One of the best things about living in Hawai’i is the variety of perennial leafy greens that thrive in our tropical environment. One of my favorites to grow in my backyard food forest is Katuk. Not only is it easy to grow, but it tastes good too.
You may have never even heard of Katuk before, but when you’re through reading this post you’re going to feel lost without it.
What Is Katuk?
Katuk is a delicious leafy green that thrives in the moist tropics. It grows as a small shrub, getting no larger than 6’ in height.
The leaves are oval in shape, bearing fruit each spring and summer at each leaf axil. However, you need 2 plants to pollinate and produce flowers.
I love to add the leaves and young fruits in soups and stir fries. Katuk leaves bring a protein punch with every serving, with as much as half the nutrients in Katuk being protein. Perfect for those vegans out there.
Katuk does form a beneficial relationship with Mycorrhizae in the soil that allows the plant to extract phosphorus from the soil more easily.
It is thought to be native to Borneo and is now grown throughout Southeast Asia and just beginning to get introduced into tropical parts of the United States such as Florida and Hawai’i. I was lucky enough to travel through Borneo and I would see Katuk growing almost everywhere as a wild plant beneath the canopy of larger overstory trees.
It retains its green color year round in the tropics, but when grown in cooler climates, it tends to go dormant, losing its leaves and resprouting in the spring. Even at the higher elevations in Hawai’i it tends to lose its leaves. If the climate is too cold it won’t grow at all.
But what is Katuk, Really? It is a plant that you should be growing if you live in the tropics. Lets learn more on how to do it.
How Does Katuk Grow?
As we mentioned already, Katuk grows as a small understory shrub getting to about 6’ in height. It thrives in the sun as well as partial shade. Katuk is a great plant for filling in the shrub layer of any tropical food forest.
If Katuk is planted with close spacing, it can act as an excellent edible hedge, making it a perfect plant for a permaculture garden as well.
Katuk can tolerate acidic, heavy clay soils. They seem to do well in flood prone environments. They also grow well in any moist, well draining soil.
Katuk can grow from cutting or from seed. Cuttings are a much faster way to get new plants, but seeds are a great way to really get them to spread. Germination time for Katuk seeds is much longer than normal, sometimes months. In my garden, I just let them go to seed and drop. Within no time I’ll have hundreds of sprouts popping up everywhere.
It takes less than a year for the katuk plant to get full size. If you’re cooking with it, you may never want that to happen though. The best eating leaves come from regular pruning.
How To Propagate Katuk From Cuttings
Cuttings are the best way to propagate Katuk. When selecting a branch to make your cutting from, it is best to find wood that is on its second season of growth. You can see this where the branch begins to turn from green to more woody in appearance.
The thickness of the branch that you would be selecting would be about the diameter of a pencil.
I like to cut a branch that is about 12” – 16” long with my pruners that has at least a few leaf nodes leading to the tip.
I will trim off almost ALL of the leaves except maybe 5 or 6 that I will leave on the tip.
Then I will stick the branch into the soil, burying the lower leaf nodes and leaving about 6” above the soil level. Make sure the soil stays moist and within a month or two you should begin to see new growth emerge.
You can also stick your cuttings into some water and have them root that way too.
Related: To give your cuttings an added boost to ensure rooting, dip those cuttings into some rooting powder.
Like any leafy green, Katuk loves fertility, but it can do well without any supplements too. The idea is to encourage new, succulent green growth.
Adding manure 2-4 times a year will quick production into overdrive. I also like to spray the plant with a liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion to give a quick burst of nitrogen to the plant just after I do heavy pruning.
My Katuk is planted with perennial peanut growing as a ground cover. Perennial peanut is a nitrogen fixing groundcover that acts as a living mulch. It is a great companion to Katuk. It holds moisture in the soil as well as provides some nitrogen for the Katuk plant.
If you do not have perennial peanut, adding a layer of mulch around the base of the Katuk will aide in providing nutrients as well as keep the soil moist, just what the Katuk needs.
Phosphorus is not needed, because Katuk has a beneficial mycorrhizal relationship that enables it to extract phosphorus that is already naturally occurring in the soil.
Pests That Love Katuk
For a leafy green, Katuk has remarkably few pests. Occasionally I’ll find a slug (the reason why we never eat raw) or Rose Beetles eating the leaves.
I have yet to find either pest do too much damage to the plant, besides the occasional hole in a leaf. Sometimes I will find a slug has girdled a plant, but that is rare.
My worst pest comes in the form of my 6 year old son. He loves to roam the garden, sickle in hand, cutting down anything he sees. As much as I have tried to steer him away, the katuk just seems to be too alluring for him to pass up. It works out ok because we have more young sprouts than ever now.
How To Harvest Katuk
Katuk is mostly eaten for its leaves, but the young shoots, flowers, fruit and seeds are also edible. I favor the leaves though.
By pruning regularly, you are able to harvest the fresh growing tips about 6” long, branch and all. You can do this year round. At this stage the branches are still succulent and the leaves are nice and tender. The plant is also known as tropical asparagus for this reason.
You can also harvest the older leaves, but they tend to be a little tough when cooked.
My wife loves to harvest the flowers and fruit for eating. I find the flowers to have a stiff stem that I don’t really enjoy having to pick out of my meals.
The fruit is pretty tasty and when picked at the right time, is a great addition into any meal. We have found the best time to harvest Katuk berries is when they just turn white. Any pinkness and they are already too far gone.
Best Katuk Recipes
What’s the point of growing a food crop you hardly know and then have no idea how to eat it. I’m not going to do that to you.
My favorite way to cook Katuk is in a soup. Here is a simple recipe that we came up with that is super delicious. Give it a try. We think you’ll enjoy it too.
Katuk Soup With Shrimp
1 tbsp Cooking Oil
3 Cloves Garlic, minced
1 Small Onion
1 tbsp Bullion
2 cups Katuk Leaves & Berries
1 lb Shrimp
2-3 cups water
Chili Garlic Sauce
Mince the garlic and onions as fine as you can. De-shell the shrimp and mince the shrimp up too. Take ½ the garlic and onion and combine with the shrimp, form little balls with the mixture.
Heat up oil on medium in a pot or saucepan and sautee’ the remaining ½ of the onions and garlic for 1-2 minutes. Add the shrimp balls and cook for another minute or two.
Add water and bullion. Let it come to a boil.
Add katuk leaves and berries and cook for 4 more minutes.
Remove from heat and add Chili Garlic sauce as needed.
Is Katuk Safe To Eat?
Before we finish up, this subject needs to be addressed. There is a lot of info on the internet posing the question of whether or not Katuk is safe to eat.
Sometime ago in Southeast Asia, some enterprising entreprenuers created an extract out of Katuk and claimed it to have weight loss properties. Only problem is, Katuk ingested at such concentrated levels leads to issues with the lungs. When those who ingested the Katuk extract stopped using it, their problems mostly disappeared.
Because of this, we now have to include a safety advisement on consuming Katuk, even though the plant has been eating for thousands of years. It doesn’t matter what it is, too much of anything can cause health issues.
Use common sense and you will be just fine.
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