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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Today, the place to unearth dasheen, and dozens of other Caribbean mainstays, is East New York and the neighborhood’s 60 community gardens.


The Seeds They Carried

Richard Perry/The New York Times
Children with tomatoes at the Nehemiah 10 garden. More Photos »
HEATHCLIFF HUXTABLE, the prominent Brooklyn Heights gynecologist, knew just where to find a dasheen bush for his anniversary gumbo. He called a Caribbean chef, a “Mr. Atkins,” he said, from a “clean but shabby restaurant” known as the Callaloo Pot.
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Most northern gardeners would recognize dasheen (Colocasia esculenta) only as a tame houseplant in a windowsill. Here, it goes by the name elephant ears. Yet the corms, or bulbous tubers, of the dasheen plant are the “coco” of Jamaican cuisine, and the young leaves are a popular boiled green. Twenty years ago, Dr. Huxtable — yes, we’re talking about the fictional character on “The Cosby Show” — liked his dasheen bush in an okra soup called callaloo.
Today, the place to unearth dasheen, and dozens of other Caribbean mainstays, is East New York and the neighborhood’s 60 community gardens. There are likely some 16,000 residents of West Indian heritage, said researchers at the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, looking at recent census data. And among this population are some of the most devoted and prolific gardeners in the City of New York.
Their bounty often lands at the Saturday farmers’ market in front of the United Community Centers and its adjacent youth farm, part of East New York Farms, on Schenck Avenue. The vendors’ tables dead end at New Lots Avenue, and a graveyard of Revolutionary War veterans and former slaves.
For the people who live here now, this farm and market is a place to pick up staples for the dinner pot or the apothecary. For visitors, it’s a botanical expedition you can make on the No. 3 train.
This is not your “conventional Greenmarket,” said Eric-Michael Rodriguez, 31, a lifelong community gardener in East New York and a horticulturist and seed collector at the nearby Weeksville Heritage Center. “The diversity of plants you see there is like no other market I’ve seen in the Northeast United States.”
It’s a clearinghouse for Caribbean plants: greens like callaloo and Malabar spinach; peppers like the hot Scotch bonnet and the sweet aji dulce; beans like the yardlong, the lablab and the red round; and cucurbits like the sour gherkin and the bizarre bitter melon.
“It’s funny,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Someone not too long ago asked what it was like to grow up in a so-called urban desert. I didn’t know how to answer that question. In my backyard, we had a nectarine tree and blueberry bushes. We grew beans and leafy green vegetables. We grew a lot of stuff.”
Mr. Rodriguez suspects that the availability of green space attracted many Puerto Ricans, like his parents, and other West Indians, too. “You would just walk down the street and see everything that people were growing. People would bring seeds back, or physically bring plants back, or have them shipped from relatives in the Caribbean.”
Immigration, of course, demands adjustment. One ingenious neighbor figured out how to grow a banana tree in her front yard. “In the fall, she would get a chicken wire fence and shove it full with leaves from the park,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “It basically became a compost pile.”
In the spring, she would have a “slimy mess” that she would cut to the ground. But the plant that sprang back would form clusters of bananas.
“That adaptation that people do, they do because they’re so attached,” Mr. Rodriguez said — that is, to the plants and to the gardens they have left behind.
A CENTURY ago, the yardlong bean went by the botanical name Vigna sinensis, the bean from China. Yet this stretch-model string bean is really a spectacular variety of African cowpea, Vigna unguiculata. The plant’s subspecies, sesquipedalis, means “foot and a half” in Latin. Hyperbole aside, this is the actual length of the bean.
In Guyana, the yardlong is plain-old bora, said Carol Wharton, a 58-year-old police dispatcher who cultivates the vine in the Nehemiah 10 community garden, a few blocks north of the United Community Centers farmers’ market.
The tendrils she was winding onto a trellis have their roots in a recent trip home. “I must have brought back, like, three beans,” she said on a recent evening. Each superlong shell contains perhaps a dozen peas.

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