Join the war effort: grow your own luffa!

Given my history of coldly executing generations of zucchinis in babyhood, it was a high risk endeavour to attempt to grow luffa.  But the charmingly named “dish-rag gourd” is described on-line as a “large aggressive climber“, and apparently is an invasive weed in Uganda.  So I thought I would give it a go.  In fact, maybe I should only attempt to grow plants that sound like they should be banged up for burglary and GBH.

Luffa is a dual utility crop, a bit like our big boofy chickens Shima and Apricot.  We don’t like to mention it when they’re around, but as well as being pretty good at layers, Barred Rocks (like Shima) and Light Sussexes (ie Apricot) make pretty good eating.  Allegedly.  We won’t do it, girls, we really won’t!

I’m not sure how toothsome baby luffa really are but there’s not many vegetables that can be used as a backscratcher, a pillow, a sound-proof liner for steel helmets, a device for cleaning car wind-shields or a filtration system for ship’s boilers, so perhaps we are asking too much for it to be haute cuisine.

Pearl Harbour was obviously a tragic event, but one little known casualty of the bombing of the US Navy was the sudden disappearance of luffas from bathrooms throughout America.  Japan had been the main commercial producer since the 1890s, and so when America entered the war, the luffa supply was suddenly cut off.  In the words of economic botanist W.M.Porterfield: “the same catastrophe that stopped their importation enormously increased the need for them” (1955, 212-3)  and the US War Production Board forbad their delivery, sale or use for anything except filtration systems for ship’s boilers.

I am quite grateful that I’ve not been required to turn over my luffa crop to the authorities for some kind of military emergency.  While I consider it to have been a success, that is relative to my usual abject failure on the gourd growing front.  I managed to grow four mature fruits from three plants.

Dried luffa closeup

Luffa are tropical plants and need a long growing season.  Given that my whole garden is plunged into shade around about the equinox, it was nip and tuck whether the fruits would get big enough to make a decent sized back scratcher. As with zucchini, you have to be patient.  The first rather lovely yellow flowers, appearing in mid-summer, were male and only very late in the season, just as I was about to give up on it as yet another curcurbit failure, did female flowers and tiny perky fruits emerge.

On the positive side, the little luffa plants proved very easy to move around the garden so they could follow the sun – from  little pots on the windowsill in spring, to hefty tubs on the sunniest spot on our patio.  Since they’re actually a pretty vigorous plants for growing in a pot, I ended up moving one plant yet again, to the base of my “black widow” trellis.  This spot had previously been the kiss of death for any vine I attempted to grow there.

Innumerable generations of passion fruit and even a choko plant have turned up their toes on that higgledy-piggledy bamboo lattice (what can I say: I’m a slow learner).  By some kind of miracle, the luffa survived despite the fact I violated innumerable transplanting by-laws by moving a metre long vine covered in leaves in the middle of summer.  It survived the chooks (more evidence that luffa are probably not worth eating), and produced a haul of three fruits.  Okay, Porterfield reckons 20 fruits per vine is “to be expected”, but I find it’s best to cultivate low expectations.

There are lots of videos on YouTube sharing advice on getting the fibrous “skeleton” out of the luffa gourd.  Which would have been more helpful if they weren’t a sequence of mutually contradictory tips.  The smart money seems to be on leaving your luffas to dry as long as possible.  Some of mine dried out a bit while hanging on the vine, but I left the rest on a sunny windowsill for a couple of months.  In theory that skin should go hard, brown and leathery and then you can just peel it off, shake out the seeds and voila, there’s your luffa.

The alternative suggestion for those who were too impatient to wait for dry skin or, whose luffa (like mine) seemed likely to rot away in the meantime, involved cracking and carefully peeling off the skin and then squeezing and massaging out the remaining flesh and seeds in a bowl of water.  Whacking the flaccid luffa a few times on the sink to help shift the flesh was also recommended by one YouTuber.  The whole thing had a faintly sordid feel, like some sort of low rent vegetable s&m club, but did seem to work reasonably well in the end.  After a few days of drying out on the windowsill, I now have a suite of firm, fibrous and faintly grubby looking luffa that my children will no doubt refuse to have anything to do with.

