What Is It?

Katuk Costa RicaKatuk (Sauropus androgynus) or “Sweet Leaf Bush” is another amazing perennial plant that grows with minimum effort. It produces nutritious high 6.4% protein leaves that taste like peas. It is one of the most popular leaf vegetables in South Asia and Southeast Asia and is notable for high yields and flavor.   The shoot tips have been sold as tropical asparagus. In Vietnam, the locals cook it with crab meat, minced pork or dried shrimp to make soup. In Malaysia, it is commonly stir-fried with egg or dried anchovies. The flowers and small purplish fruits of the plant have also been eaten.

In Indonesia, the leaves of the plant are used to make infusion, believed to improve the flow of breast milk for breastfeeding mothers.

In 100 g of leaves the nutritional content is as follows: energy 59 cal, 6.4 g protein, 1.0 g fat, 9.9 g carbohydrate, 1.5 g fiber, 1.7 g ash, 233 mg calcium, phosphorus 98 mg, 3.5 mg iron, carotene 10,020 mcg (vitamin A), B, and C 164 mg, and 81 g water.

We use Katuk at the house in stirfrys, fresh salads and mixed into morning egg dishes.  If you have a bunch of leaves, throw them in a frying pan with a little coconut oil or pork fat, garlic and salt.  It’s a perfect side dish.  It’s served in thousands of restaurants in Southeast Asia so I’m sure recipes are numerous.  I suggest eating it cooked if you plan on eating it all the time.

katuk berries on the plantHere’s a picture of some of the berries that started showing up on our Katuk plants near the end of rainy season in Costa Rica.  They can be white or salmon pink when ripe. You can eat them like peas, or toss them in salads and stirfry.

Other common names: Sweet Leaf Bush, Chekkurmenis, Chekup Manis, Changkok Manis, Japanese Malungay


Why Plant Katuk?

The nutritional value of Katuk is impressive. The following compares its nutritional values with that of Spinach. The quantity is per ½ cup serving of fresh leaves.

Protein: 4.9 g Katuk – 0.43 g Spinach
Calcium: 51 mg Katuk – 15 mg Spinach
Iron: 2.7 mg  Katuk – 0.4 mg Spinach
Vitamin A: 1122 IU – Katuk 1407 IU Spinach
Vitamin C: 83 mg  Katuk – 4.2 mg Spinach

Katuk is a perennial plant that’s for its edible leaves and young shoots.  It also has an ability to survive well in hot and humid conditions.  It’s easily propagated by cuttings and if they’re planted close together with the addition of fertilizer, the bushes will form a hedge of edible leaves for year round consumption. Katuk is a perfect addition to any edible landscaping theme.  Any perennial that grows like a bush and has tasty foliage is welcome in my yard.

The Katuk Controversy

It’s important to keep in mind that THE DOSE MAKES THE POISON.  Anything we eat too much of can have negative health effect.  Excessive consumption of raw katuk for weeks on end may not be good for you.  It contains a compound named Papaverine that lowers blood pressure and has a string of other medicinal and pharmacological uses.  One group of Taiwanese women trying to lose weight by juicing katuk, found out the hard way.  

“Green Deane” from Eattheweeds.com did a write up on this “katuk controversy”.

Some vendors in Taiwan convinced people that an extract of raw Katuk was good for weight loss… yep, a fad diet.  The vendors sold extract of ground up Katuk leaves mixed with fruit juice. Fifty-four people, 50 females, four males,  developed lung problems, most of which went away upon stopping the diet. Four middle-aged women, however, who drank 3.5 to 7 ounces (100g to 200g) a day of the extract for up to two months had to have lung transplants within a year and a half of consuming the extract. This is the human equivalent of over-dosing a lab rat to induce disease. More so, not only did these four take the extract they also ate a lot more raw Katuk while taking the extract. Only mother’s milk wouldn’t hurt you at that rate, and maybe even that would. Despite proven dangerous, this fad diet persisted and 9 cases were found in Japan in 2006 causing one death and one lung transplant.

The  poisonings are believed related to papaverine in the plant, which makes blood vessels open up and is not an uncommon treatment for high blood pressure. There is about 580 mg of papaverine per 100g of raw Katuk leaf, or about the same as four prescriptions capsules of papaverine to 3 ounces of raw leaf.  The theory is in high doses it permanently damaged the tiny blood vessels in the lung. Researchers have not been able to recreate the symptoms in lab rats which has led some to think the problem might have a genetic component.

A follow-up study of 278 people in Taiwan with non-fatal symptoms found the median consumption of Katuk was 5.3 ounces a day of raw leaf for 20 days. Their consumption was about seven times the average consumption of Katuk by symptom-free Malaysians, which is three to six ounces a week, not a day.  It was, it seems, too much of a good thing done wrongly. A 2006 study on rats showed that in a controlled experiment Katuk did help rats lose weight and reduce their triglycerides. Clearly it needs more research.  So, what does all this mean, beside don’t eat Katuk if you are taking something to open your blood vessels or lower your blood pressure? Enjoy Katuk as an addition to salads, a lawn-side nibble, and cooked in various dishes like you find in thousands of restaurants. Just don’t consume a half a pound of it a day raw for weeks or months and/or while taking an extract as well. I have been tossing a dozen leaves in my weekly salads for more than five years. I ain’t concerned.

  –Green Dean, Eattheweeds.com

How To Grow Katuk

Katuk will tolerate acidic soil, heavy clay soils.  Due to its natural jungle under-story habitat, it prefers some shade.  The easiest way to get it going is to get some cuttings.   They root easily in moist soil.  They also root well in aquaponics systems.  I’ve never seen seeds for sale but many sites online sell cuttings and plants.  You can  purchase them on Amazon ready to transplant. ( Katuk – Tropical Asparagus – 4″ Pot )

It’s shoots can be regularly pruned close to the ground(all the way to 6 inches).  It will always regenerate.  Since the preferred crop is the foliage, the plant requires nitrogen fertilizer or rich compost to encourage rapid growth after harvest.  Our plants seems to do the best when planted under the shade of the jungle canopy.

Sources and Links

GardenWeb Katuk Entry

Encyclopedia of Life Katuk Entry

Katuk Tested For Anti Breast Cancer Effect

Katuk Wiki Entry