A few new-to-me plants found their ways into the garden this year. First up is rau răm (Persicaria odorata), a Vietnamese herb that is sometimes mentioned as a potential substitution for cilantro in hot climates. It’s to the right of the ponytail plant that hated winter indoors so received a summer sojourn in the yard. Anyone who has grown cilantro knows that it will bolt, flower, and die at the mere mention of a warm day, so I am always on the lookout for something to use during the summer months.
We found the flavor a little spicy and citrusy, but I think quilquiña (Porophyllum ruderale, papalo, papaloquelite) works better where cilantro is typically used. It’s a bit more assertive. The rau răm also needs a lot of water while quilquiña thrives on neglect. I ended up using it in summer rolls as part of a multi-herb chiffonade. Chiffonade tip: roll everything up in the biggest leaf you have. Shiso works well, and then, as a bonus, you get to walk around saying, “shiso chiffonade.”
Next is achojcha (Cyclanthera pedata), a vining plant in the cucurbit family (pumpkins, cucumbers, etc.) that hails from the Andes mountains and is pictured in the header. My seeds were given to me by a friend who is a native Quechua speaker, and I have spelled the name as she instructed. You may also see it listed as stuffing cucumber, achocha, caigua, slipper gourd, or a combination of these names. Achojcha is both a fascinating and unusual plant that occurs in ancient Andean ceramic art, and it is only known in its cultivated form. Like many traditional crop plants, it also holds an important place in Andean culture, has a deep connection to the past, and it is touted as curing any number of ailments. In other words, it hits all the buttons for the archaeobotanist with a penchant for gardening.
The achojcha itself was significantly less enthusiastic about living its best life in USDA zone 7 than I was about planting it. I placed it by the fence, giving it a choice of full sun or partial shade, and shoveled on some compost. The vine grew well at first, quite unfairly lost half its biomass at the hands of an over-enthusiastic wielder of a weed-wacker, rebounded, and then began to fizzle in the summer heat. Fortunately, my friend had one of her two vines thrive, and she brought me a few of the fruit. They are quite cucumbery in both aroma and flavor, and made a nice addition to a salad. I am told the more mature specimens can be put into stews or stuffed.
Here are the seeds, which may look familiar if you have ever cooked with bitter melon, another cucurbit. With their dark color and textured surfaces, I feel like I could plant them and grow prehistoric crocodilians. The plant itself is beautiful, and I will probably give it another try next year, even though I live with a card-carrying cucumber hater. It’s just too interesting for me to let it go yet, and it sprawls along the fence where I don’t have anything else growing.
Up last is the gorgeous lá lốt (Piper sarmentosum) with its glossy, heart-shaped leaves and spicy flavor. This plant is in the same genus as black pepper and hoja santa, and has a similar growth habit. I have seen the leaves occasionally in the produce sections of a few local Korean markets, but this spring I was able to procure a plant from a local purveyor of Vietnamese herbs. I potted it up, gave it a little trellis to climb on, and it did very nicely in partial shade in the side yard. This one likes the heat.
I’ve wanted a plant since I found Mai Pham’s recipe for spicy lemongrass tofu, tried it, and loved it. It really is a fantastic dish. The original calls for lá lốt leaves instead of the easier-to-find basil, and it’s not unusual for me to grow a plant for a recipe. Hey. Everyone needs a hobby. It is very frost tender, so the pot came inside in late November and is currently residing in the downstairs bathroom where it can overwinter behind a closed door. Safety is key because lá lốt turns out to be exceptionally attractive to the resident practitioners of recreational herbivory, pictured below engaging in a high-intensity round of “I’m not looking at you.”
The pot will head back outside next spring after things warm up, and, given that we are somehow already in December, I should be thinking about spring planting again. I’d better go write Santa to ask for a little more time.