Monday, July 13, 2009

New York Botanical Garden - The Edible Garden exhibit

Despite our love of fruits and vegetables, we have not spent much time around them in their native habitat since our abortive attempt at a fire escape herb garden last summer. So yesterday, we headed up to see the Edible Garden exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden. The exhibit features an elegantly landscaped outdoor garden full of heirloom plants (from the Seed Savers' Exchange collection) as well as a collection of tropical fruits and vegetables growing in the Botanical Garden's conservatory. And that is where we saw something that BLEW OUR MINDS:

Yes, THAT IS ACTUALLY HOW PINEAPPLES GROW! They look like someone has stuck a pineapple onto a short pole and then jammed it into the ground at the center of a standard lily plant. Somehow, we had both figured that they must grow attached to the plant at the top - maybe in a tall palm tree of some kind. But apparently we were wrong.

We spotted some other familiar fixtures in our kitchen:

Amaranth - a purple variety, rather than the red-splashed green leaves we typically buy at the Indian grocery store. This type might be grown for its grain rather than its leaves, which can be used as vegetables.

It might be kind of hard to tell from the picture, but that green blob just above center is a smooth-skinned variety of avocado. It is growing hanging from a tree by a ridiculously thin stem. Who could blame us if it happened to fall into our outstretched hands......

This might be our favorite rhizome (and that is, actually, saying a lot) - if you look carefully at the tan patch at the bottom of this picture you will recognize the unmistakable shape of a piece of ginger! Those green bamboo-looking stems were growing straight up from the ginger "root" itself.

True addicts will recognize this as coffee. But only true addicts. (It's green because it is not ripe yet - later on it turns red, and then the coffee "bean" itself - actually a seed - is removed and roasted.)

Ok, this is not a vegetable, but a hipster panda would definitely like this bamboo. For some reason we found the stripes very aesthetically pleasing. Then we returned to the vegetables, and espied -

-some purple okra! It was growing on short, foot-tall plants. The leaves look like maple.

Sadly there were no melons to be seen, but this vine is the bitter melon plant - one of our favorite Indian grocery store purchases (and one of our favorite cucurbits).

This would have been more of a shock if we hadn't already learned (thanks, Wikipedia) about how cashews grow, but - that is a cashew fruit! The red part is actually sweet and is made into a drink in many countries. The weird kidney shape hanging off the bottom is the cashew, encased in a hard and very poisonous shell. Harvest has to be done carefully to keep the toxin from getting into the fruit juice.

Here, we have a chenopod family reunion: at top is our old friend quinoa, a useful South American staple whose seeds are treated as a grain. Apparently the leaves are also edible, but we don't get those around here. (If you are a farmers' market dork, you might notice that the leaves look a lot like lamb's quarters, an invasive weed around here that also happens to be a tasty and cheaper approximation of spinach.) At bottom is epazote, an herb which is a relative of quinoa and which is used sparingly in Mexican cooking to give refried beans and other dishes a distinctive flavor. The herb itself is more than distinctive - some people think it tastes like gasoline. You probably just have to get used to it. (Interestingly, epazote is also invasive in our region and apparently grows all over Central Park!)

After exploring the wonders of the greenhouse, we headed outside to see the lilies and lotuses growing in the conservatory's ponds:

(Gigantic lotus flower - Lizz for scale.) In addition to being a religious symbol, an extremely pretty flower, and a superhydrophobic nanostructured material, lotuses are a food! Their rhizomes, usually erroneously called lotus root, are weird tubular structures revealing a lacy pattern of holes when you slice them open. In the center of their flowers are these truly bizarre structures:

After pollination, the flower petals fall off leaving this seedpod (which looks like some kind of electrical plug). It slowly dries out, and the little dots expand to reveal dark lotus seeds, which can be ground into paste, mixed with sugar, and used in the pastries of several Asian countries.

On our way to the rose garden, we passed a tree that had dropped a million small, apricot-like fruits on the ground. Imagine our surprise when we looked at the tag and discovered it was:

PRUNUS MUME, OUR FAVORITE APRICOT! Ok, more specifically, it is the small fruit usually called a "plum" which is used to create Japanese umeboshi, a pink pickle flavored with shiso leaves (and much beloved by Giselle). They are also used to make Japanese plum wine. Despite much temptation, we resisted eating them out of hand.

Incidentally, just try saying "prunus mume" and not feeling happy.

We also encountered this innocent-looking vine:

Not much going on now, but this is the hops vine, known and loved by beer drinkers everywhere.

Last we visited the rose garden, now in full bloom:

Here is Lizz posing like a Greek statue amidst the flowers.

This is Giselle's favorite color of roses. But fear not, this DOES relate back to food (considering that this is a food blog):

What you see there are rose hips, the fruit of the rose bush! They are the expanded ovary of the pollinated rose flower, which grows like that after the petals have fallen off. These are used to make jellies and jams, and are sometimes candied. It might seem surprising that rose bushes make an edible fruit, but the family rosacea actually includes many well-known fruits, such as apples, cherries, and apricots - yes, including prunus mume.

Incredibly, we made it through the afternoon without illicitly harvesting any of these delicious fruits and vegetables, and returned home to cook dinner with our decontextualized ones.

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