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In the summer and autumn of 2013 Kew Gardens celebrated the amazing bounty of the plant world, inviting visitors to experience first-hand a selection of the 12,000 species we humans can feast on. Throughout the festival people from all over Kew contributed to this blog, sharing their behind-the-scenes experiences of creating festival attractions as well as shedding light on the wonderful world of edible plants.

Cupuaçu - the taste of the Amazon

By: Wolfgang Stuppy - 20 Aug 2013
In the latest of his bite-sized posts about weird and wonderful edible plants to accompany Kew's Incredibles festival, Kew's resident seed morphologist Wolfgang Stuppy tells us about Cupuaçu, the national fruit of Brazil.
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Coo poo asoo

When I got to Manaus in the heart of the Amazon rainforest for the first time, I was shocked to find I had never heard of cupuaçu (pronounced ‘coo poo asoo’) before. It is, I was told by locals, the most famous and original fruit of the Amazon basin. In fact, cupuaçu is considered to be the ‘taste of the Amazon’ and in March 2008 it was even declared the national fruit of Brazil. So what is a cupuaçu? And just how does it taste?

Photo of Theobroma grandiflorum fruit

The fruit of a cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum) growing in the Amazon (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Cocoa cousin

Turns out it’s a kind of chocolate! Well, sort of. Cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum) is a very close relative of cocoa (Theobroma cacao), the main ingredient in chocolate. Both species are indigenous trees of the Amazon rainforest and native tribes have used their fruits as a food source for centuries if not millennia.

Photos of Theobroma grandiflorum and T.cacao flowers

Above left: Flower of cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum). Above right: flowers of cocoa (Theobroma cacao) flower (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Juicy seeds

These very interesting-looking flowers give rise to large pods with a thick and tough brown (cupuaçu) or yellow to orange (cocoa) rind. Inside their hard shell the fruits of both cocoa and cupuaçu contain a white or yellowish juicy lump which consists of numerous large seeds covered in soft, fleshy seed coats.

Photo of Theobroma cacao fruits and fleshy seeds
Fruits of cocoa (Theobroma cacao) on the tree (left) and cut in half (right), revealing the fleshy seeds, one of which has already started germinating (Photos: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Bizarre flavours

The cupuaçu doesn’t taste like anything else. Its rich, voluminous flavour is sweet, sour and slightly tart at the same time, with a very pleasant but heavy fruity component reminiscent of a mix of pear, banana and pineapple. On top of all this lies a rather strong hint of something bizarre, almost artificial, that to me tastes like a mix of aniseed and wintergreen or perhaps the resinous aroma of mango skin. To put it short, it simply tastes like cupuaçu!

Amazonian superfood

The fresh pulp of cupuaçu is either eaten raw or turned into refreshing drinks, ice cream, pastries, candies, jams etc. Because of its high levels of antioxidants (anti-ageing effect!) cupuaçu has been touted by some as the next Amazonian ‘superfood’. The fruits of the açai palm (Euterpe oleracea, Arecaceae) and guaraná (i.e. the seeds of Paulinia cupana, Sapindaceae), both also from the Amazon region, have already caused some recent ‘health-food excitement’ in North America and Europe.

Photo of Guarana seeds and Paullinia pinnata fruits

Above left: seeds of guarana (Paullinia cupana) for sale at a market in Manaus. Above right: fruits of Paullinia pinnata which look very similar to those of guarana (Photos: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Perhaps one detail too many

Because of its low melting point, the fat (‘butter’) extracted from the seeds of both cupuaçu and cocoa is used as a base for suppositories.

Read the whole fascinating story at my post The taste of the Amazon.

- Wolfgang -

 


 

IncrEdible festival attractions

Visit Kew's IncrEdibles Festival to find out more about the amazing world of edible plants.

Tutti Frutti Boating Experience Take a ride on the Tutti Frutti Boating Experience with Bompas & Parr and enter the secret banana grotto, beneath Pineapple Island!

Food and Drink Taste our Amazing ice-cream, take part in the IncrEdibles Tasty Trail, enjoy an IncrEdibles Barbeque, sample ales, beers and ciders from around the country, and more.

Family Fun Join in the Rose Garden Tea Party, get the little ones' faces painted, and more.

