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Dig This
Friday, March 3, 2000

By Stephanie Kendrick

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
George W. Staples displays illustrations of various herbs.
In his hand is one for the mitsuba.

Finally, a guide to
Asian, Pacific herbs

The diverse relatives of the mint and ginger families dominate "Ethnic Culinary Herbs," a new book by George W. Staples and Michael Kristiansen.

There are the familiar aunties and uncles, ginger root and garden mint; the slightly more exotic nieces and nephews, galanga and shiso; and the surprise cousins, turmeric to ginger and Greek oregano to mint.

The book was designed as a guide to identifying and cultivating some of the herbs and spices common to Asia and the Pacific, but only beginning to catch on elsewhere.

Staples, a botanist at Bishop Museum, grew up in Florida and wanted to include plants he had not seen on the mainland.


Bullet What: Signing by co-author George W. Staples
Bullet When: 3 p.m., March 18
Bullet Where: Barnes & Noble
Bullet Call: 737-3323

Perusing Hawaii's community gardens and Chinatown markets, he sought out the unfamiliar. But compiling data for the book turned out to be more challenging than the authors anticipated.

First they had to to identify the plant, then find out what had been written on it. "In many cases we didn't even know what they were," said Staples. "It was really a high learning curve." Many of the plants they wanted to include had never been documented outside of foreign botanical texts.

While the lack of information presented a challenge, it also confirmed the need for a reference.

The book, which covers 34 plants, is full of interesting tidbits. The notion of herbs as weeds that happen to taste good, for example, turns out to be a dangerous one. Some are only edible as a result of years of cultivation. Take perilla frutescens (shiso or beefsteak plant), in its wild form, the plant produces respiratory toxins.

"It's not unusual to find food plants that are poisonous in their wild state," said Staples. "Cashew is an example. It's extremely poison until heated." Some people get a rash from handling raw nuts, he said.

The leaves of cultivated perilla are used as a garnish and flavoring agent in Japanese, Vietnamese and nouvelle American cuisine. In Asia, the perennial is mainly cultivated for its seeds, which yield an oil used in waterproofing.

In the section on uses for edible chrysanthemum, the authors write the ray flowers, or flower petals, are used in Cantonese cuisine to garnish snake dishes. So in case the brown tree-snake problem persists, you might want to plant some in a sunny spot of your garden. Mostly, this chrysanthemum is grown locally as a winter annual and harvested before flowering for its tasty greens.

Staples credits co-author Kristiansen, former director of Honolulu Botanical Gardens who has relocated to California, with the instruction in propagation techniques given throughout the book. "He was frustrated by poor technique among local gardeners. You take a cutting and stick it in a glass of water and if it roots it roots and if it doesn't you throw it out," said Staples. Propagation by seed, cutting and division are addressed for each plant covered in "Ethnic Culinary Herbs."

While Staples once had a community garden plot, he claims to be a poor plant steward.

"I can't grow a plant, I have a gangrene thumb," he said. "Any of these herbs grown in my garden, they're tough."

Mostly, Staples said, he kills things through neglect. Some of the "tough" herbs he does manage to cultivate in his home garden are various kinds of basil, Japanese parsley and French chives. The plant in the book he has had the worst luck with personally is kaffir lime, grown in Southeast Asia mostly for its leaves.

"I've killed two kaffir lime plants," said Staples. He kept both in pots to try to foil the bugs that often plague this citrus tree, but they died regardless. "They just seemed to fade away.

"I was told in college to be a botanist you don't have to know how to grow plants, only how to kill them. I seem to have proved that," said Staples.

Local gardeners interested in culinary plants, however, should be able to use the information provided by Staples and Kristiansen to better effect.

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

Stephanie Kendrick's gardening column runs Fridays in Today.
You can write her at the Star-Bulletin, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu 96802
or email

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