Achiote. The red seeds from inside these hairy pods give a mild flavor and color to rice and chicken.
Early dry season crops
photos by Eric Jackson
With climate change some things are coming in late this year. Not shown, it’s a time for melons and grapefruit, and some flower buds are forming on cashew trees. Something is always in season in Panama.
Yuca, a root crop. These were started rather late in last year’s growing season due to the El Niño drought, and instead of digging up the roots they will be allowed to get bigger so that the stalks can be cut up and planted when the rains come again in April or so — that’s how you propagate this most important Panamanian food crop.
Bananas, the “square” kind, said to be “Chinese.” Just about anything other than the usual tends to get called Chinese in Panama. In any case, the conventional commercial bananas, the Cavendish family of clones, are being wiped out by a worldwide blight but there are other sorts of bananas that will replace them. These plants don’t have the preferred ripening time, the number of fruit per stem and other characteristics to make them commercially preferable. You don’t need to take into account all of the commercial calculations to supplement your lifestyle by growing bananas to eat.
Jalapeño peppers, which are not the most preferred variety in Panama. These are called “mild,” but as the rains let up the peppers that are picked in the dry months are noticeably hotter than the produce of the same plants during the rainy season.
Limes, one of many varieties in Panama. We have Mediterranean fruit flies (Ceratitis capitata) here, which provide a ready made excuse to keep Panamanian citrus fruits off of the US market. The insects might be eradicated, but surely some other excuse would be found. If you don’t want to grow your food in a toxic chemical broth, insects and other pests will take their toll of what you grow in Panama. It it’s not a cash crop on which you depend it’s usually no big deal, but a medfly infestation will give you a lot of limes — or other fruit — that have little holes in them and maggots growing inside. These pests attack many fruits and vegetables and in Panama seem to do their most ubiquitous damage to mango trees that are not sprayed for commercial management.
Guandu, also sometimes called pigeon peas. These are legumes that grow on a bush and a major source of protein in the diet of rural Panamanians of scant means. Because these are legumes the bushes are also good for fixing nitrogen in the reclamation of degraded soils, if taking a piece of land with no topsoil and making it grow things is your project. Rice with coconut milk and/or shredded coconut and guandu is a typical Panamanian recipe. Arroz con pollo where there isn’t a lot of chicken meat to put in the pot but enough to flavor it, along with some achiote to give it color and guandu to provide protein is another staple dish here. This past year’s drought has driven the price of guandu way up.
Otoes, known in other places as taro, are one of the several starchy tuber food staples of Panamanian cuisine. There are, however, weird hippie farmers who leave the roots in the ground and cut off the leaves now and then to eat as vegetables. If not watered the plants will go dormant in the dry season and come back with the rains.
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