So what’s new?  The vision of excited children running into the verdant backyard to pluck ripe organic snowpeas and strawberries has never really gelled with the scorched earth look of our chicken-denuded yard and proliferation of high-security possum-proof vegetable beds made of wire sock drawers found by the side of the road.  So I’ll let yet another self-sufficiency fantasy go.  The kids will remain (un-ex?)foliated but I’m still a seed saver – I’ll give “the dishrag gourd” another go.

 

References
Porterfield, W.M. (1955) “Loofah: The Sponge Gourd” Economic Botany, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1955), pp. 211-223

 

Bananas: my part in their downfall

Yes!  We have bananas!

Two and a half years after planting my first “cool banana”, it looks like we have a crop on the way. With luck and a tail wind, we might get a few home grown smoothies before the upcoming banana apocalypse.

In fact, our fruitful plant isn’t the first one I acquired – a tiny carefully selected, soil-free, tissue-cultured plantlet sent by mail-order from Queensland.  It’s one of a job-lot grubbed up and bundled into the back of the car when my sister decided to give her backyard jungle in Newcastle a makeover.  This particular tree seems to have the right kind of humid micro-environment, protected from the wind by the tamarillo tree and surrounded in a companionable way by monstera deliciosa, ginger and tumeric plants.   It gets some winter sunlight, and some gifts of love from the chickens in the form of dung-encrusted sugar cane mulch.

For all my attempts to recreate a tropical ambience, I haven’t gone quite as far as using my bananas as a living shower screen.  This idea seems strangely popular in permaculture circles, due I think, to the banana’s love of phosphorous, frequent watering and good drainage.  I’m no stranger to nakedness in the outdoors thanks to many happy  hours in childhood spent camping on nude beaches (in retrospect I witnessed surprisingly few cooking-related injuries).   But I’m not really sure how practical backyard ablutions are in suburbia, even in the sub-tropics.  There seems to some wishful thinking about unfettered encounters between man and nature (or, more specifically if disturbingly, woman and banana) going on here.

While I’m on the theme of soft-focus fantasies of interspecies coexistence, I have to confess to one of mine – that our backyard is a little island of biodiversity.   This is the kind of thing plant-hoarders tell themselves as they croon and mumble over on-line nursery catalogues.  But thanks to my impatience to start growing the world’s largest herb, three long years ago, I didn’t order any of the more intriguing possibilitiesBluggoe or Blue Java or Goldfinger – but just common or garden dwarf Cavendish – the world’s most widely grown variety.

It wasn’t always so.  In the early twentieth century, the dominant variety was the Gros Michel – by all accounts sweeter and more flavoursome than the Cavendish (if less productive).  Your grandparents were right – everything did taste better in the good old days.

But in the middle part of the twentieth century Panama Disease, a fusarium fungus, wiped out most of the commercial plantations of Gros Michel in Central and South America.  Panama disease is a doozy – transmissible through infected soil, water or equipment and impossible to eliminate or treat.  Once the ground in an area is infected it stays that way for decades.  Over the years, the big banana producers kept moving from country to country to keep the banana plantations going but eventually, thanks in part to multinationals and agricultural monocultures, the disease had spanned the globe.

So in the 1950s, the world switched over to a less tasty variety of banana – Cavendish – more resistant to Panama disease, or at least its early twentieth century incarnation, Tropical Race 1.

It’s not just Panama Disease.  There’s Black Sigatoka, as well, and Bunchy Top, the latter hard to take seriously since it sounds more like a Loony Tunes character than than a devastating agricultural blight.  Bananas are particularly susceptible to disease because we’ve bred them to be sterile: seedless mutants that replicate through their genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters”.  Commercial bananas have three sets of chromosones – they’re triploids, just like our old friends, the herpes-ridden Pacific Oysters of Broken Bay.

Genetic mutations can happen without sex but it’s a painfully slow process. And retrofitting disease-resistance without recourse to selective breeding is equally tricky, unless you want to go GMO. An article in Conservation Magazine described an attempt to do it the old fashioned way:

Every day for a year, workers laboriously hand-pollinated thirty thousand banana plants with pollen from wild fertile Asian bananas. The resulting fruit, some 440 tons, had to be peeled and sieved in search of any seeds. “I’ll let you guess how many seeds they collected,” says Emile [Frison, head of International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome]. “About fifteen. And of those, only four or five germinated.

Those of us who enjoy a banana with breakfast should really be fearful of an attack on the clones.

