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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III 5 GINGERBREAD PLUMS Within the vast stretch of territory between Senegal and Madagascar there exist a number of interrelated wild fruits (Parinari or kindred genera) with very agreeable strawberry-like flavors. Usually red or yellow in color, these plum-sized delicacies lack the sourness typical of wild fruits (and of plums for that matter). These so-called gingerbread plums can have a texture firm enough to crunch like a crisp apple.1 Those who love the crunchy sugariness, especially children, consume them in large quantity. These seem like fruits with a future. They do not bruise easily. Their colorful skins and bright yellow flesh appeal to the eye. Their sweetness appeals to the taste buds. All in all, millions of Africans like them a lot. Indeed, during the harvest season certain peoples rely on gingerbread plums almost as a dietary staple. These fruits are used in a variety of ways. Many are eaten fresh or are boiled with cereal. Pounded with water, they create a colorful red counterpart to lemonades or orange crushes. And often this refreshing liquid is thickened with flour (from maize or cassava) and boiled into a widely enjoyed and tangy tasting gruel. Fragrant syrups are often prepared as well, and gingerbread plum is also the basis for some drinks that prove much stronger than any fruit squash. With most of these botanically interrelated fruits, the kernels inside the seeds are eaten too. These somewhat oily “gingerbread nuts” are usually roasted and enjoyed like cashews or almonds. Some are consumed as snacks, others mixed into cooked dishes, and a few are pressed to yield cooking oil. Beyond food, these trees provide a fairly hard wood that polishes to a bright luster and ends up in prized furniture, not to mention building materials, firewood, and charcoal. No one has ever attempted to develop the various gingerbread plums into modern and reliable resources, not even to gather together representative 1 Traditionally, the name gingerbread plum has been applied to a couple of these species (especially Parinari excelsa and Neocarya macrophylla, see below). We recommend extending that usage as a collective name for all the various Parinari and related species with edible fruits. This is not without hesitation: these African delights are far from being soft and watery, and botanically they are only very distant cousins of plums.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Fruits of the “mobola” gingerbread plum are reddish-yellow mottled with gray. They are sweet, delicious, and popular, especially in Malawi, where they are regarded as one of its best wild foods. Trees yield exceptional quantities of fruits, with most eaten out of hand. (PhytoTrade Africa) specimens for comparative study, grafting, or hybridization. For all that, though, several are already managed in a way that could be called “semi-cultivated.” In other words, farmers spare the trees whenever they clear land and subsequently support the rescued specimens to a greater or lesser extent. Producing vastly more of these tasty fruits under more organized conditions seems eminently feasible. Seeds are difficult to germinate, but most (perhaps all) Parinari species are easily reproduced via root suckers. Whenever exposed or wounded, the roots erupt in a profusion of sprouts, which can be cut off, rooted in sand (preferably under intermittent mist), and used to directly establish new plantings. Root cuttings also provide a key to propagating elite specimens. Through them, superior types could be quickly and easily established across much of Africa: clustered in villages perhaps, or scattered alongside roads in the valleys and tracks in the hillsides. The following species seem particularly worthy of investigation, intense selection, and efforts at domestication.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III MOBOLA The best known of these fruits, mobola (Parinari curatellifolia)2 is found in woodlands and tree savannas throughout tropical and southern Africa. It occurs extensively, for example, in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the lowveld of South Africa. The trees yield exceptional quantities of reddish-yellow fruits, mottled with gray. They are sweet, delicious, and popular. Malawi regards them as one of its best wild foods. Most are eaten out of hand, but some are concentrated into a syrup that is poured on cereal products (the way maple syrup is in North America). Beer is also brewed, and the unripe fruits are converted into a sweet, very pleasant, non-intoxicating beverage (called luzwazhi in Zambia). In various places the seed kernels are also eaten. These so-called mobola nuts are rich in oil and are considered excellent almond substitutes. They are eaten raw or are added to vegetables, fish, or soups during cooking. Although the tree grows and matures slowly it is so highly prized that it could have a future as a plantation crop.3 The combination of a tasty fruit and an easily stored nut provides a double attraction for domestication. Although analyses have yet to be done, it seems probable that the nut has considerable nutritional value. The tree—sometimes known as the “hissing tree” because of the final sibilant groan it makes when chopped down—is almost evergreen and can be as tall as 20 m. This briefly deciduous species has an erect stem, a dense spreading crown, and branches that droop all around. At certain times of the year, but particularly in hot weather, it can emit an unpleasant odor. The wood is light brown, hard, and borer-proof. While not durable if exposed to weather, it is used for simple building purposes such as poles for huts and sheds. It is also made into mortars for pounding grain. Unfortunately, it contains silica crystals that blunt saws and other cutting tools. Despite being considered a prize source charcoal, mobola is seldom felled for fuel. These beautiful trees are conspicuous across the landscape of southern Africa and it is easy to understand why one of them was chosen to bear a final tribute to David Livingstone. After his death (on 4 May 1873) his helpers carved a commemorative inscription on the trunk of a fine mobola marking the spot at Chitambo’s village in central Zambia where the famous explorer died. 2 Parinari curatellifolia Planchon ex Benth. (including P. c. mobola (Oliv.) R. Grah.), sometimes called mobola plum. 3 One contributor wrote saying, “In my opinion this is the southern African fruit with the greatest potential for domestication. Currently, however, efforts are directed at marula, which I think is inferior in taste and has less yielding capacity.”
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III SAND APPLE The sand apple (Parinari capensis Harv.) is one of earth’s strangest plants: a shrub that grows underground.4 In a sense, it can be considered a tree without a trunk: branches pop up directly from the roots. These “root branches” are very short, extending less than a meter above ground. Found widely scattered over the southern half of Africa,5 its weird shrunken tree bears hard, brown fruits about the size of small plums. Even when ripe they are somewhat dry, smelly, and astringent, but to those who know how to handle them they are delicious. The key is to bury them in the sand (hence the name), a process that, during the course of a few days, removes the astringency, hardness, and odor. Despite its bizarre growth form (or perhaps because of it), the sand apple is highly tolerant of harshness and often grows where other crops prove unreliable. It is, for instance, common on the sandy palm veld of coastal northern Natal, where the watertable fluctuates wildly from one to two meters below the soil surface. Despite that ability to deal with drought, the plant is also found on the edges of marshes and beside seasonally waterlogged depressions. People in various locations—in the northern Kalahari and Zambia’s Barotseland, for instance—eat both the sweet outer flesh and the raw kernel. They also ferment the fruit into alcoholic drinks. Of the nutritional value nothing is presently known, but it must be quite substantial. Sand apples reportedly can sustain a person, keeping them in reasonable health for about 3 months without any other kind of food. The fruits can also be dried and formed into a soft “cake” that keeps so well it can be safely saved emergency use. David Livingstone often carried dried sand apples, and on one of his travels relied on them as his only food for more than 60 km of hard walking. ROUGH-SKINNED PLUM Another of these interrelated species, the rough-skinned plum (Parinari excelsa Sabine) is also commonly called gingerbread plum.6 It is found throughout both East and West Africa, and is well known, for instance, in both Tanzania and Gambia. It comes in two forms: One, a large tree (as much as 50 m tall) of the moist forest; the other, a smaller tree of open (often riverine) woodlands. 4 This strange form of plant has been called “geoxylic suffrutex,” a term southern African botanists use for a “tree” with no trunk between root and branch. The colonies are presumably clonal; the mainly underground stems are rhizomatous. 