Japanese Banana, The Only Cold Hardy Banana Tree, But There Is A Catch

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Musa basjoo, Japanese Banana growing in USDA Zone 5
Musa basjoo, Japanese Banana growing in USDA Zone 5

There is one Hardy Banana Tree(Musa basjoo) that will survive year after year in cold climates( down to USDA Zone 5). The catch is that it does not fruit or flower in cold climates, and even if it did, the fruits are not edible.  So why is this plant featured on Eat The Planet if it does not get bananas?  Because the gigantic leaves are used in cooking around the world.  The way Japanese Banana manages to live through cold climates is that all the foliage dies down to the ground in the winter, the deep roots stay alive below the frost line, the next summer the tree grows full size again up to an astonishing 10’-15′ by the end of the summer.  The best way to make sure the Hardy Banana stays alive is to pile mulch or wood chips on, about 3’ high after the foliage dies in the fall. This wild edible is not native to the United States but you can buy 2 Musa Basjoo Banana Trees Here. This is a plant that I personally am excited about because of my own experience. The photo featured on this page is my specimen of japanese hardy banana growing in Zone 5b in southern new england. We cover the roots with mulch in the winter and it grows to about 12′ in the summer.

Culinary Use

The gigantic leaves can get to be 6’ long and 18” wide. Banana leaves are used around the world to wrap up meals and steam them inside the leaves.  Some examples are Mexican Tamales, South American Pasteles, India’s Idlis, Filipino Bibingka, there are many more recipes using banana leaves to cook food.  The banana leaf imparts a flavor onto the food and keeps the flavors of the food contained.  Banana leaves are often used to steam fish with other veggies or spices, they are also often used to make different types of doughy meals sometimes with meat and veggies stuffed in the dough. There are also some other less known uses for the plant.  The liquidy trunk contains starch that is extracted and used as a flour substitute.  If you can manage to get the plant to flower maybe in a greenhouse then the nectar can be drunken and has a sweet flavor.

Health Benefits

Food cooked in banana leaves
Food cooked in banana leaves (Photo By: Dr d12 / Wikimedia Commons)

Banana leaves contains polyphenols which are antioxidants found in many plant based foods including green tea.  So cooking your food in banana leaves would infuse your meal with additional antioxidants.  This ancient method of cooking is healthier that using plastic or tinfoil and people have been doing it for thousands of years.

Conclusion

Obviously the Hardy Japanese Banana does not grow wild in North America or Europe, it originated in Japan and has been propagated all over the world, primarily for fibers or for ornamental use because of its tropical looking foliage.  There are a few specialty retailers online so it is easy to find and purchase.  This isn’t a typical plant I would feature but I have one growing at my house and am amazed every year at how large it grows and many people don’t even know they exist.  If I had a nickel for every time I got a comment on that banana tree I’d be a millionaire.  I have also found the leaves to be useful anytime I need a natural place mat or want to cook something the tropical way.


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Hickory, Pretty Good As Far As Wild Nuts Go

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Carya ovata, Shagbark Hickory nuts and leaves
Carya ovata, Shagbark Hickory nuts and leaves (Photo By: Abrahami / Wikimedia Commons)

The Hickory Tree( Genus: Carya) is a common forest tree of many parts of the United States and Canada.  Hickory trees get big, and can live up to 200 years. There are many species of Hickory trees, the most famous edible one is Carya illinoinesis the Pecan tree, yes the pecan is a type of Hickory tree.  Only some hickory trees have nuts large enough that it’s worth it for a human to dig out the “meat”, one of the best wild species is Shagbark Hickory(Carya ovata) which is easily identified by its shaggy bark.  Hickory trees are native solely to North America.  This is a food that Native Americans have been eating since they arrived thousands of years ago.

Edibility and Culinary Use

Carya glabra, Pignut Hickory Nuts
Carya glabra, Pignut Hickory Nuts

The primary edible part of the Hickory Tree is obviously the “meat” of the nut.  What makes this nut unique is that it’s often large enough to be worth the effort to get out the edible part, the Hickory is a very common tree, and the nut tastes great, better than some commercial nuts in my opinion.  The nuts can be eaten raw, or are commonly baked in pies.  The hard shell underneath the husk can be difficult to get through.  The most effective method I have found to getting to the inside is to let the husk dry and fall off, then just smash the nut with a hammer or stone and pick the edible parts out of the mess.  Hickory nuts fall off in the fall but stay viable often for months due to the shell being so protective. An often unknown fact is that Hickory tree sap can also be tapped in the spring and drunken or turned into syrup, similar to Maple Syrup.

Health Benefits

Hickory nuts are a substantial and nutritious snack. They contain a moderate to high amount of calories, about 200 per handful. They contain proteins, unsaturated fats and carbohydrates.  Hickory nuts also contain Vitamins B-1, B-6, magnesium and phosphorus.

Conclusion

Carya ovata, Shagbark Hickory trunks
Carya ovata, Shagbark Hickory trunks (Photo By: John B. / Wikimedia Commons)

Hickory nuts are a favorite wild edible of mine,  they are substantial, even for the small amount that you often end up with.  There are not many ways of getting protein when foraging for your own wild edible plants.  Remember to keep an eye out for Hickory trees and nuts this fall, and don’t forget your hammer.



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What The Heck Is Mucilage?

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Cocoa seeds with and without mucilage coating
Cocoa seeds with and without edible mucilage coating (Photo By: Abrahami / Wikimedia Commons)

Many plants produce a substance known as mucilage, it is also produced by some fungus, bacteria and animals. Mucilage is a thick, gluey substance, produced by almost all plants but found in higher concentrations in specific species. If you’ve ever cut open an Aloe vera plant then you know what mucilage is, it’s what makes the inside of the plant wet and slimy, Aloe vera is a plant that produces large amounts of mucilage. If you can feel the mucilage in a plant then it is described as being mucilaginous.

The primary reason that plants produce mucilage is to help store and transfer food and water, this is why cacti are filled with a mucilaginous substance. Some plant seeds are covered in mucilage to help retain water during seed germination, a good example of this is the cocoa seeds.

Mucilage is edible for humans, and although it is slimy, usually plants containing a lot of mucilage are considered to have a refreshing texture, especially in hot, dry climates. Some common plants that contain noticeable amounts of mucilage are: Rose of Sharon, Ocra, Marsh Mallow( and other Mallows), and Violet.

Mucilage has a history of being a medicinal substance. Primarily mucilage has been used to treat irritated areas such as for sore throats or irritated gastrointestinal tract. The substance forms a film which protects the nerves and tissue in the affected area from further irritation. External salves such as Yard Plantain wound dressing also contain mucilage to help sooth and protect the wound.



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