And sure enough, Tropical Race 4 Panama disease, unstoppable killer of Cavendishes and pretty much every single variety of bananas and plantains, appeared in Asia and the Northern Territory in Australia for the first time in the 1990s.  And in March this year, it turned up  in Tully in far north Queensland, the place that around half Australia’s bananas call home.

The fact that TR4 attacks so many varieties of banana makes it a threat not just to first world breakfasts but to hungry people across the globe, for whom plantains, in particular, are often a staple.  After a couple of decades in a holding pattern, TR4 has in the last year cropped up for the first time in the Middle East and in Africa, which is worrying – if you have any mental space left for additional worry about the general direction the world is going.

Given the kick-arse nature of Tropical Race 4, perhaps my unimaginative choice of varieties and ad-hoc acquisition of plants isn’t such a big deal.  Newcastle may one day be a commercial banana growing area – in fact, this would seem an entirely appropriate fate for the world’s largest coal export port.  In the meantime, moving these suckers around isn’t a criminal offense like it would be in Queensland, where your backyard banana should spring from a test-tube and come with a permit from the Department of Primary Industries.

I may be the handmaiden of monopoly capitalism, monocultural agriculture and globetrotting disease, but despite all that I think I’ll chill and allow myself to enjoy however many bland tasting Cavendish bananas escape the indiscriminate attentions of the possums, the fruit bats and the grasshoppers.

The Ginger family stole my brain!

On the face of it, it seems implausible, I know.  But if mimosa plants have long term memories corn calls out for help, beans search for a supportive pole and tomatoes are flesh eaters, it is possible that my free will has been stolen by the extended ginger family.

When we moved into our place, it was a ginger-rich environment.  The front yard had a two metre perimeter wall of shell ginger, the perfect height to conceal the neighbours and our decaying garden fence without blocking the light (or should I say, any more of the light).  Its flowers are a homage to Georgia O’Keefe: I feel faintly prurient just looking at these close-ups.

Meanwhile, lingering in the backyard was a much more nefarious member of the family – kahili ginger (aka ginger lily) – producing tall red and yellow blooms and strapping leaves even deep shade and impoverished Hawkesbury soil.

According to the Queensland government, this one lives for 70 years and is “known to invade rainforests, montane forests, agricultural areas, coastland, disturbed areas, natural forests, planted forests, range/grasslands, riparian corridors, scrub/shrublands, urban areas and wetlands.”  I’m struggling to think of a habitat not listed there.  It may possibly fail to flourish if planted directly on a glacier, but given its origins in Nepal that might be risky too.

You know a weed’s a baddie when official websites entreat you, in red block capitals, to call them immediately if you even suspect you’ve seen it (local rates Australia wide). This one’s in the global “hottest 100” thanks to bird dispersal of seeds and a capacity to survive in deep shade.  There’s none left to photograph in my backyard, needless to say – it wasn’t too hard to excavate, given time and a sharp spade, although the NSW Primary Industries reckons it can develop a layer of rhizomes a metre deep.

But I still feel like a criminal: so far I haven’t dobbed in my local primary school to the NSW Invasive Plants and Animals hotline, or the suburban house on my walk to work which displays this Category 3 weed proudly out by its front drive.

Strangely, after all the time I spent removing weedy gingers from the yard, I now find more and more members of the Zingiberacae family appearing, as if by delivered by some unknown hand, around the back door.

First it was tumeric and galangal, “for their edible roots“.  Yet curiously, three years down the track, I’ve yet to dig up a single rhizome.  They’re just too pretty.  Is that me, or my Ginger Overlords talking?

Suddenly, leaving no conscious memory of the deployment of a credit card, Atherton ginger, the good-looking redback kind, started appearing all over the place.  It’s okay, I tell myself, it’s edible and a native too – with tart but tasty fruits and ginger-flavoured leaves to wrap your tucker in for an extra zing.  Not that I’ve laid a hand on a single, lovely leaf, for snack-wrapping or any other purpose.  Funny that.

And now, not a week goes by when I don’t find another relative of the ginger family loitering in the undergrowth. Alpinia caerula, the local variety.  Cardamom ginger… smelling more suppurating than spicy.  Zingiber officianale, good old-fashioned definitive ginger ginger, lurking under the bananas and the monstera deliciosa, a dessert just waiting to happen.

