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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III 9 MEDLARS In eastern, central, and southern Africa, at least eight species of Vangueria are commonly found growing with vigor in dry, eroded, infertile, leached, or otherwise challenging sites. These trees closely resemble one another in both appearance and a propensity to bear lots of fruits. Specimens with as many as 1,800 fruits have been recorded and, given a street value of 4 cents each (U.S. currency, as recorded from Botswana), that amounts to a harvest worth more than $70 a tree. With their unusual but appealing flavor and aroma, these fruits are described as being akin to dried apple. Although of apricot size, the fresh fruits resemble the European medlar (Mespilus germanica) in color and appearance. In many parts of Africa they are eaten and enjoyed like medlars…raw, roasted, and dried. A renowned and potent gin (known in Afrikaans as mampoer) is distilled from their fermented pulp. Indeed, they are so all-round popular that farmers from South Africa to Sudan and Senegal carefully preserve the trees when clearing land to make fields. Despite the widespread enthusiasm, little was done to explore the economic potential or horticultural development of these species until quite recently. They were thought to grow slowly and yield too little to be worth the bother. Now a few brave pioneers are discovering that at least one member of this African fruit genus is relatively fast growing and has good potential for domestication. For the moment, though, a horticultural industry based on African medlars is a long way off. Wild stands are likely to remain the predominant source of fruits for some time to come. This is unfortunate because the fruits of most of those trees are more seed than flesh. It is misleading to judge the ultimate promise by present appearances. The current types are unselected, and some are wasted and withered because they come from trees that are stressed from the difficult sites they grow on. As these trees are made increasingly user-friendly they could contribute much to rural Africa. Although seeds fill most of the space inside most of the fruits, the pulp-to-seed ratio is very variable. Where the trees are reasonably well watered and benefit from good soils (which is far from frequent nowadays), the fruits are larger and can have a huge proportion of flesh. Fruits of the best-known medlar (Vangueria infausta) have been
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III The mealy fig-like flesh of the African medlar is sweet and refreshing and tastes somewhat like apple. It is an important and popular food. In fresh form it lasts barely a week, but in dried form it can keep for almost a year. Although still undomesticated, the fruit has much potential for horticultural development. (Rihana Botha, www.ecoport.org) measured having 60 percent flesh, sometimes 80 percent in Botswana. This is a clear indication that careful selection of site and seed can alone transform this crop. The trees’ immediate potential is probably not production in orchards but in back gardens, spare patches of hillside, village greens, or verges of roads, tracks, and rivers. In agroforestry they could find a notable niche. Already several species are used as hedge plants to demarcate fields and farms. Even when ripe, their fruits refuse to fall, and must necessarily be picked. Although the fruits may stay aloft on the branches for up to a couple of years, by then they are usually useless. However, for maybe six months they remain edible, which can provide a handy food-store in times of need. The fruits are promising in commerce. Marketable products include whole or dried fruit. Unprocessed or processed, they are potentially useful as nutritional supplements (in, for instance, the widely popular sour-tasting fermented porridge). They are also sold as a flavoring agent and for producing alcoholic beverages. A special feature is the easy desiccation. The fruits can be sundried, stored, and then eaten months later. After soaking in cold water for 12 hours or in warm water for less, the reconstituted fruit tastes almost like new. Because of this, they are commonly stored in dried form and used in times of scarcity, such as during the winter months. Typically, they are then boiled in
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III water and the resulting liquid is then used to flavor other foods, notably mealies (maize porridge). Undoubtedly, though, they contribute more than just flavor. One African medlar’s vitamin C content, for instance, is said to be 3.7 mg per 100 g.1 However, other species are said to contain no vitamin C, and analytical chemists could perform a signal service by analyzing representative samples of African medlars fruits to determine their full nutritional qualities. Like so many of the other plants highlighted in this book, the African medlars provide more than one food. In this case, the kernels of the seeds are also eaten. And there are non-food uses, too. The wood, roots, and leaves have medicinal uses.2 Perhaps because of this, there is considerable positive superstition associated with these trees. Across southern Africa, for instance, local lore has it that a beneficent Vangueria infausta bears fruits heavily just before a big drought.3 And in Swaziland, stakes or pegs from the wood are used to ward off lightning. Individuals interested in helping different parts of Africa should investigate the local Vangueria species and genotypes, not to mention the many and varied local methods of handling and preparing the different fruits. Taken overall, these plants offer great projects for students, anthropologists, botanists, plants persons of varying levels of experience, and Africanists of perhaps every type. Pooling the Africa-wide knowledge and the best insights of science will likely catalyze even greater levels of activity and thereby arouse not only greater appreciation for this indigenous resource but also open the doors to a new and vibrant horticultural industry. Documenting traditional usages together with exploratory nutrition research and feeding trials should be the first steps. As these plants are already well known to millions, information on local traditional usages will enable a fair assessment of the plant’s true value. The nutrition research and feeding trials will complement the information on local uses. Not until the real importance becomes known should other major research and development thrusts be undertaken. If the preliminary findings are good it should be easy to carry out awareness campaigns leading to and resulting in marketing and economic development.4 There are reports of a surprising number of medicinal uses, which, given the state of healthcare in Africa, might open another pathway to progress for these resources.5 1 Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962. Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. Livingstone, Edinburgh and London. 2 Roots are used, for instance, as antimalarials and to treat pneumonia. Crushed, soaked leaves are said to bring down swellings and to be good for treating styes in the eyes. 3 Whereas trees cannot possibly foretell the future, one of our contributors noted the coincidence that the trees in his neighborhood did exactly that 1981, a year that was followed by a terrible eight-year dry spell. 4 Ideas from Nat and Patricia Quansah, Madagascar. 5 See, for example, Venter, F. and J. Venter. 1996. Making the Most of Indigenous Trees,
