The West African locust looks nothing like what Westerners might consider a vegetable plant to be. It is a tree. A true Jack-and-the-beanstalk kind of crop, it is indeed related to beans, albeit distantly. It often grows more than 20 meters tall, and people harvest all the pods they can get, sometimes climbing all the way to the top.
Outsiders might dismiss this as a tall tale, but they’d be wrong. Locust combines in a single species Africa’s two greatest needs: food and tree cover. More locusts mean more food and more trees, which add up to more hope for a better continent.
Botanists named this plant genus Parkia in honor of Mungo Park, one of the first Europeans to record it. This intrepid Scottish surgeon-naturalist, who drown in distress attempting to unravel the course of the Niger River, would even now be hardly displeased with the honor. Two centuries on, his namesake plant still plays a vital role in the village and nomadic life of rural peoples living throughout the northern and western savanna regions.
Locust beans are attractive savanna trees, with dramatically spreading crowns and clusters of globular bright red flowers dangling like holiday decorations on long stalks. And they produce many benefits.
For one thing, they produce fruit. Numerous large pods, up to as long as your forearm and wider than your thumb, emerge all over the spreading crown, dangling like the fingers of a green or brown giant. Inside each pod is a yellow or orange dryish pulp. People like it, and no wonder: it can be half sugar and very sweet to the taste, almost like a desert. This mealy delight can make a useful baby food but for many children it may be the main—if not the only—dish, depending on what is left in the family’s granary. It is also made into colorful and refreshing drinks. And it is dried down into a white or yellowish powder that can be stored for later use, at which time it is commonly sprinkled over rice or meat.
But sugary pulp is not this tree’s main gift. Instead, it is the seeds enclosed within it that are the most prized product. These are a regular part of people’s diet and, throughout much of West Africa, they also turn into lifesavers in times of famine. They contain about 30 percent protein, 20 percent fat, 12 percent sugar, 15 percent starch, and 12 percent fiber, as well