Abelmoschus manihot, commonly referred to as Tongan spinach, or bele, is a super food that everyone should be growing. It’s so easy to cultivate, even those with a black thumb can be successful. This species was once in the hibiscus genus. While the flowers look similar, bele flowers don’t quite present the striking beauty of other hibiscus species, and while they are still in the same family as hibiscus (Malvaceae), bele is now in the okra genus. In fact, okra and bele share the same texture when cooked and are both useful vegetables that grow well in the tropics. Bele has a wide range of leaf shapes from narrow to a little lobed to deeply lobed to heart shaped.
Native to tropical Asia, bele has long been in cultivation. Seeds were sold in catalogs as early as 1806. At least 2 cultivars exist in Hawaii. “Sunset” has a reddish stem with lobed leaves while “green jade” has a green stem with heart shaped leaves. Today it is rare to find a bele that produces seeds, and their seeds have low germination rates. Instead, cultivation is done vegetatively.
Bele is a “cut and poke” plant. It is so easy to vegetatively reproduce; rooting hormones are not required. Cut the stems into 12 inch segments at an angle using clippers. Remember which side is the growing tip! Bury at least 1 node under the soil keeping the growing tip upward. The plant will yield leaves to harvest in as little as 4 months after planting. This tender perennial will produce for up to 2 years.
Bele can be grown in the garden or as a potted plant, in full sun to part shade. It grows well in a wide range of soil types, however, moist, well-drained soils are best. A little manure as fertilizer will help it produce nutrient rich leaves. Bele is drought tolerant after it’s established; still, regular water will produce a better leaf. It suffers from the normal garden variety pests. Grasshoppers and slugs will be its worst enemy. We should always be vigilant against rat lungworm when slugs are present, so cook your leafy greens well!
Bele is often steamed or boiled. It can be used to wrap fish or other meat and steamed in coconut milk, or use them in place of grape leaves to make dolmas. Some people stir fry or eat the leaves steamed like collard greens. Garlic and salt are delicious spices to add to the bele dish. Some people substitute spinach for bele in cooked spinach recipes, and many recipes can be found on the internet.
Considered the most nutritious vegetable in Oceania, bele is an ancient powerhouse of nutrients. It packs twice as much protein as spinach, up to 20% of the daily recommended dose. It has vitamin A, fiber, vitamin C, riboflavin, thiamine, and minerals, including iron, potassium and calcium. As a demulcent, ingesting bele helps relieves throat irritation. Medicinally, bele helps symptoms such as dysentery, diarrhea, skin rashes, and colds. As cliche as it may sound, bele is a super food that everyone in the tropics should be growing.
Most importantly when choosing a plant for consideration: bele will behave in your yard! It has been in cultivation in Hawaii since at least 1965, with no reports of naturalizing or escaping the garden. The qualities of this plant make it a wonderful non-invasive selection for any home garden, and so bele is our Pono Plant recommendation for January!