IncrEdibles Attractions Explore the The Global Kitchen Garden, discover something tasty in the Tropical larder, pick up spicy chilli recipes at the Flavour Fiesta, and more.

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The pineapple in history

By: Julia Buckley - 16 Aug 2013
Kew’s IncrEdibles festival presented the Illustrations Team with a fabulous opportunity to search Kew’s collections of botanical illustrations to find references for the royal fruit whose image dominates Kew this summer - the pineapple - as librarian Julia Buckley explains.
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Pineapples in the Illustrations Collection

The Illustrations Collection is a real treasure trove and it is always fascinating to uncover the visual resources held for a particular plant. It was exciting to identify the various representations of fruits and imagine the context in which these illustrations and live specimens were received.

As the centrepiece of the festival is the Tutti Frutti boatride under an enormous model pineapple, it was only natural that we should search for illustrations of this exotic fruit.

The pineapple (Ananas comosus). appeared in Europe in the late 16th century, though Christopher Columbus records it in his travels a century earlier. The exact origins of the pineapple are uncertain except that it was cultivated in South America. Ham House holds a painting from 1675 of Charles II being presented with a pineapple by Rose, the Royal Gardener, painted by Hendrick Danckerts. But it was not until the 18th century that pineapples became more successfully grown in Britain when stove houses were employed for their production.

An image of Bromelia ananas from Joseph Plenck’s Viennese publication ‘Icones Plantarum Medicinalium (1788-1812)

An image of Bromelia ananas from Joseph Plenck’s Viennese publication ‘Icones Plantarum Medicinalium (1788-1812)

Originally the preserve of the wealthy, the pineapple became the celebrated centrepiece of some of the most glamorous 18th century dining tables. The fruit’s geometric form and exotic appeal lent itself to architectural decoration and it featured in garden ornamentation and adorned many gateposts as a symbol of hospitality.

Pineapple illustration in the ‘Herbarium Amboinense’ (1741-55), a book by the Dutch botanist Rumphius

Pineapple illustration in the ‘Herbarium Amboinense’ (1741-55), a book by the Dutch botanist Rumphius

On a tentative search, references told us that one of the earliest pineapple illustrations in the Collection at Kew appears in ‘Herbarium Amboinense’ (1741-55), a book by the Dutch botanist Rumphius on the flora of Amboyna in the Dutch East Indies. This engraving is a good reference for the visual characteristics of the fruit but fails to conjure up the same excitement and vivacity of the vibrantly coloured illustrations by the Swiss-German artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

Merian’s illustration of a pineapple for ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium

Merian’s illustration of a pineapple for ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium

Merian’s illustrations for ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium – The Transformation of the Insects of Surinam’ documented the insects, flowers and fruits of the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. Merian illustrated many economically valuable plants at a time when the Dutch East India Company was expanding its trading interests. Voyages of exploration and commerce encouraged the documentation of new plants and there was a surge of interest in exotic flora. 

Pineapples in Kew's Library, Art and Archives

Kew’s Library, Art & Archives also surrendered some beautiful engravings by the renowned 18th Century illustrator Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770). This colourful illustration of ‘Ananas aculeatus’ appeared in Christoph Jacob Trew’s ‘Plantae Selectae’ of 1750-53. Ehret was one of the most respected illustrators of his day and Trew’s patronage gave him access to many of the exotic plants being cultivated at the time.

Pineapple illustration by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770)

Pineapple illustration by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770)

Elizabeth Twining (1805-89) created an elaborate composition of the pineapple set amongst other members of the Bromeliaceae family. While Twining’s composition is artistic it is also botanically valuable, featuring cross-sections of part of each plant. Twining was the granddaughter of the tea merchant Richard Twining and her illustrations featured in the publication ‘Illustrations of Natural Orders’ (1849-55).

Pineapples in the Marianne North Gallery

The artist Marianne North was prolific in her illustrations of flora from across the world and the wild pineapple features amongst the paintings displayed in her Gallery at Kew. The guide to the Marianne North Gallery describes it as ‘Wild Pine Apple in Flower and Fruit, Borneo’ – the guide notes that ‘The Pine Apple (Ananas sativus, Mill.var.) is believed to be really indigenous only in Brazil, whence it has spread to other countries, in some of which it has become naturalised and wild’.

