Monday, June 14, 2010

Mexican Tree Dahlia

Here's another ornamental plant that has a secret life as an edible plant - the Mexican Tree Dahlia. When Melbourne's weather goes cold and grey, usually sometime in May each year, buds at the end of 3-4 metre tall bamboo-like canes open, revealing large pink, daisy flowers. The flowers float or dangle off the stalks and look beautiful against a soft, grey sky. The strange thing is that the Tree Dahlia's tubers are edible and apparently quite a well-known crop in Central America. The tubers are used like Jerusalem Artichokes, to which  they are related. Both Tree Dahlia and Jerusalem Artichoke tubers are rich in inulin, the fructose sugar not digestible by humans, which has made Jerusalem Artichokes a fashionable 'nutriceutical' diet food. As far as I know, Tree Dahlia has no cultivars; it's certainly very easy to grow. Just cut one of the canes off at the ground during winter, cut it into segments of about 30cm and plonk these straight into the ground. I grew Tree Dahlias years ago and from memory one cutting produced three canes and lots of flowers in one growing season. I have access to several big clumps, so I am going to give the tubers a go in a couple of weeks. If you're very keen to try obscure vegetables, all dahlia tubers are edible, even the most gaudy, over-the-top cultivars and varieties.

(Since writing this post I have changed my mind on edibility/palability of dahlias drastically - see

In search of the Abyssinian or Ethiopian Banana

The Abyssinian or Ethiopian Banana Ensete ventricosum is a spectacular ornamental plant native to East Africa. It belongs to the banana family but its fruits are variously described as "inedible" or "tasteless" or "dry and unpalatable". However, its gigantic underground corms form an important starch crop in Ethiopia.

According to Buried Treasures: Tasty Tubers of the World, Ethiopian Banana is rich in starch, protein, sugar and minerals, as well as calcium. One of the best specimens in Melbourne is in the garden of Hendrik Van Leeuwen, Managing Director of Van Leeuwen Green Pty Ltd (a company I do freelance work for). Over five years Hendrik's plant has grown into triffid-like proportions, especially as it now sending out a huge flower spike. Flowering signals the gradual decline of Ethiopian Banana so that in Hendrik's plant's case, the life span will end up around 6 years from planting. As you can see in the pics, Ethiopian Banana is intensely "tropical" looking. I think it deserves wider use in public open space, if only for its transporting qualities. As for its corms and recipes to use them, I have no idea at this stage but with or without climate change, perhaps Ethiopian Banana has a future as a backyard food plant in the suburbs. I'm going to look into it.