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The Seeds They Carried

Richard Perry/The New York Times

By MICHAEL TORTORELLO / Published: October 17, 2012

HEATHCLIFF HUXTABLE, the prominent Brooklyn Heights gynecologist, knew just where to find a dasheen bush for his anniversary gumbo. He called a Caribbean chef, a “Mr. Atkins,” he said, from a “clean but shabby restaurant” known as the Callaloo Pot.

Most northern gardeners would recognize dasheen (Colocasia esculenta) only as a tame houseplant in a windowsill. Here, it goes by the name elephant ears. Yet the corms, or bulbous tubers, of the dasheen plant are the “coco” of Jamaican cuisine, and the young leaves are a popular boiled green. Twenty years ago, Dr. Huxtable — yes, we’re talking about the fictional character on “The Cosby Show” — liked his dasheen bush in an okra soup called callaloo.

Today, the place to unearth dasheen, and dozens of other Caribbean mainstays, is East New York and the neighborhood’s 60 community gardens. There are likely some 16,000 residents of West Indian heritage, said researchers at the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, looking at recent census data. And among this population are some of the most devoted and prolific gardeners in the City of New York.

Their bounty often lands at the Saturday farmers’ market in front of the United Community Centers and its adjacent youth farm, part of East New York Farms, on Schenck Avenue. The vendors’ tables dead end at New Lots Avenue, and a graveyard of Revolutionary War veterans and former slaves.

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