Tropical Gardening: Christmas nuts vary depending on where you live

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In years gone by, if you lived in North America or Europe the traditional nuts found at Christmas would have been walnuts or hazelnuts. Pecans would have been the choice in the Southern states. Now we can find nuts from around the world at the local markets.

In Myanmar and Vietnam, you might find tropical almonds and relatives of the pili nut. The pili nut has more than 600 species in the family Burseraceae and can be found throughout Southeast Asia. Even the macadamia has close relatives in tropical Asia, so depending on where you live, you can find local nuts as well as exotic introductions included in regional cuisine.

Some folks think macadamia nut trees are native to Hawaii, but here we know it is an Australian tree that we adopted as our own. We use the nut in all kinds of local dishes, especially desserts. Roasted macadamia nuts are great Christmas snacks and gifts. We even use the leaves for Christmas decorations instead of holly.

When the first humans arrived in Hawaii, edible nutritional kernels or nuts were hard to find. About the only native nut was the mahoe, or Alectron macrococculus. Polynesians then brought with them the coconut and the kukui nut. Technically, the coconut is not a true nut. Although kukui nut is edible, it can create serious stomach issues when too many are eaten since it is related to the castor bean.

So in the arena of foods and nutrition, true nuts were lacking.

In the 20th century, University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture researchers literally scoured the tropical world for nut crops that might adapt to some of Hawaii’s diverse climates. Many nut-bearing species such as almonds and cashews were introduced, but none really found popularity like the Australian macadamia nut.

Even though the first macadamias arrived here in the late 1800s, it took years for it to be seriously considered as a commercial crop. Then, researchers developed many superior varieties, and it wasn’t long before farmers began growing them commercially. Today, when folks think macadamia they think Hawaii since the best varieties were promoted as Hawaiian macadamias even thought they are now grown in parts of Africa, tropical America, Asia and Australia as well.

Besides macadamias, let’s consider some of the other nuts with potential for us.

Cashews are popular in tropical Asia and you will find them used in many recipes; however, the trees were originally discovered in Brasil, ultimately to be spread worldwide. In Hawaii, cashews fit well in the home garden. The nut, or seed, develops at the bottom of the cashew fruit. It is easily grown from seed and grows to be a small, round-headed tree. Cashew trees are related to mango trees and have irritating sap, so the seed must be handled carefully when processing. The juicy fruit is edible fresh or made into juice or even an alcoholic beverage.

When was the last time you had pili nut pie or pili nut brittle, or pili nut cookies? Unless you have lived in tropical Southeast Asia, it is probably never. How about tropical almond cookies? The tropical almond, or false kamani, Terminalia catappa, is originally from the East Indies but now found throughout coastal regions of the tropical Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Myanmar and Vietnam are a fascinating and beautiful part of the world. They are rich in plant and animal life and populated by many interesting indigenous people with diverse cultures. We are fortunate in Hawaii to have a large population of folks from Asia that brought a lot of flavor to our multicultural mix. It is surprising that more of the fruits and nuts popular there are not mainstream here.

We see a bit of Vietnamese influence here, but even with our large population of folks from the Philippines, we don’t see many restaurants featuring the cuisine. Traveling in exotic places and tasting delicious delights makes one wish we had more variety in foods here at home.

For example, one of the tastiest nuts is the pili. The pili nut, Canarium ovatum, is native to the Philippines and is the most important of about 10 nut-bearing species from tropical Asia. Leaves are compound like the African tulip. Flowers are yellow, fragrant and form in terminal clusters. Male and female flowers are born on separate trees, so two trees of opposite sexes are required to produce nuts on the female tree.

The oblong greenish fruits are black when ripe and are almost 2.5-3 inches long. The nut can be eaten raw or roasted, and some consider it superior to the almond. My favorite recipe is the same as making peanut brittle, substituting pili nuts for peanuts.

The kernel is made into several products, including plain roasted nuts, sugar-coated nuts, pudding and pili nut butter. They are great in nut chocolates and are a source of good cooking oil. The shell is an excellent source of fuel and also used as a planting medium. In Indonesia, the shells are also made into ornaments. Resin can be tapped from the tree as with the rubber tree. It is used in perfumes, adhesives, plastics, printing inks, paint, varnish and many other products.

The University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources has studied pili production for years and found it to grow very well at lower elevations. It is a beautiful tropical tree that should be protected from strong winds and given irrigation where rainfall is less than 50 inches of well-distributed rain per year.

The limiting factor in growing pili trees is availability of plants. Most trees in Hawaii are grown from seed. Grafting and budding are difficult. Air layering has limited success.

Since the university does have a number of trees, it would be possible to obtain seed by contacting our UHCTAR Agricultural Extension offices. Ask for one of the Master Gardeners to assist you.

In Hilo the number is 981-5199, or in Kona you can call 322-4893. Seed are not always available, but can be obtained when in fruit.

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