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Caribbean Flora: Foods

November 13, 2015

by Paula
At sea on a passage

Lush, verdant, flourishing, abundant. It's easy to run out of adjectives when writing about the flora on Caribbean islands. The year-round sunlight, intense heat, and moist air makes for a continuous growing season in which multitude of plants thrive. Far too rich to describe in just one blog post, I'll share the details of the plants, flowers, and foods we've seen in three installments. This is the third. (First is here, second is here.)

The saying here is that no one goes to bed hungry. Fruits and vegetables are amazingly plentiful, growing like weeds all over most of these Caribbean islands. The rich volcanic soil yields a wealth of food, ripe for the picking, year round. We didn't go to any great lengths to take these photos -- they are all from daily life in the Caribbean islands.

Mangoes are everywhere and there are a zillion varieties. 

We don't pick them from trees on private land, but those we find when hiking are fair game.

Papayas grow clumped at the top of the tree. The females bear the fruit and have the flowers on the
stem. The males, which do not bear fruit, have flowers elsewhere on the tree.

Soursop,known as Guyabana in the Dominican Republic, is one of my
favorite fruits. It has a mild but flavorful sweet and sour taste.

The most recent Soursop that the kids brought home from their Friday shopping trip was huge!!

Soursop leaves can be used to make tea that is reputed to cure insomnia and help bring down a fever. We we are told that the tea must be made with an  an odd number of leaves to be effective.

This fruit is known as golden apple or sweetsop. Like soursop, it has a
white fleshy interior with dark seeds, but its flavor is much sweeter.

Breadfruit is one of the most fascinating fruits we have come across. It is amazingly versatile, taking many forms depending on how it is cooked. It's often used in curries to add starchy body. It can be pan fried, like a potato. When roasted in the coals, it comes out looking like a charred bowling ball. When they are extremely ripe, the raw flesh has the taste and consistency of rice pudding. Yum!

There are many varieties of bananas in the Caribbean. The trees with a greener trunk produce starchy varieties, such as Plantains, that are more like vegetables and considered "cooking bananas." The brown trunk trees produce sweeter "eating bananas." The small variety that Nicole found on a hike are called rock figs. Bananas grow on one stalk per tree, though there are clearly many bananas on that stalk. And they grow upside down.

These plums are much smaller than the US variety. They have
a huge pit, with not much else left over inside.

Sapodilla is a small fruit with a thin skin. The flesh tastes very much like caramel! Delicious!

Noni fruit enjoyed a burst of popularity in the 1990s as a miracle food. Made into juice, it is only palatable when combined with other juices and a whole lot of sugar. Greg tried it and formed some very strong opinions on its repulsiveness as described here.

Many plants look similar to it, but callaloo can be identified by the small purple heart at the center of the leaf. This plant is used both for its leaves and its root. When planted in a dry spot, the root is the edible part. Called dasheen (also known as taro outside of the West Indies), the root is is a large starchy vegetable cooked like a potato. To grow callaloo for the leaves, it must be planted in a well-watered spot. These greens are uniquely delicious, but they contain calcium oxalate (bad) and so must be cooked carefully. They should be soaked overnight, and the first cooking liquid should be thrown away before the leaves a second cooking is done. Calcium oxalate is a powerful irritant that can cause swelling and itching of tongue and throat to the point of death in severe cases. It can also cause kidney stones since it is their primary component.

Lots of spices are grown here. Turmeric is the root of a plant.

Nutmeg is actually a seed that grows on trees. You can read more about it in Nicole's post here.

Cinnamon is the bark of a tree.(The "sticks" one buys in stores are actually curled strips of bark.

This allspice came from our tour guide's back yard. It was gorgeously fragrant, with a smell of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, and much stronger than any store-bought allspice I have ever found. 

Castor Beans are used to make Castor oil, of course!

Sugarcane has a long history in the Caribbean, as a source of sugar, molasses, and rum. In the poorer islands, you can still buy pieces to chew at local market stands. So sweet!

No post about Caribbean food would be complete without the coconut. "Water" coconuts contain a sweet and refreshing liquid that is reported to be very healthy. And it goes very well with rum! 

The male coconut trees grow up to be palm trees, bearing no fruit,
and the females grow up to be coconut trees.

The vegetables grow huge here! Those are string beans, a carrot, and spring onions.

The calabash isn't edible, but it is used to make craft items. Just slice it in half with your machete, scoop out the flesh, and dry the semi-spherical skin to create a bowl.

Guava is a delightful little fruit with a wonderful taste. It is often used to make juice.

We picked the last starfruit on this tree, whose pink flowers are lovely.

Chocolate comes from cocoa beans in the inside of the pods that grow on the cocoa tree. You can read more about how it becomes a chocolate bar in Cash's chocolate factory post here.

Oranges here are green!

The grapefruits are yellow. Those I bought on the beach in Carriacou
were the sweetest and most flavorful I have ever eaten.

A tiny variety of mandarin oranges also grow here (shown below with a nutmeg and a ukiou). They are also green. The leaves can be used to make tea that is good for sore throats.

This plant, not surprisingly, is called seed-under-leaf. It grows along the ground. It is used for tea that is thought to be good for diabetes and fever. Greg tried it and reports that it was horribly undrinkably bitter. (So it must be good for us, right?)

The ukiou (pronounced yoo-koo) can't be eaten, but I thought I would include it here anyway. It has an intense red seed that is (or was) used as nail polish and lipstick. Be sure not to get it on anything, as it stains!

Skin-ups, also known as chinetts, are little fruits with a hard skin that easily cracks when bitten. Discard the skin and pop them in your mouth! The fruit is a bit fuzzy and tart, but yummy tasting a bit like a grape. Be sure to spit out the pit.The close-up shot is the only photo I did not take myself.

I had no idea that pineapples grow in the ground!