5 The plant is best known in Swaziland, South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. However, it also extends northwards as far as Congo and Tanzania. Two subspecies, capensis Harv. and incohata F. White, have been designated. 6 Also known as kura (Fula), mampato (Mandinka), bulee (Jola), and other names.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III The fruits are red or tan in color and are not unlike small plums, but with rough, pitted, and sometimes-silvery skins flecked with brownish to purplish patches. Each contains yellowish flesh enclosing a hard pit. On ripening, the fruits quickly fall. In wet weather they quickly perish on the ground, but in dry weather they remain in good condition for a week or so. Used as both a snack and a staple, the ripe flesh has a flavor some liken to caramel, others to avocado. The different descriptions perhaps reflect genetic variability, because yet others have written that the fruits are “astringent to sweet, depending on the individual tree.” It is also written that they are much sought by small boys (so they can’t be all bad). Like the mobola, the rough-skinned plum is at times an important emergency food. It is also employed more mundanely in everyday items such as beverages. For this, the pulp is soaked in water and the resulting sweet liquid filtered off and drunk directly. Sometimes the diluted juice is first concentrated by boiling and at other times it is fermented into intoxicating liquor. An important timber, this species’ wood is hard and durable and in some areas is sought for cabinetry, joinery, construction, and furniture. It also makes excellent firewood. In essence, little has been done to regenerate this species artificially. Perhaps that’s because of recalcitrant seeds. Research carried out in Tanzania showed that only a few of the seeds are viable. Actually the researchers, who were at the Lushoto Silviculture Nursery, had a hard time finding any seeds…people and animals gobble the fruits up too quickly for mere scientists. Regeneration by wounding the roots and planting the resulting suckers was judged the more promising propagation method. GINGERBREAD PLUM A purely West African species (formerly Parinari macrophylla Sabine; now Neocarya macrophylla (Sabine) Prance) is another member of this interesting group.7 Its mealy fruits are especially loved in Sierra Leone, but are esteemed from Senegal to northern Nigeria, where they can be seen in the local markets. The flesh is soft and yellowish when fresh, with a peculiar flavor sometimes likened to avocado. As with the other species, the plant is semi-cultivated, and its abundant fruits are normally harvested from the ground. They are used both for causal snacks as well as in formal dining. The seeds are also important foods. The kernels are made into a spicy sauce, and they also provide the so-called neou oil, which is renowned in Sierra Leone as pomade. The kernels are said comprise 62 percent oil—a 7 This fruit is also called gawusa (Hausa), buwell (Jola), and tamba (Mandinka), as well as, it is said by some, rotten plum.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III very large amount.8 Nutritionally speaking, the oil is of fairly good nutritional quality, with considerable amounts of unsaturated fatty acids.9 This species is esteemed for many additional products. The rind from fresh fruits is used to impart a pleasant scent to ointments. The living tree provides villagers with dye, glue, fodder, firewood, soap, structural materials, and even termite repellents (in the Gambia). And the leaves are used medicinally for such things as toothache and mouthwash. OTHERS Related species with edible fruits can be found throughout Africa. Whether any are worthy of development as food crops cannot presently be judged, at least from a distance. Examples include: Parinari benna Scott-Elliot (Bafodeya benna (Scott-Elliot) Prance ex F. White). Tree similar to the rough-skinned plum. Guinea. Parinari campestre Aubl.. Fruits of a pleasant flavor. Guinea. Parinari congensis Didr. A rainforest tree. Equatorial Africa. Parinari emirnensis Baker. Vandevenona. A tree of central Madagascar. Parinari goetzeniana Engl. An evergreen rainforest tree growing to a height of 25-50 m. East Africa. 8 Dalziel, J.M. 1937. The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa. The Crown Agents for the Colonies, London. 9 Hilditch, T.P. and P.N. Williams. 1964. The Chemical Constitution of Natural Fats. Chapman and Hall, London. According to an early analysis, it contains 8 percent palmitic, 4 percent stearic, 44 percent oleic, 16 percent linoleic, 1 percent linolenic, and 4 percent licanic acid.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III