‘Wild Pine Apple in Flower and Fruit, Borneo’ by Marianne North

‘Wild Pine Apple in Flower and Fruit, Borneo’ by Marianne North

Tutti Frutti

The pineapple continues to capture the imagination of botanists, horticulturalists and artists alike and rightly features as the centrepiece in this year’s IncrEdibles festival. Its position in pride of place in front of Kew’s Palm House harks back to the celebrated status of its past, and this fruit of kings finds a fittingly grand and striking contemporary representation in the work of Bompas and Parr.

- Julia Buckley –
 


 

IncrEdible festival attractions

Tutti Frutti Boating Experience

Take a ride on the Tutti Frutti Boating Experience with Bompas & Parr and enter the secret banana grotto, beneath Pineapple Island!

Food and Drink

Taste our Amazing ice-cream, take part in the IncrEdibles Tasty Trail, enjoy an IncrEdibles Barbeque, sample ales, beers and ciders from around the country, and more ...

Family Fun

Join in the Rose Garden Tea Party, get the little ones' faces painted, and more ...

IncrEdibles Attractions

Explore the The Global Kitchen Garden, discover something tasty in the Tropical larder, pick up spicy chilli recipes at the Flavour Fiesta, and more ...

Book tickets button


 

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Prickly IncrEdibles

By: Eli Biondi - 01 Aug 2013
Horticulturalist Eli Biondi writes about the wonderful world of cacti - from the bright vibrant flowers to the succulent and juicy fruits and their uses.
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What are Cacti? 

Cacti are succulent plants in the Cactaceae family. They come from the Americas and have developed clever adaptations in order to survive arid climates and soil conditions.

Their stems are swollen to store water and are often covered in wax and hair to capture humidity and create shade. Their leaves are reduced to avoid transpiration and the roots are very near the surface of the soil to make the most of every available drop of water.

Cacti are famous for their peculiar shapes: columnar, spherical, cushion-like, and compact; but their most stunning features are their flowers which are showy in order to attract pollinators, which can be hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, moths and bats. Once the flower is pollinated, the yummy part develops: the FRUIT. 

 

Harrisia fruit in Tropical Nursery

Photo of Harrisia fruit in Kew's Tropical Nursery (Photo: Eli Biondi) 

  

The infamous prickly pear

Opuntia ficus-indica is possibly the most popular edible Cactus. It is very sweet and fresh, with a sort of watermelon taste. Widely used in Mexico, the fruit can be eaten raw or used to make jelly, candies and drinks. 

 

Opuntias flowering in the wild

Photo of Opuntias flowering in the wild (Photo: Eli Biondi) 

 

In Mexican cuisine, another part of Opuntia is widely used: the green platyclades (pads). Chopped or sliced, they can be added to salads or omelettes, often combined with chilli. They are rich in vitamins and minerals and native cultures use them as a treatment for diabetes.

Opuntia are quite easy to grow at home. Some are fairly hardy in the UK, but it’s always better to protect them in winter. They like well-drained soil and plenty of water in the summer.

 

Other IncrEdibles 

Another Cactus fruit used in the Southern United States and Mexico is Myrtillocactus geometrizans. This beautiful plant produces small edible berries that resemble Bilberry fruit (Vaccinium myrtillus) in shape, colour and taste, hence the scientific name.

In Arizona, Ferocactus wislizeni fruits are used to produce jelly and candy. Despite being a bit sour they are also used in salads. 

 

Ferocactus wislizeni

Photo of Ferocactus wislizeni (Photo: Eli Biondi) 

 

The Dragon fruit or Pitahaya is the fruit of Hylocereus sp. and it is fairly easy to find in our supermarkets. Eaten raw, it has sweet juicy flesh with lots of seeds and a sort of kiwi texture. It can also be used to produce wine and juice.

The very showy flowers of Hylocereus open only at night as they are mainly bat pollinated. They can be eaten and used in tea.

Other Genera of Cacti produce fruits similar to the dragon fruit, such as Stenocereus sp. and Harrisia sp.

  

The iconic Saguaro 

 

Carnegiea gigantea in the wild

Photo of Carnegiea gigantea in the wild (Photo: Eli Biondi) 

 

Carnegiea gigantea (Saguaro) is native to the Sonora Desert, often reaching 15 m tall, and can live up to 200 years in healthy conditions. It is difficult to grow outside its range and is very slow growing.

