Poinsettia Flowers, Red and Yellow Spurge Family


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. Some have significant medicinal value. This family is so large that botanists divide it into three subfamilies containing many tribes and subtribes, but since few are edible we don't bother with that here.   Photo © i0115 .

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Varieties

Candlenut   -   [Kukui nut (Hawaii); Indian Walnut; Buah keras (Malay); Kemiri (Indonesia); Lumbang (Philippine); Aleurites moluccana]
Shelled Candlenuts

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; Yuca (Hispanic); Balinghoy, Kamoteng kahoy (Philippine); Mogo (Africa); Mandioca, Tapioca-root (India); Manihot esculenta]
Whole and Cut Cassava Roots

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 is used to make the jelly balls in the boba drinks popular in East and Southeast Asia and with children in North America.
Details & Cooking

Castor Bean   -   [Ricinus communis]
Castor Beans

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.

Poinsettia   -   [Euphorbia pulcherrima]
Red Poinsettias

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 year.   Photo © i0129 .

Rubber Tree   -   [Para Rubber Tree, Hevea brasiliensis]
Rubber Tree Foliage

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.   Photo by AxelBoldt contributed to the Public Domain. .

Macaranga   -   [Samak (Philippine), Parasol Leaf Tree, Macaranga tanarius]
Macaranga Leaves & Flowers

A small tree native to Southeast Asia used for medicinal purposes and in the Philippines as a flavoring ingredient in the famous Ilocos vinegar. The leaves and bark are used in fermented drinks. Its nasturtium-like leaves, with the stem entering almost at the center of the leaf, are used as flavoring food wrappers in much of Southeast Asia. It is planted as an ornamental in tropical regions and is listed by the USDA as a common invasive in Hawaii.   Photo by Forest and Kim Starr distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported, attribution required, notification appreciated.

Indian Nettle   -   [Indian Acalypha; Poonamayakki, Kuppaimeni (Tamil); Pokok Kucing Galak (Malay); Acalypha indica similar: A. bipartita, A. fruticosa, & others]
Indian Nettle Leaves & Flowers

This herbaceous plant is native to India, Southeast Asia and Oceania. It is also found on the Islands of the Indian Ocean and in West Africa, probably introduced there. Young leaves and leaf shoots are used as a vegetable in those regions, and particularly in West Africa. The plant is also an important medicinal throughout its range, and particularly to the Tamil people of southern India and Sri Lanka. Leaves of A. bipartita and A. fruticosa are similarly used in West Africa. The leaves are bland to a little bitter and are usually chopped up and added to cooking beans and peas. Dried leaves of A. fruticosa are used for teas in Ethiopia. The Malay name means "Excited Cat Tree", as it has a more powerful effect than catnip.   Photo by Delince.samuel distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution v3.0 Unported.

Azafrán de Bolita   -   [Azafrán, Azafráncillo; Ditaxis heterantha]
Azafrán de Bolita Seeds

This seed is used as a substitute for saffron in Mexico, for the color of course, it can't replace the flavor and aroma. It is used mainly in soups, but also in rice. The most famous soup using this spice is Menudo Amarillo, which is so well known it is used to describe color, but I have yet to find a recipe for it. The photo specimens, purchased from a multi-ethnic market in Los Angeles were 0.26 inch diameter.

Inca-peanut   -   [Sacha Inchi, Sacha peanut, Mountain peanut; Plukenetia volubilis]
Green Inca-Peanut Pod

This vine, native to the Peruvian rain forest, has been cultivated for hundreds of years in that region. It bears star shaped pods with four to 7 points, each point containing a flat oval seed about 3/4 inch long. The pods are allowed to dry on the vine, then harvested and the seeds are shelled. They are toxic raw but pleasantly flavored when roasted. The seeds are about 27% protein, and that protein is well balanced for human nutrition. They are about 40% fats.

These seeds have recently entered the health food market because of their high Omega 3 content. The effectiveness of vegetable Omega 3 is not yet well established, but these nuts are being sold as a healthy snack based on that oil content, and the oil as a supplement, particularly for people on a vegetarian diet. It should be remembered that oils high in Omega 3 are subject to rapid rancidity. Growing and harvesting this vine has been bringing money into rural areas where it is much needed.   Photo by The lifted lorax distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution v3.0 Unported.

Chaya   -   [Tree Spinach; Cnidoscolus aconitifolius]
Green Chaya Leaf

This large shrub is native to northern Mexico to Guatemala and cultivated as far south as Peru. It can grow to 20 feet but is usually kept pruned to 6 feet for ease of harvesting. Leaves of this plant are more nutritious than any other land growing green, and the plants are more productive than any other leafy green. The leaves are a popular vegetable in Mexico and Central America. There are several cultivars, and the one without stinging hairs is most cultivated because it's easier to harvest. Raw leaves are toxic (cyanide) and need to be simmered for about 20 minutes before being served, usually with oil or butter. Simmering also destroys the stinging hairs on varieties that have them.   Photo by Frank Vincentz distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Mongongo   -   [Schinziophyton rautanenii]
Cracked Mongongo Nut

This large tree (up to 65 feet) is found widely in southern Africa. It has provided edible fruit and nuts for local peoples for at least 7,000 years. The whole fruits are collected from the tree, of just nuts are recovered from elephant dung. Dry fruits are steamed to soften the skin, which is peeled to expose the maroon colored flesh. The fruit is then boiled until the flesh separates from the nuts. The flesh is eaten and the nuts dried and stored for up to a year. Of course, nuts recovered from elephant dung need only be washed and stored. The shells are cracked to expose the nuts, which may be eaten whole or pounded into flour to be used in recipes.

The nuts are about 57% fat, which is 44% polyunsaturated, which means, once the nuts are cracked, storage life is limited due to rancidity. They are 24% protein and contain significant amounts of vitamin E, calcium, manganese, zinc and copper.   Photo by NoodleToo distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported, attribution required.

Health & Nutrition

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.

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© Andrew Grygus - agryg@clovegarden.com - Photos on this page not otherwise credited are © cg1.- Linking to and non-commercial use of this page permitted.