Published: 2005-04-20

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Andy Bell wrote to us in December 2004 about his experience with chaya and a few other leafy crops in Indonesia.

“In 1998(?) I requested chaya sticks to be mailed to Indonesia. They arrived wrapped in paper and still moist. I planted the sticks directly in our yard in West Java. Two of the sticks slowly began to bud and put out leaves. One of the plants was in the front of the house, one in the back. The one in the back that received fuller sun grew tremendously. Over the five years of its life, it would reach heights of three meters with over 30 productive stems and branches. While we did have some curling at times, particularly on new leaves, it never suffered from any ill health that I could observe. About two times each year I trimmed it back, almost to the ground, simply because it had grown so big. In the end, the trunk had reached the diameter equivalent to a coffee can. The one in the front had fewer leaves, I believe because it received extra shade.

“Popularity: The local Sundanese people are famous for eating leaves. It is said that all you need for a Sundanese person is to provide hot sauce on a banana leaf and release them out to the fields and forest, as they enjoy much of what grows naturally. They call this lalab. One of the most common (if not the most common) “vegetables” among the farmers I live with is boiled cassava leaves. These are readily available and easy to prepare. Sometimes they are cooked with coconut milk and lemongrass.

“I believe the Sundanese preference for picking rather than growing food makes cassava leaves, “daun singkong,” so popular. They don’t have to mess with it, as they just go out and pick it and it is available in all seasons. I believe this is one factor that also makes chaya so popular. It is very similar to cassava leaves, though less bitter. The Sundanese understand you can’t eat it raw, as it is similar to cassava in this way. So, culturally, they are already used to this type of plant.

“Distribution: Basically, I have passed out cuttings wherever I have gone or to whomever has visited. We eat the chaya leaves about two or three times per month, and serve it to guests so they will ask for it and we can send it home. I am aware that it is now distributed across Java and to Lombok island and I believe some on Sumatra just through me. I am aware that others are now sharing it as well. I would guess now there are over 1000 plants in the country, maybe three or four times that. I have never met an Indonesian that had seen it before. In about 30 to 40% of the cases of my sharing a bundle of stalks with someone, I will receive an unsolicited response that it has thrived and they eat it regularly. I have found that it seems to grow better and faster in more sandy soil as compared to high clay soil. It definitely seems to be bushier when regularly cut back. Soil fertility doesn’t seem to affect it too much. It can rot if planted in high rain season.

“Other plants: I have tried with little success to plant moringa from seed received from ECHO. I had a few that sprouted and gave them to my farmer friend when we planted a garden in his yard. Two of them grew. He told me they are locally known as Kelor and there used to be many of these trees. Nearly 70 to 80% of the farmers will say, without solicitation, that kelor is a plant eaten by people in the past to ward off black magic. The specific benefit seems to be to enable certain people to resist curses that keep them from not being able to die; apparently people with black magic can’t die without breaking the “ilmu” or magic that preserves them. I have only ever seen kelor twice in my travels around West Java.

“About three years ago, while out for a walk on the island of Lombok (next to Bali), I came across a kelor tree full of brown pods. I harvested as many pods as I could, and on return to Java planted them and had a good germination rate. They seem to be a very popular plant among our farmers, though they don’t seem to consume it as readily as chaya. Not sure why.

“Katuk (Sauropus androgynus) is also a common plant in our area. I don’t see it served that often, but whenever I point it out, farmers say that it is tasty and good for you. Some plant it around their homes. In our village, one entrepreneur from Jakarta leased 25 ha of local government land and planted katuk. He is apparently harvesting it once or twice each year, taking it to the local tea factory to have it dried, and then exporting it.”