The plant and its flowers, fruits and seeds are extremely important for wildlife. As a food source or a place to live, the Saguaro plays an important role in the ecosystem.

The fruits (called Papago) are not particularly interesting when eaten raw, but play a large part in the lives of Native Americans who, even now, harvest them to make nutritious syrup which can be consumed straight away or fermented to produce a type of wine used in ceremonies. The seeds are rich in proteins and fats and can be used to make flour.
 

- Eli -

 


 

Visit Kew's Cacti

Come and visit the Cacti in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. The Princess of Wales Conservatory recreates ten climatic zones. See Madagascan baobab trees, orchids from Central America and carnivorous plants from Asia.

Princess of Wales Conservatory
 

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The sweet taste of a dead man’s finger

By: Wolfgang Stuppy - 26 Jul 2013
For the IncrEdibles festival Kew’s resident seed specialist Wolfgang Stuppy is contributing bite-size features about weird and wonderful edible plants from around the world. In the third of the series – the dead man's finger!
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If you get excited by exotic fruits, here’s one that adds a little ‘creep factor’ to the experience. It belongs to an Asian shrub called Decaisnea insignis.

Decaisnea insignis fruit open

The fruit of Decaisnea insignis, also called 'dead man's finger' (Photo: W. Stuppy)

  • Freaky blue fruit The freaky fruit of Decaisnea insignis is kind of a secret delicacy. It’s been enjoyed for centuries by the Lepcha, the indigenous people of Sikkim, but outside its natural range (China, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Myanmar) the dead man’s finger is little known for its edible fruits.

Decaisnea insignis fruit cluster

The fruits of Decaisnea insignis are always borne in clusters of three (Photo: W Stuppy)

  • Like a cold human finger About 7-12 cm long, soft to the touch and covered in an eerily skin-like peel, the fruit of Decaisnea does really feel like a cold human finger, hence it’s common name ‘dead man’s finger’.
  • The taste of a dead man’s finger The weird fruits easily split along a straight line to reveal their translucent gelatinous pulp into which a large number of flat black seeds are embedded. The jelly-like pulp is the edible part, not the hard seeds. It’s flavour is very pleasant and subtle, mainly sweet, perhaps with a hint of melon or cucumber.

Decaisnea insignis fruit unzipped

Unzipped - the fruit of Decaisnea insignis opened up along its ventral suture, like the slaughtered animal, ready to be gutted. Yum! (Photo: W. Stuppy)

Danger! Don’t just eat any dead man’s finger!

Just to avoid any potentially dangerous confusion, it must be said that there are other species, unrelated and not all plants, commonly known as Dead Man’s (or Dead Men’s) Fingers, one of them deadly poisonous. Oenanthe crocata, a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), is known under the common name ‘Hemlock Water-Dropwort’, but is also sometimes called ‘Dead Men’s Fingers’ (on account of the shape of its tubers). All parts of this plant are poisonous and occasionally lead to fatalities. Looking similar to Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) or Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), it should be hard to confuse Oenanthe crocata with Decaisnea insignis. However, since Oenanthe crocata is deemed one of the most poisonous plants in Britain, a word of warning seems appropriate here. After all, as my colleage Steve Davis pointed out, in recent years Kew has received frequent enquiries concerning Oenanthe crocata, including a case of someone being admitted to A&E, and several cases of livestock or pet poisonings. Other ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’ are Xylaria polymorpha (a fungus), Alcyonium digitatum (a species of soft coral) and Codium fragile (a seaweed).
 

- Wolfgang Stuppy -

To find out why the dead man’s fingers always come in bunches of three and who its natural dispersers are read the full story here


 

IncrEdible festival attractions

Tutti Frutti Boating Experience

Take a ride on the Tutti Frutti Boating Experience with Bompas & Parr and enter the secret banana grotto, beneath Pineapple Island!

Food and Drink

Taste our Amazing ice-cream, take part in the IncrEdibles Tasty Trail, enjoy an IncrEdibles Barbeque, sample ales, beers and ciders from around the country, and more ...

Family Fun

Join in the Rose Garden Tea Party, get the little ones' faces painted, and more ...

