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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III
Asia’s mangosteen is commonly called the world’s most delicious fruit. However, the plant producing it (Garcinia mangostana) happens to be only one of 400 Garcinia species found in Asia and Africa. Some of the lesser-known examples also have delicious soft fruits, while others produce chewy nuts described as “falling somewhere between fruits and chewing gum.”
Africa’s best-known mangosteen relative is the imbe,1 a tree whose soft and colorful fruits brighten up markets from Senegal to South Africa. Its botanical name, Garcinia livingstonei T. Anderson, derives from Dr. David Livingstone. In the East African area through which the legendary explorer wandered during the 1860s, imbe is known as “the King of Fruits.” The pulp of these small, orange-colored delights is juicy, pleasant, and sweet-to-acid on the tastebuds. Even those specimens that are unusually sour are considered agreeable and refreshing on a hot afternoon.
Imbes come from a shrub or small tree with a dense spreading or conical crown topping a short, often twisted trunk or cluster of trunks. The effect is a tree that seems to grow strangely off-kilter. Its unsymmetrical shape and stiff, dark leaves create a striking appearance. This unusual and eye-catching form, together with the year-around foliage and heavily scented flowers, make it a landscaper’s dream. As a result, this tree is today planted more for beauty than for food. It has, for example, long decorated Mozambique’s capital. Many Maputo streets are lined with imbe trees, providing shade to all and fruits to some (mostly kids waiting for the bus to school). Imbes also beautify the landscape around the famous Victoria Falls.2
But in the opinion of many who know this species, the imbe is a candidate for domestication and for much more intensive use in Africa’s lowland tropics and hotter subtropics. A host of specific reasons support this opinion: Many African peoples already relish the fruits. Even in its present
Commonly also called wild plum, wild mangosteen, pama, gupenja, and mwausungulu.
“I’ve just come back from the Zambezi Valley below Victoria Falls Gorge,” wrote Ray Perry, one of our contributors. “The Garcinia were in full blossom (September). What a wonderful smell. The trees were alive with insects and birds. Bees obviously love the flowers. There was also a small moth around the trees. There are many 10 m tall specimens, but the species seems to only grow along the river courses.”