tuber. If you’ve got them in soft container soil, you’ll have a tuber. If you dig down, you’ll see it, but it’s not that yummy.
Margaret: It’s not delicious.
Marianne: Yeah. It’s not that yummy. But these are bred for that, and not only that, all these different colors of leaves, those bronze-
Margaret: And this is the Treasure Island Sweet Potatoes? [Above; photo from Concept Plants BV.]
Marianne: This is the Treasure Island series, yes. And I think that there’s at least four in that series. This came out of Louisiana State University.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Marianne: It’s fairly new. I would say it’s probably three, four years old.
Margaret: Yeah. What did I read? Maybe they released them in 2020, but I think it’s gaining some traction now. But yeah, it’s interesting. So to be on the lookout for those, because, again, that’s double-duty, the “friend with benefits.” [Laughter.]
Marianne: That’s right. And I mean, you do need to be aware that, as with all of these Ipomoea, they’re vigorous, and so you’re probably cutting back those leaves a fair amount. And the more that you cut back the leaves, the less food is going to that tuber and creating that larger tuber, so you have to have a balancing act with that.
Margaret: If you really wanted the tuber. And I can eat the leaves, can I?
Marianne: Yes, yeah. That’s a fabulous plan.
Margaret: Sort of, yeah. Some other sort of easy ones that don’t require overwintering and whatever, we could just get a packet of seeds of that red-stemmed Malabar spinach, I think it is?
Marianne: Oh, yes. It’s so beautiful and edible. Yes, Malabar spinach. That’s Basella rubra. And a packet of those, it is very summer-hardy, and it gives you a green when some of your other greens are perhaps flailing a little bit in the sun. And it is a vertical vine. It just wants to grow up, and it’s a stunning vine, red petioles, sort of deep green with a little reddish-tinged leaves, and you just keep harvesting those leaves, just keep cutting those leaves.
Margaret: And so it’s like a gorgeous annual vine that’s edible.
Marianne: Yeah. And as you know with so many of these vines, they get so crazy. The fact that you can cut them back, and that’s your harvest-
Margaret: Right. So you’re not getting rid of the plant, you’re actually just having that extra benefit. Yeah.
Marianne: That’s right. It’s maintenance. It’s what you have to do.
Margaret: Yeah. Early on you mentioned bananas and cannas and so forth, and when you said bananas, for instance, you’re not growing banana fruits there at your garden [laughter]. But why do you mention those, when we talk about culinary and friends with benefits with this deliciousness or whatever? You are not growing those as edibles, exactly, but you’re using them in the kitchen.
Marianne: Yes, I’m using them. I’m not going to grow bananas here; I’m not going to go to the trouble of wrapping the plants to create fruit. But those leaves are incredibly useful in the kitchen. They can be used to steam fish, to steam chicken, to make tamales; I have one of those recipes on my website.
You can also create really fun tablescapes with the leaves. If you take those large banana leaves and make them as your runner down the table for an Asian-inspired meal, and then maybe over the top of those, that green, put some of the canna, the variegated yellow and green canna leaves, it’s very dramatic. So I like to use them in different ways that way. They’re great, very useful; throughout cultures, a leaf that’s used a lot.
Margaret: So as wrappers and as decor.
Marianne: As wrappers, as decor, as a plate. I mean, that’s a fun thing to do is just to cut to… You can cut a shape in the leaf if you want, and serve the meal on that plate. Now, wash the leaf [laughter].
Margaret: Yes, absolutely, yeah.
Marianne: But what a fun way to do an outdoor sort of an al fresco meal that’s just fun outside and different.
Margaret: Well, lots of good ideas for using tropicals that have an edible characteristic as well from Marianne Willburn. I’m always glad to speak to you. And good luck with waking everybody up [laughter].
Marianne: Thank you. It’s a long process.
Margaret: I know. I know. But I’m inspired, and I can’t wait. Our garden center’s usually open at the beginning of April, but usually they’re not fully stocked with these things. But I have a feeling I may be derailing into some binge shopping thanks to you. So I’ll talk to you again-
Marianne: [Laughter.] I’ve done my job.
(Photos by Marianne Willburn, except as noted.)
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