What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You an Ethnobotanist

I’m an ethnobotanist studying screw pines.

Sounds as convincing as the lie about writing poetry.

Get out look out I tell myself. It’s too easy to go crazy inside your house, inside your head.

I start today’s looking outside myself by hitting the water in the kayak. An hour later I’ve made it to the point just past the first hotel. In time for the early tourist rush: banana boats, parasails, fly boards, jet skis, motorboats. Traffic and chop. A headwind. When my arms are tired enough I start back.

Halfway home is a small cove. I call the end point of one of its arms ohaka misaki because up where the shoulder would be sits what looks like a mini shrine. I pay my respects, pray, then take a snorkel break. Two lion fish fan out, giving me a heads up.

Stretched out on my back in the shallows I feel my bones unfold, the spaces between them open and open and fill in again. Sorted.

Three dead fish on the sand.  One too small to bother but the other two plenty for a family dinner.  Hermit crabs finished with the eyes work through the scales.

My workout continues when I make the shore below our house. I haul the kayak across the beach and up the first flight of stairs. Load it onto the cart, up through the bush path and the hill. 110 stairs. The point where I feel weakest and strongest.

Screw pine–adan–is everywhere.IMG_2996 It crowds the beach and the bush path. We cut it back and cut it back and it keeps winning.

I have a pretty basic way of learning the names of island plants. If I see the plant in the market I ask the nearest grandmother what it is. Outside I’ll take a photo then try to match it online.

Pandanus I decide. Hooray.

Look what you can do with aromatic pandanus leaves:

  • tie one up and toss it in the cooker with tonight’s rice
  • chop and add it to rice pudding
  • make Kai Tort Nahm Pla Warn (Thai son-in-law eggs)
  • grill chicken

And the fruit? Purees, puddings, ice cream, smoothies. ETC ETC ETC!

Secateurs? Check. Saw? Check. Heavy duty pigskin work gloves? Check.

Until today all I knew about adan was that its leaves love to reach out and gouge your skin. And my boys used to make whistles from the seed pods. I think.IMG_2928

From its waist, adan grows roots to prop itself in the sand.IMG_3006 Its spiny leaves spiral up and flop over. Eventually they dry brown, drooping into the sand like strips of old fruitcake paper. Even then they’re buggers.

I dive through the adan jungle, aiming for new shoots long enough to tie but tender in the tooth.

Up at the house, after salving the gashes on my arms and legs with aloe and After Bite, I try tying the young leaves. Don my gloves and try again. Soak the leaves in the dish pan, put my gloves back on and try tying them under water.IMG_2884

How would you ever wrap even one of these demons around a chicken thigh? The only aroma in the kitchen is my medicated arms.

More research then. High school biology. Genus and species. What is and is not. Guess what: there are 500 or 750 or a gazillion species of pandanus.

Something to say about metaphor there.

But I’d rather tell you about a suppertime aromatic rice-induced sexual frenzy. IMG_2892 So before I press “start”on the cooker I add a spike of saw-toothed adan. And for rice pudding that renders my sweetheart quivering with desire (he doesn’t even eat rice pudding) I chop another “aromatic” leaf into the rice leftover from last week’s curry. Douse it with maple syrup so it tastes like our other home. Yogurt so it’s “healthy.”


Jan Zwicky’s hissing in one ear: the “is not” of metaphor is where you’ll see the world. That shifting between genera and species. How one is always, demandingly, many.

Unna Nabi in the other ear singing her poetry. How Mount Unna blocks the way / between her village and mine. Metaphor or geography? I visit her farm again, that tiny triangle in our village where she lived and weeded and pleaded with her lover to cross the mountain.

Wake up: you’re not Nabi’s lover. And the reason you’ve got Wisdom and Metaphor on the brain is it’s (almost) the only book you brought here.

While the pudding and the rice simmer I sit on the stairs at the beach and bite off the tiniest bit of the pineapple-looking fruit pods. Phalanges, drupes and keys are their other names. Drupe: you have to pucker to say it. Travelling in time and language from tree-ripened through wrinkled olive to stone-fruit.

The dIMG_2932rupe is woody, hints at mango. Not unripe but not ripe either. And, like all the websites say, nature’s dental floss.

Sitting on the beach, eating drupes.

Pudding’s done.IMG_2906 I’m not gifted in desserts so, without vanilla, the pudding is just creamy rice, a little sweeter than usual. No trace of aromatic leaf. I perk it up with passionfruit.

And the plain rice? Still plain. Which is where genus and species really count. Pandanus amaryllifolius is the one with fragrant leaves that bless your rice and get you swooning. The pandanus that packs the beach and attacks my limbs is tectorius, a kind of breadfruit, say some.

Turns out you can eat tectorius’s flowers, pollen and seeds–if you can get at them. You can’t weave it into mats or hats or bags. The metaphor thing breaks down too, eventually. Sure, by looking at (images of) amaryllifolius I see tectorius differently. But you’ll never hear me argue one is the other.

Not without my gloves on.

ps. Dear Jane Siberry,

Thank you,


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