Moringa Leaves and Other Emergency Food Plants of Pacific Islands

Let’s start this post with a bit of fiction:

It’s 1944, you’re a bomber pilot in the United States Navy, flying missions over Southeast Asia. It’s a dangerous job, but you’ve got a great crew: there’s Knute, a.k.a., “Swede”, the navigator, a quiet, big-hearted 18-year old blonde kid from northern Minnesota; Tony, the bombardier, a tough-talking street hustler from Brooklyn who’s really a Mama’s boy; Larry, the tail gunner, a farm boy from Kansas; Bobby, the co-pilot, a laid-back kid from California; Leonard, a.k.a. “Glasses,” the radio operator, a nerdy college student from Vermont, who operates the radio. Everyone picks on Leonard because he’d rather read books about Southeast Asia during off-duty hours than hit the bars.

On one mission, you hear an awful sound to your left: the sputter, sputter, sputter of an engine going out. Your plane starts losing altitude, and when it’s clear you won’t make it back to the carrier, it’s bail out time, and soon you’re parachuting onto unknown territory. You have a general idea of where you are and where you need to go to reach safety, but your emergency rations aren’t enough to feed you on your long journey to safety.

That nerd Glasses might be your life line. One of his interests is botany — he’s always looking at plants on the base — and so his flying kit includes a book called Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific. And so now the crew knows which plants are food — and which are poisonous — as they make their way across the jungle to a safe haven.

The little fictional lead-in above sets up one of my recent finds in the Internet Archive (via Flickr Commons). While looking in the Flickr Commons, Google Books and Hathi Trust for images of the Moringa oleifera plant, I ran across an ink drawing of the moringa plant in a book from the U.S. War Department that was published in 1943 (I also found the beautiful 19th-century painting that I used in my post about Moringa Leaves). Reading the introduction, I learned that the book was written for members of the U.S. military to help them survive on their own (“live off the land”) if they were separated from their unit or escaped from a prisoner of war camp.

The book provides a guide to edible plants in the Pacific Theater (Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Indo-China, Thailand, Burma and eastern India). Chapters focus on classes of plants:  ferns, grasses, palms, tubers, seeds, greens and fruit. There are also sections on poisonous plants and “plants used to stupefy fish.”

Here’s the drawing of the moringa plant:

Drawing of moringa plant and seedpod, from Emergency food plants and poisonous plants of the islands of the pacific, US War Department, 1943
Drawing of Moringa oleifera (drumstick) leaves and pods

The author notes that “the leaves, shoots and young pods make excellent greens when cooked, or they may be eaten raw. The roots have the characteristic biting taste of horseradish. The mature pods are too tough to be eaten, but the seeds may be roasted and used as food.”

Since the book is about both wild and cultivated plants, you’ll find quite a few well-known foods: sweet potato leaves (“the young shoots and leaves make an excellent pot herb or substitute for spinach”), purslane, banana, cashew, and jackfruit.  (But no durian. Did the author think that the aroma would be too unpleasant? I’m sure there was major cultivation in the region.)

There are also some less well known plants that I have eaten, like candle nut (an ingredient in Indonesian and Malaysian flavoring pastes — “seeds may be eaten only after roasting”), breadfruit (it was the cargo on HMS Bounty, the ship that had a famous mutiny), and a palm called Salacca edulis (the image below). Looking at the drawing, I thought that the fruit looked like one I had eaten in Indonesia, and so I consulted my photo and blog archives, and there it was: salak or snakeskin fruit. The text says that “the yellowish white, sour-sweet, edible pulp surrounding two or three rather large hard seeds may be eaten raw.”

Salacca edulis (snakeskin fruit, salak) in Emergency food plants, 1943, US War Dept
Drawing of Salacca edulis plant and fruit (a.k.a. snake skin fruit, salak)

A few other notes about the book: Item 10 is “Guide for Eating Fruits” and provides this valuable advice: “In the wild, where monkeys occur, a safeguard to follow is to observe what the monkeys actually eat in the form of wild fruits. The feeding habits of birds is not such a safe guide.”

Section XIV is “Plants Used to Stupefy Fish.” Several different plants are used to stupefy fish so they can be easily captured. To do this, you find the right plant(s), pound or crush plant parts to make a paste or powder, mix with water, and put into a stream or pod (usually in large quantities). The fish are stunned or suffocated, and can be easily harvested.  “Whenever possible seek the advice of friendly natives…”

Drawing of breadfruit plant, from Emergency food plants and poisonous plants of the islands of the pacific, US War Department, 1943
Drawing of breadfruit plant and fruit (note: this was the cargo of HMS Bounty).

Update, 7/7/19:  Inspired by a piece at NPR’s The Salt about Malaysia’s hopes for durian exports to China, I re-checked the manual to see if it said anything about durian. It doesn’t, even though the regions covered include the top durian producing countries of Thailand and Malaysia (“Region covered. — This manual covers all of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, as well as the entire Malay Archipelago including the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. For all practical purposes it also covers Indochina, Thailand (Siam), Burma, and eastern India.”).

Image Credits and Reference
Emergency food plants and poisonous plants of the islands of the Pacific, by Elmer Drew Merrill (Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University), United States War Department, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943. Full text available from the Internet Archive.  Public domain.

Originally published on October 16, 2016

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