Living off the fat of the land: A two metre row of Sauropus androgynus, aka rau ngót or sweetleaf*, provides more nutritious leaves than two people can eat in the warm seasons.
If you’re vegetarian, sweetleaf is a very handy plant to have in your living larder. While growth of this trouble-free Asian vegetable (believed to have Borneo as its centre of origin) slows down in the cool seasons, sweetleaf (Sauropus androgynus) provides protein, fibre- and nutrient-rich leaves all year round in subtropical Brisbane.
I first noticed sweetleaf being grown as a waist-high hedge around a communal market garden outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There it grows all year round. It was picked once weekly and sent to the weekend markets. Offcuts must be kept shaded and cool and used within two to three days.
In Australia, you can buy seed and plants on line at certain times of the year. I got my seed from a garden in Mossman – they can be sown outdoors at anytime other than winter. I’ve trialled growing them in pots, but they prefer growing in open ground and growth increases noticeably after planting. In summer, sweetleaf can be propagated by stem cuttings – firm wood 30cm long – or by separating root suckers and potting them up.
Provide partial shade to full sun, but choose a sheltered spot. I give mine fertile, well dug, compost rich soil. I topdress with compost twice a year and in spring I lightly mulch with chopped organic sugarcane. I use a supporting framework so I can tie them in and keep them looking neat and contained. A daily splash of water keeps them growing steadily.
The only problem I have encountered is foliar disease. If leaves are wet overnight in winter, plants can become bald. They recover in spring.
Plants never look ragged, because growth contains saponins, compounds that prevent attack by caterpillars and grasshoppers. Stir frying or steaming readily neutralises saponins.
If you add sweetleaf to juices, do it in moderation and consume infrequently. I love eating the softest shoot tips best: they taste like fresh green peas. Eat too much and you may get a stomach ache, a reminder of how saponins educate vegetarians with two or more legs.
I have just cut mine back, removing one third of the cane-like growth in anticipation of Tuesday’s forecast storm. An opportunity to indulge myself and pick a big bowlful of shoot tips for a breakfast stir fry with cashew, chilli, garlic and noodles. Every leaf is edible and older leaves are the most nutritious. Today I’m living off the fat of the land.
The waste, chopped up, becomes nutritious mulch under my Tahitian lime. Currently that little tree is carrying two crops of fruit and a new set of flowers herald a third.
Now pruned, I’ve covered my sweetleaf with net curtains to protect the growth exposed by pruning – we’re having a heatwave before that forecast storm and I don’t want my plants to get sunburn. After a few days the nets can come off and my sweetleaf will burst into fresh, tasty new growth in days.
* Also known as mani cai; amame shiba; cekur manis; sayur manis; asin-asin; cangkok manis; pak waan; pak waan ban; Chinese malunggay; madhura cheera; katuk; star gooseberry, etc.
Director, Seed Savers’ Network Inc.
Patron National Toxics Network Inc.
Patron HOPE Australia Inc.
2nd February 2020