Spurges (Euphorbiaceae) are a very large and incredibly diverse
family ranging from large trees to herbs to many forms resembling cacti.
Many, particularly the cactus-like ones, are used as decoratives and the
rubber tree is of great economic importance, but only a very few are
at all edible. Most spurges are somewhat toxic, some are extremely toxic
and many are allergenic.
Photo © i0115
Candlenut - [Kukui nut
(Hawaii); Indian Walnut; Buah keras (Malay); Kemiri (Indonesia); Lumbang
(Philippine); Aleurites moluccana]
Nuts of a tree native to Southeast Asia, and spread by humans to the extent its true origin can not be determined. Polynesian settlers brought it to Hawaii where it became very important - the nuts for food and the rest of the tree for wood, dye, tanning chemicals, medicines and flowers for leis. Unshelled nuts take a gem-like polish and are used to make bead necklaces. As Kukui, it is the state tree of Hawaii.
Candlenuts are mildly toxic raw and sometimes used as a purgative.
Shelled nuts are a bit larger than shelled macadamia nuts and have a
softer, lumpier appearance. The largest photo specimen was 1 inch long,
7/8 inch across and 5/8 inch thick, typically 10 to the ounce. While
shelled Macadamia nuts (completely unrelated) are often used as a substitute,
the flavor is considerably different, though the oil content is similar.
As a nut, the macadamia is quite superior.
Details and Cooking.
Cassava - [Manioc,
Tapioca; Yucca (Hispanic), Mandioca, Manihot esculenta]
Cassava/Manioc is of great importance in Central and South America and the Caribbean as a source of starch for nutrition, and has become somewhat important in Africa. Roots are rated "sweet" (not bitter) if they have a low cyanide content and "bitter" if they have a high cyanide content. Bitter Cassava requires special processing before ingestion. The largest photo specimen was 11-1/2 inches long, 2-1/4 inches diameter and weighed just over 1 pound.
Cassava root should not be eaten raw, but is peeled, chunked and boiled to make it edible. It is then drained and used as chunks or mashed and squeezed out. and used similarly to potatoes in Latin American recipes. South American natives use cassava to make a mildly alcoholic beverage, cauim, but you probably don't want to know how that is made (the same method was once used to produce sake in Japan).
As Tapioca flour cassava is used as a common thickener worldwide, and in
the form of tapioca pearls to make puddings and deserts. Tapioca as used to
make the jelly balls in the boba drinks popular in East and Southeast Asia
and with children in the US.
Castor Bean -
The attractive beans of this highly toxic shrub are used to make Castor Oil (which contains no toxins, but it tastes like it does). The mash left from oil production contains the super toxin Ricin, of which one milligram is enough to kill a man. One bean is said to be sufficient to kill a child, if broken or chewed, but if it is swallowed whole it is harmless.
Castor oil was once used mainly internally as a laxative and to induce vomiting. Today it is used mainly externally for various ailments and has become highly valuable in the manufacture of plastics and for industrial processing.
Castor oil has a very high film strength and slipperiness at high temperatures and pressures so is used as a motor oil for race cars (Castrol R). Those of us who were enthusiasts back in the days when cars were cars can go all nostalgic by splashing a little castor oil on a sheet of metal hot enough to make it smoke.
Manioc - see Cassava.
Star Gooseberry -
[Otaheite gooseberry, Tahitian / Malay / West India gooseberry, Bilimbi,
Grosella (Puerto Rico), Phyllanthus acidus]
This tree-like shrub, thought native to Madagascar, is no longer a spurge, having been broken off into family Phyllanthaceae along with 1725 other former spurges. I'm keeping it here because it's the only edible in Phyllanthaceae and since it used to be a spurge that's close enough for culinary purposes. It is completely unrelated to actual gooseberries which are family Grossulariaceae along with currents.
This berry is now grown mainly in Southeast Asia, and judging from the
number of brands of pickled ones available in my local Asian markets it is
quite popular there. Some are grown in Hawaii for local consumption. Since
introduction to Jamaica, it has managed to spread through the Caribbean and
to Central and South America. The photo shows pickled ones up to 7/8 inch
diameter, 5/8 inch high and weighing 8 to the ounce. They are crisp, quite
tart but tempered with sugar, and have a single stone (shown in photo). They
are also cooked with sugar until they turn red and are used to make jelly,
or can be crushed for juice used to make beverages.
Named for Joel Roberts Poinsett who popularized it to the U.S., this decorative spurge is very mildly toxic so should not be eaten and should be avoided by those with latex intolerance. This is a tricky plant to grow. Making it branch well requires a (formerly secret) grafting process and getting multiple buds requires a bacteria infection. They are difficult to get to bloom well after the first year due to a need for at least two months of uninterrupted very dark nights in autumn.
Red, pink, white and variegated varieties are most common but Mr. Poinsett
reported seeing a blue one. Extensive searching has not confirmed this. You
can get a Christmas poinsettia to survive by making sure it's pot is well
drained and well watered, but it will get quite rangy after the second
Rubber Tree - [Para Rubber
Tree, Hevea brasiliensis]
This tree, Native to Amazonian Brazil, produces nothing edible but is
interesting as the source of the latex natural rubber is made from. Cultivation
in its native Brazil has not been satisfactory but successful plantations
continue to produce in Southeast Asia. The trees stop producing at 25 to 30
years old and are cut down. The wood (rubberwood) from these trees is prized
for making high end furniture. This tree should not be confused with the
common decorative "rubber tree" (Ficus elastica) nor with the tree
used by the Aztecs for their rubber balls (Castilla elastica), both
being entirely unrelated. Drawing in public domain - copyright
Macaranga - [Samak
(Philippine), Parasol Leaf Tree, Macaranga tanarius]
A small tree native to Southeast Asia used for medicinal purposes and
in the Philippines as an ingredient in the famous
Ilocos vinegar. The leaves and bark are
used in fermented drinks. Noted for its nasturtium-like leaves with the stem
entering almost at the center of the leaf, it is planted as an ornamental in
tropical areas and is listed by the USDA as a common invasive in Hawaii.
Photo by Forest &
Kim Starr distributed under license
Yucca - see Cassava Note: this plant is not at all related to the Yucca plants of the American southwest which are not spurges but agaves.
Spurges are all toxic, to some degree, in whole or in part, and exude sap that can be a severe irritant. For those that are used for food, cooking instructions should be followed accurately. In particular, those high in cyanide (bamboo shoots are another example) need to be cooked in an open pot sufficiently to drive off the cyanide gas.
Cyanide, at low levels and with limited exposure is not dangerous. It is the distinctive flavoring in almonds.
We definitely do not recommend any spurges be included in a raw foods diet, but then we do not recommend a raw foods diet, though I've heard it is an effective male anti-fertility strategy.Links