To the best of my knowledge (at least in my waking hours) I haven’t yet planted anything you can get arrested for supplying to a garden centre.  But it’s possible one of these days I’ll be found stumbling around under the tamarillo tree in my nightie, raving about the marvellous yellow flowers of Hedychium flavescens and cursing the shallow minds of Australia’s biosecurity fascists with their inability to appreciate the full glory of the gingers.

And when that happens, you know the number to call: NSW Invasive Plants & Animals Enquiry Line 1800 680 244.  Or email weeds@dpi.nsw.gov.au

Of snakes and snakebeans

This sight out the window as I stumbled into the kitchen for the first cup of tea of a Monday morning made the caffeine hit mostly redundant.   Snakey the diamond python’s back in town.

Last time we saw her was early spring a year ago. I looked up from the computer, wondering about the din the little wattlebirds were making, and there she was, stretching up for a sunny rooftop.

I’m worried about the timing of Snakey’s visit.  After a good five years of prevaricating, we finally decided to use rat poison near the house. You can predict and even understand when the vermin demolish your nearly ripe corn-on-the-cob – it’s almost obligatory for your quasi-rural pest population.  But when they won’t leave your broccolini alone it’s all gone too far.

Leaving the house on a late-night mid-winter drive, I saw a tawny frogmouth flash out of the dark.  Another evening a surprised visitor landed on the balustrade of the back deck, only to realise three humans, stock still with beers half-raised to their lips, were unexpected keeping the rodents away.  And we’ve seen Snakey wait, poised for hours, then suddenly strike a rat on a twilight mission for chookhouse grain.  A glorious sight.  But pythons might only eat one a fortnight – it’s that low energy lifestyle.  Sadly there’s no sign of such dietary modesty in the case of the sweet potato munching rattus rattus.

We tried humane traps too.  But what do you do with the terrified beasts, usually the littler, stupider ones, after their night in a cage?  Counsel them?  Release them in the nearest industrial estate?  Figure out some new, psychologically gruelling way of killing them, all the while deluding yourself that it might be somehow be painless?

So not so long ago we reluctantly, guiltily, laid down baits in inaccessible places and endured our penance, the smell of death.

So over my cup of Earl Grey, I anxiously inspected Snakey’s features for signs of toxicity.  She’d chosen her spot judiciously, beside our neighbour’s chicken shed and right above the rat run down to ours.   She looked torpid: had she taken a poisoned rat, one dying slowly and easier to catch than the others?  Wasn’t her jaw somehow slack and asymmetrical, her pose ungainly…?  All I can say is, don’t try phrenology or poker with snakes.  They are danged hard to read.

By the time I got home from work she was gone.  I must confess, in the subsequent days, I have become slightly more cautious with my footing as I head down to peg the washing on the line.

Snakey seems to have brought the subtropical summer with its run-to-the-washing-line storms.  I was that nervous commuter, glancing up at the looming alien mother-ship and hoping I’d get home before all hell broke loose.  Then, same thing, same time, next day. And the next. A regular 4 o’clock Apocalyse.

It’s like the Nile River Delta out back.  As you can see from the flood-art-installation above, every item a child or lazy BBQ tender has carelessly discarded in the backyard now has its own rich pile of alluvium.

The subtropical plants are glowing.  The tumeric has reappeared in the understory as just suddenly as the snake has in the vines.  It dies right down over the winter, and come early December, just when you think it’s a goner, the leaves start nudging through the soil.  Given my dodgy record with propagation, I’m specially pleased to see the this year’s young ‘uns.  Instead of wimping out and buying plants from the ever reliable Daleys, I buried some fresh rhizomes from my weekly organic veggie box and crossed my fingers.

Inspired the marvellous Sri Lankan cooking of my clever sister in law and her mum, I’m trying to grow the ingredients for my favourite mid-week meal of 2014, snake bean curry.  I probably don’t have the stamina to harvest and process my own tumeric powder, but thanks to the big rain, the “Red Dragon” yard long beans are leaping out of the ground, and my baby curry leaf plant – in a pot near the house where I can nip off its weedy berries and quash any suckers – seems to be doing well so far, despite attentions from a nearby lebanese cucumber.  Now, if only I could keep my coriander from bolting for more than 15 minutes I’d be ready to hit the kitchen.  With luck, I’ll still be under the steady supervising eye of Snakey.