Learning More About Uncommon Tropical Vegetables

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Woman reading information panels about uncommon tropical vegetables in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
A visitor reads information panels about uncommon leafy vegetables.

Singapore residents, or those visiting Singapore in the coming months, have an opportunity to learn more about some uncommon tropical vegetables. A new exhibition in the Singapore Botanic Gardens called ‘Uncommon Market Vegetables’ has a lot of information that will be of interest to even experienced vegetable growers in the tropics.

The exhibition is not large, and it’s a static exhibition – meaning it’s primarily of photographs with information panels – but a lot of the information on those panels is new and based on recent research by local horticulturalists and researchers. It’s well worth a visit if you are interested in edible and medicinal plants.

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You’ll probably recognise a few plants that you have in your garden that you never knew were edible or had any use other than as ornamentals. For example, did you know that Tradescantia spathacea, a hardy groundcover that is native to Belize and Guatemala but grown throughout the tropical world (common names: Moses-in-the-Cradle, Boat Lily, and Oyster Plant) can be used to make a herbal tea?

Tradescantia spathacea plants in the Singapore Botanic Gardens
Tradescantia spathacea can be used to make a light and refreshing herbal tea.

The tea is said to help enhance the immune system and provide relief to coughs and colds. It’s simple to make. The leaves are boiled in water with a little rock sugar or sugarcane juice until the water turns purple (the colour of the leaves). The tea has a slightly fragrant aroma but not much flavour, so it is suggested that it be boiled with other herbs like Plantago major (Greater Plantain) to enhance the flavour.

Another very common plant in tropical gardens that can be used to make a herbal tea is Alternanthera sessilis ‘Red’. Many gardeners regard this plant as a weed (hence it’s common name ‘Red Carpet Weed’) but it is useful as a groundcover in new gardens because it is a fast grower in both full sun and semi-shade.

Photographs at the exhibition show how the plant can be used as a stir-fry vegetable as well as to make a herbal tea that also includes pandan leaves, dried longans and red dates – all items that can be bought in many vegetable markets in the tropics.

An exhibition display panel about uncommon market vegetables in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
One of the information panels about the region’s uncommon vegetables.

However, as the title of the exhibition implies, many of the edible plants featured are uncommon species such as Sesbania grandiflora (common name: Hummingbird Tree), Breynia androgyna (common name: Sweet Leaf Bush), and Cosmos caudatus (common name: King’s Salad).

There are a total of 12 uncommon vegetables featured in the exhibition and there is information on each about how they can be prepared for consumption. Although these vegetables are classified as ‘uncommon’ they are all vegetables that can be found in wet markets and supermarkets in Singapore and many other Southeast Asian countries. Banana plant flowers are included, but many may not regard those as uncommon.

Adjacent to the vegetables exhibition room is another section devoted to informing visitors about Southeast Asia’s jackfruit, breadfruit, chempedak, and terap fruits (sometimes spelled ‘tarap’ and known as ‘marang’ in the Philippines). There’s a photo of the largest jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) recorded in Singapore at 54kg and a lot of information about how these various fruits are eaten and how they can be prepared as vegetables.

An exhibition display about jackfruit relatives in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Information about jackfruit relatives in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

produce palatable fruit, but most are good timber trees, and some have bark that can be stripped off and made into a type of course cloth from which bags and hats can be made.

Breadfruits are also found throughout the tropics, especially in the Pacific Islands where it is a regarded as a staple food. The fruit is generally cooked as a vegetable and can be boiled, baked, roasted, or fried. Cooked breadfruits are similar to cooked potatoes and some say when it is baked or roasted it has the aroma of fresh bread – hence its name.

Chempedak (Artocarpus integer) and terap (Artocarpus odoratissamiss) fruit trees are mainly found in Southeast Asia and most produce very palatable fruit. In fact, many consider the chempedak fruit to be superior to jackfruit in aroma and taste, and according to one of the information boards at the exhibition some of the varieties of terap found in Borneo are even sweeter, tasting like banana or ice cream (although it doesn’t specify what flavour of ice cream!).

A wall display of a mat made from terap bark and rattan in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
A beautiful mat made from terap bark cloth and split rattan.

Terap bark is one of the easiest to strip from the tree as it is strong and fibrous and comes off in large sheets. It’s widely used by indigenous people in Southeast Asia to make backpacks for collecting forest foods. There is a large and beautiful mat on display in one of the exhibition rooms which was made by the Bidayuh people of Borneo from terap bark cloth and split rattan.

Another section of the exhibition area has some examples of mengkuang woven products. Mengkuang is the Malay word for the pandanus palm (Pandanus amaryllifolius) which is sometimes called Screwpine. The weavers traditionally used the dried pandan leaves to make baskets and hats, but nowadays they are more in demand for making feature panels and ceilings in new homes.

The different colours and textures of the leaves can be woven to produce attractive and unique patterns. A section of one wall has several dozen samples of different panel designs that can be weaved. Mengkuang woven panels do not last as long as bamboo weaves, but much finer designs can be achieved with the pandan leaves.

A wall display of pandan leaf woven panels in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Some lovely examples of panels woven with mengkuang leaves.

The exhibition is located on the upper floor of the Centre for Ethnobotany adjacent to the Ethnobotany Garden in the northern section of the Botanic Gardens. The Ethnobotany Garden is about 500 metres walk from the Botanic Gardens MRT station. There is a café nearby called Bee’s Knees at the Garage if you feel like a drink or something to eat after visiting.

There is no admission charge for the Uncommon Market Vegetables exhibition. It is open daily from 9am to 6pm but closed on the last Wednesday of every month. No end date for the exhibition has been published yet.

Whilst at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, don’t forget to visit the National Orchid Garden. It’s the best outdoor display of tropical orchids in the world.

All images: © David Astley

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