Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension P. O. Box 68 LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068 Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Latin and Caribbean Cultures Contribute Vegetables For Summer

The United States of America - "the Great Melting Pot" -  has from its establishment more than two hundred years ago, assimilated peoples from all over the globe,  resulting in the rich cultural diversity which is one of  the hallmarks of modern American society.  South Florida, with it's close proximity and ties to Latin America and the Caribbean, has been particularly influenced by cultures from both areas.  Among the many contributions that both regions have given us are the foods and the food plants enjoyed by the peoples of these areas.

Die-hard vegetable gardeners, who are looking for crops that will thrive under our hot humid tropical summer weather conditions, can thank our southern neighbors for several vegetables that can take the heat and can extend the growing season through the sultry summer months.

Callaloo or vegetable amaranth is a spinach like green vegetable that is enjoyed throughout the Caribbean and different parts of the tropics.  There are several cultivated species of the genus Amaranthus collectively called amaranths. Some are grown for their edible seeds, while others are used as a green vegetable. The green form of Amaranthus gangeticus L. is most commonly cultivated for use as boiled greens.  Some of the individual representatives of this group are: callaloo,  tampala, hon-toi-moi, bush greens, and Chinese spinach.  Leaf shape and color can vary considerably. Some are red, others are green, while others may be variegated, usually with purplish patterns on a green background.

All the vegetable amaranths are upright branched annuals. While some are quite large and broad-leaved (5-6 inches wide), others are much smaller and narrow-leaved. The red-leaved variety probably is A. tricolor L.  The young leaves and shoot tips are eaten 3-6 weeks after sowing.  Plants will send up new shoots from the main stem after cutting and can be harvested repeatedly over a number of weeks.  Callaloo is boiled like spinach and should not be eaten raw.

Amaranth vigorously in Florida gardens especially during the warmer months. The green-leaved variety, tampala, which can be obtained from United States seedsmen, is satisfactory, although the best selections are undoubtedly only available from West Indian gardeners. Direct broadcast seeding is practiced and the seedlings are thinned to 3 inches apart when quite young. Young seedlings may be eaten. Amaranth is killed by cold so plant for warm season growth. The major pest observed in Florida was caterpillars, which can chew leaves rapidly in autumn.

The wild types, commonly known as pig weeds, are weed pests in fields and gardens. Usually the garden species do not self seed to become serious pests following cultivation. Wild amaranth is edible but not as tasty.

Boniatos are commonly called Cuban sweet potatoes. While they are from the same family as the ordinary sweet potato, boniatos differ primarily by having a distinctive white interior rather than the characteristic yellow or orange flesh of other varieties. Boniatos have been grown throughout the subtropical world for centuries, but became more popular in Florida with the growth of the Cuban-Latin sector, who introduced boniatos for home use as well as commercial production.

Boniatos resemble ordinary sweet potatoes having roundish, oblong roots with fleshy taproots. They are not always smooth and uniform in shape and size. Underneath the reddish brown skin is a bright white, very dry interior. Two varieties in commercial production in South Florida are `Picadita' and `Campeon.' `Picadita' is a dark, purple-red skinned variety, usually grown in the fall and winter. `Campeon' has a lighter red skin and is grown in the summer and fall.

Boniatos are grown in a manner similar to that for regular sweet potatoes. They are started by using plants called draws, slips, or transplants or by using vine cuttings. Transplants are grown from roots that have been bedded, with each root expected to produce from 8-12 plants. Vine cuttings may be taken from vigorously growing vines at the terminal or middle portions. These 8- to 10 inch long sections are planted at 12 inch intervals in rows spaced 3-4 feet apart.

Boniatos can be planted year-round in South Florida, with harvests occurring 120-180 days after plants. The average growing season is 150 days. There is great variability in yields and performance from one plant to another.

Gardeners wishing to try boniatos in their home plots will find roots for starts by looking in the ethnic section at many larger supermarkets as well as the many Hispanic groceries in the area. Sweet potato weevils and nematodes can be serious pest problems with boniatos. Root decay caused by Rhizopus, Fusarium and other fungi prevents long-time storage of the roots.

These and many other tropical vegetables are available to local gardeners looking to extend the season or to lend a Latin/Carribean flair to their gardens.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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