Vitex payos (Lour.) Merr. These fruits, the “real” chocolate berries, are very popular in parts of southern and eastern Africa, from roughly Mozambique to Tanzania. Zimbabwean villagers are said to collect them in quantity every winter.9 Each fruit is about 2 cm long, with pointed tips and a chocolate brown or black skin. The juicy pulp surrounds a single hard stone. However, it is definitely an acquired taste. Westerners are typically offended by the flavor, the powdery texture, the oily mouthfeel, and the strong smell. But even then not all is lost: Since 1990, Zimbabwean entrepreneurs have been making jam from the fruit and selling it in the city markets.

The low-growing tree is attractive enough to have promise purely as an ornamental. In full flower it becomes bespangled with myriad flowers, which, set off against the gray of the wood, attract both attention and praise.

This is another Vitex that has received some horticultural exploration.10 Its woody seed has proven reluctant to germinate, but one method for overcoming this natural resistance is leaving seeds out in the open for a year then knick the end where there are two holes. Trees grow slowly during the first three years in the nursery, but then growth speeds up.11


Vitex madiensis Oliv. This similar but smaller tree (5-10 m high) occurs from Senegal to Uganda and from Uganda to South Africa. Nowhere, however, is it common. Indeed, everywhere it is rather rare. Most specimens are found in open woodlands. In season, black, egg-shaped fruits dangle from the branches on long stalks. Their smooth and transparent skins enclose a black pulp that is exceptionally popular among all those who know it. The fruits are commonly harvested and sold by women in local and regional market, as are the leaves and roots, which are used in medicine.

Because of the social and economic importance of Vitex madiensis, it is considered a top species for local agroforestry. Recent horticultural research to understand the species and identify, select, and reproduce elite types for local growers is showing good results, especially documenting reliable vegetative propagation techniques such as rooting and air-layering.12 Similar “domestication” research on other Vitex species, indeed on “lost” African fruits in general, could quickly advance them from obscurity, and could be accomplished with little expense by horticultural workers across Africa.

9

“Around Bulawayo you get Vitex isotjensis, Vitex mombassae and Vitex payos,” writes our contributor Ray Perry. “The last is the best. It is sold in the markets and is among the most popular indigenous fruits.”

10

Information from Ray Perry, who adds that care must be taken because the seedlings are easily over-watered.

11

Information from Ray Perry.

12

Mapongmetsem, P.M. 2006. Domestication of Vitex madiensis in the Adamawa Highlands of Cameroon: phenology and propagation. Akdeniz Üniversitesi Ziraat Fakültesi Dergisi 19(2):269-278.



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