IncrEdibles Attractions

Explore the The Global Kitchen Garden, discover something tasty in the Tropical larder, pick up spicy chilli recipes at the Flavour Fiesta, and more ...

Book tickets button


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The IncrEdible Bromeliad Roundabout

By: Tilly Jones - 24 Jul 2013
At the top of the Broadwalk by the Palm House pond you can enjoy an unusual summer display of Bromeliads as a part of Kew’s celebration of edible plants.
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Bromeliads edible?!

At first glance you may not think many of these plants to be edible, but one in particular has been titillating our taste buds since Christopher Columbus sailed the oceans many centuries ago: the pineapple! Otherwise known as the King of Fruits, Pine of the Indies, or in latin Ananas comosus.

The lesser known edible members of the bromeliad family include Tillandsias, whose plumose seeds can be used as a natural chewing gum. The leaves of Tillandsia rubella and Tillandsia maxima are eaten in Bolivia where their leaves are peeled and eaten like a stick of celery. Bromelia balansae and Puya hamata have historically been used in South America to produce a potent alcoholic beverage similar to the Mexican Tequila. In Brazil native Indians use the leaves of Bromelia lacinosa, boiling them down to make a flour high in calcium called ‘macambira’. In addition, the berry-like fruit of many species of bromeliad are recorded to be edible, having a juicy citrus-like taste.These include species such as Bromelia balansae, Aechmea bracteata, and Neoregelia concentrica, all found in Kew’s living collections.

 

Neoregelia King of Kings and Ananas Corona

Neoregelia 'King of Kings', with Ananas 'Corona'

 

The Design

Kew’s Bromeliad expert, Marcelo Sellaro, and I designed and built the Bromeliad display. Using a selection of some of the more hardy species, we have dotted plants amongst rocks and boulders to try and recreate the feel of a typical bromeliad environment.

 

Photo of the Bromeliad Roundabout

Kew's Bromeliad roundabout outside the Palm House

 

One of the biggest challenges with displaying bromeliads outdoors in the UK is not necessarily the wet and cold temperatures, but the fluctuation in temperatures from day to night, and in this year’s case from day to day. Our variable summer has proved difficult at times in maintaining healthy plants, especially as our display runs from April to September, but since our recent heat wave things are springing into life and even bursting into flower.

History of the King of Fruits

Brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus in 1493 from the Caribbean, the pineapple was an immediate hit and became a highly sought after commodity among the high society of Renaissance Europe. As a symbol of wealth and hospitality the pineapple was top of the list of accessories when organizing a big party. Due to their high price tag individual fruits would be rented out to households to use in table displays only to be handed back at the end of the night and moved on to the next event.

 

Photo of Bromelia balansae

Bromelia balansae

 

Having pineapples in your garden became not only a sign of wealth, but also demonstrated that you had a gardener of the utmost skill and experience. Gardeners across Europe attempted to grow the prized fruit for their employers. Unfortunately the cold wet climate of Northern Europe was far from suitable, and so began the task of creating the first artificial growing environment for plants.

Initially pineapples were grown in horse manure in individual wooden cases with stoves to heat them from below. This method was fairly successful and kick started an interest is growing tender plants from far flung countries.

So, it was from our taste for the pineapple, and desire for the exotic, that the idea and inspiration grew to develop heated growing environments for plants. Over many years this has evolved into the large scale glass houses we see today.

 

- Tilly -

 


 

IncrEdible festival attractions

Tutti Frutti Boating Experience

Take a ride on the Tutti Frutti Boating Experience with Bompas & Parr and enter the secret banana grotto, beneath Pineapple Island!

Food and Drink

Taste our Amazing ice-cream, take part in the IncrEdibles Tasty Trail, enjoy an IncrEdibles Barbeque, sample ales, beers and ciders from around the country, and more ...

Family Fun

Join in the Rose Garden Tea Party, get the little ones' faces painted, and more ...

IncrEdibles Attractions

Explore the The Global Kitchen Garden, discover something tasty in the Tropical larder, pick up spicy chilli recipes at the Flavour Fiesta, and more ...

Book tickets button


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Week by week horticulturalists, botanists and attractions organisers from all around Kew Gardens wrote for this special IncrEdibles blog, describing behind-the-scenes experiences and sharing insights into the amazing world of edible plants.

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