The latex-filled stems of the genus Landolphia1 once produced all the rubber for Senegal and Sudan and some of the rubber for other African nations. Part of the harvest was even exported to Europe, where it was esteemed. Commercial interest in these plants collapsed only when, in the early 1900s, Brazil’s rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) began dominating world production.
The problem was not the quality of the rubber. The African plants were superseded because, being vines or climbing shrubs, they are hard to handle in horticulture. Further, they had never been brought into organized cultivation, and harvesting latex from scattered wild plants cannot compete with organized plantation production, even in the rubber tree itself.
During World War II, when the Allied Powers were cut off from Southeast Asia’s huge rubber production, interest in Africa’s so-called gumvines picked up once more. However, the wartime crisis passed before much product could be supplied. The subsequent perfection of synthetic elastomers then seemed to forever seal the fate of Africa’s own native rubber supply. People gave up on these crops, which have since remained mere curiosities of minor local historical interest.
Now, however, international interest should pick up once more. Some Landolphia species bear masses of fruits that are very pleasant to the taste buds. A few of these “gumvine fruits” or “rubber fruits” are yellow and furry and look somewhat like apricots; most, however, are more like an orange with smooth tough skins that are reddish, yellow, or orange in color.
These fruits are frequently seen for sale in markets across West Africa. In Mali, Burkina Faso, and neighboring nations it is also common to see young boys selling clusters of them along the roadways. The juice from these fruits is regarded as extremely healthful, probably with good reason. In addition to a normal nutritional content for fruits, some have vitamin C levels approaching oranges. At least one species, Landolphia hirsuta, provides
Landolphia taxonomy is tangled, with much overlap among scientific and common names. Further, some botanists transfer all Landolphia species to the genus Saba, some refer a number of them, including L. capensis and L. kirkii, to Acylobothrys. However, most of the literature is still to be found under Landolphia.