Nageia nagi: Forgotten Landscape Edible
I discovered the Nagi tree quite by accident, and added another edible to the list. I was in Mead Gardens in Winter Park Florida. It was a private garden that fell on hard times but of late has been resurrected. I was there taking an inventory of edible species and have identified over 100 edible ones there.
As I was leaving a tree caught my eye. It was an evergreen with two-inch lance-shaped dark shiny leaves. It had marble size blue fruit and oddly its leaf looked like a monocot leaf. I had a mystery tree on my hands, actually several.
The odd part was the leaf. It clearly looked like a monocot, that is, it did not have branching veins but all parallel veins and no mid-rib in the leaf. Searching my books and the internet produced nothing, and with good reason. There are no monocot trees, though conifers come close and that was in the right direction to go.
After my unsuccessful search I decided to go to Leu Gardens. It’s less than a mile away from Mead Gardens but was better endowed and well-kept all these years. It is also more formal, totally controlled with exotics whereas Mead is more on the native wild side. My presumption was Leu Gardens would have the tree as well, and that at Leu most of the major plants are identified. It took me two hours but I found it. The Nagi Tree, Nageia nagi, ( nag-EE-uh NAY-jee) a native of China. Then there was a bit of a surprise. Although in the podocarpus clan — which has some very toxic members — the Nagi Tree has edible young leaves and seed oil. The leaves have to be boiled and the oil has to be separated from the seed. I easily crushed a seed and what little oil that yielded reminded me of hazelnut.
These trees aren’t everywhere in North America but we have a lot of parks and it’s a good place to start looking. They used to be a common landscape tree in the South and are very wind resistant. The trees in Leu Gardens and Mead Garden survived without damage three hurricanes in 2004, one hurricane, Frances, with 110 mph winds. The blond wood is a source of tannins and dye and used in sculpturing and musical instruments. One other advantage, deer don’t like the leaves.
What Nageia nagi means is on the poetic side. Nageia is the latinized version of “nagi.” Nagi is the native Japanese word for the tree. Nagi can mean two things, and in this context they are related. It can mean calm, like a morning calm. It can also mean to mow down, as with a sword. In the Nyakuoji Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, there is a sacred tree. It is called Nagi It is said that it will mow down your plight if you pay your respects at the shrine, leaving you calm.
The tree is also called the broadleaf podocarpus, or Podocarpus nagi.
Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile
IDENTIFICATION: An evergreen tree to 80 feet, hardy to zone 8 but needs four hot, humid summer months to grow well. In leaf all year. Flowers dioecious, needs male and female plants for seeds. Wind pollinated. Leaves opposite, lance-shaped, two inches long, look like a monocot leaf, no mid-rib. Fruit marble size, green to blue to black or brown, large round seed
TIME OF YEAR: Young leaves anytime, seeds for oil in fall
ENVIRONMENT: Prefers light soil on the acid side. Likes full sun and moist soil. Can grow in partial shade like a woodland.
METHOD OF PREPARATION: Young leaves boiled, oil from crushed seeds
Eicosatrienoic acid, a unique constituent acid of nagi seed oil, can reduce swelling.