Imagine preparing hagan suni, a vegetable dish cooked with coconut milk and turmeric. Its main ingredient is either taro leaves or spinach. But you do not have any taro leaves or spinach. The party is less than an hour away, so you look outside and what do you see? A bountiful tangan-tangan trees in your backyard. Go pick a potfull of leaves and finish your hagan suni preparation.
Did you say tangan-tangan isn’t edible?
Think again. This ubiquitous tree, scientifically known as Leucaena leucocephala, is part of the pea family called “fabaceau,” according Else Demeulenaere, associate director of Natural Resources at the University of Guam.
Look closely at the tangan-tangan legume and you will notice how closely it resembles the pea pod, but longer.
The leaves themselves are lunch-worthy and rich in nutrients, Demeulenaere said.
However, Christine Ferejan, wildland program manager at the Department of Agriculture, warned that uncooked leaves have toxic amino acids, “which it isn’t good for the body when eaten raw.”
According to sciencedirect.com, toxic amino acids “act as antagonists of protein amino acids, and interfere with protein synthesis.”
Ferejan said cooking the leaves deactivates the toxins, making it safe for human consumption.
The tangan-tangan, which grows all over the island, is generally taken for granted on Guam and often dismissed for its invasive nature. In some Asian countries, however, the leaves are used as a main ingredient for soup while the pods are added to salads. The legume also provides an excellent source of high-protein cattle fodder.
Besides its edibility, the tangan-tangan has many other properties that suit different purposes. Some say it can be a potential export asset for Guam as the island explores homegrown industries to cultivate.
Demeulenaere said there are two species of tangan-tangan that grow on island. One is endemic to Guam. They grow up to 3 to 4 feet and can be found along the beaches. They do not grow in the jungles or in limestone forest.
The second species is what everyone is familiar with. They are the tall trees that abound the island’s landscape and mostly used for barbecue fuel. They can be found in the limestone forests. “You do not see them growing in pristine forests, though,” Demeulenaere said.
This species originally came from Central America and was introduced to Guam by the Spaniards. The history of tangan-tangan is documented in Robert Roger’s Destiny’s Landfall.
Demeulenaere said the tangan-tangan trees became abundant on Guam after World War II. The military flew planes all over Guam, dropping seeds to revegetate the war-torn island
and restore its greenery.
They do not thrive in forests with strong growth. They grow in weak forests, where plant life is dying and take over to help the forest stay a forest. Demeulenaere said tangan-tangan does not flourish in areas populated by native plants.
Demeulenaere said the leaves of the tangan-tangan contain high nitrogen, which makes them a good for fertilizer for the garden.
So next time you see a tangan-tangan tree, remember its versatility.