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Promising species include the following: Vangueria infausta Burch.6 This shrub or small tree occurs in abundance in woodlands, scrub, valleys, stony kopjies, or sandy dunes throughout much of South Africa (Transkei and Gauteng, for instance), Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi. It reaches 6 m tall, with a fluted cylindrical trunk and a spreading, somewhat rounded crown. When ripe, the fruits are spherical, shiny, and yellow or light- to reddish-brown. They come crowned with the remains of the calyx. The leathery skin easily peels away to expose the pulp and seeds (usually three) inside. The fruits themselves look somewhat like dried pears, and their sweet-acid flavor is much liked. Mixed with a little sugar and water, the pulp produces a good substitute for applesauce; many farm families use it in puddings. This is a species for which domestication projects are underway. One is that of Veld Products Research in Gaberone, Botswana. Its researchers turned for help to Botswana’s children; co-opting the kids’ expertise to find which trees produced the best fruits and providing prizes for the best seeds. The kids proved to really know the plants. Some seedlings from their favorite trees produced fruit at the almost incredibly early age of 8 months; at 2 years of age (and only 1.3 m tall) they bore as many as 400 fruits.7 In this and other programs, encouraging responses to grafting have also been observed. In some cases grafted trees have been found to grow up to twice as fast as the ungrafted seedlings and to yield as many as 1,500 fruits. Some of those fruits were as big as 15 cm in diameter, an almost unimaginable size to those who’ve seen only the wild fruits. The researchers domesticating Vangueria infausta in Botswana have run into potential problems, however. First, they’ve found that drought or erratic rainfall causes fruits to abort, a problem easily overcome by supplemental irrigation (if it is available—and if it is not commandeered for something like mangoes). Second, a mite causes galls on the leaves and if the trees are grown at high density it can spread easily and quickly and affect overall Briza Publishers, Pretoria. 6 A synonym is Vangueria tomentosa. Lacking any other common English name, these fruits are called wild medlar, or African medlar. Local names for this species and its fruit include mmilo (Pedi, Sotho, Tswana), umviyo and umvilo (Zulu), mispel, mobilo, and matugongo, umntulu (siSwati), mmilo (sePedi), and umviyo (isiZulu). 7 In Malawi, similar spectacular growth and production have been obtained. Maghembe, J.A., 1995. Achievements in the establishment of indigenous fruit trees of the miombo woodlands of southern Africa. Pp. 39-49 in Maghembe, J.A., Y. Ntupanyama, and P.W. Chirwa, eds., Improvement of Indigenous Fruit Trees of the Miombo Woodlands of Southern Africa. Proceedings of a Conference, January 23-27, 1994, Mangochi, Malawi. International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, Nairobi.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III production. Third, the tree’s leaves are attacked by fungus, although there seems to be little effect on the production of fruit. In this research, it has been found that the seedlings need the help of beneficial fungi. Most of the specimens examined in the field have formed symbioses with these helpful microbes (arbuscular mycorrhizae), which aid in the plant’s establishment, survival, growth, and productivity. They are now working on ways to ensure that the seedlings in the nursery have this beneficial infection on their roots.8 Food technologists in South Africa have also run into problems. “We have found,” writes our contributor Cori Ham, “that there is so little juice in the fruit that it is very difficult to work with when making nectar and fruit rolls. The nectar has a brown color and cinnamon-like taste and our consumer panel rejected it on the basis of its unpleasing color and thick consistency. It had however very high sugar levels and the potential for blending it with other fruits should be investigated.” Vangueria madagascariensis J Gmelin9 This species is native to Mozambique, Madagascar, and the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion. Its somewhat apple-like fruits are borne in clusters of two to five. They are nearly round and sized like golf balls (3.5 cm diameter), with smooth tough skin and whitish flesh, turning brown when fully ripe. The flavor has been likened to “a blend of apple and tamarind.” The fruits sell well in the produce markets of Uganda, Kenya, Madagascar, and elsewhere. They are eaten raw, stewed, or roasted. Even on Madagascar itself, little has been done to develop this much-enjoyed fruit. Artificial regeneration has not been tried, and there are no orchards. The crop is, however, semi-cultivated on farms. People clearing land for farming always leave these trees as future sources of fruits. The tree is variously associated with magic and witchcraft and cattle fertility and so it is not cut down nor is its wood burned. Germination is said to be difficult, owing to the hard seedcoat. However, it cannot be too difficult, because the plant is grown to a small extent in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago. Improved methods of propagation and horticulture could help boost the income of fruit growers, especially if the marketing of fruits can be better organized. And beyond that, this forest-dwelling species holds promise for helping Madagascar’s beleaguered and fast-disappearing rainforests. The tree will grow in dry regions but bears best where there is plenty of year- 8 This is of course a means for benefiting not just this species but most or all of the others in this book as well. 9 Synonyms are Vangueria edulis, Vangueria acutiloba, and Vangueria venosa. Common names include voa-vanga and Spanish tamarind.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III round precipitation. It has good potential for contributing to “supply-side” conservation. Organized harvesting of such forest fruits would help give local people a stake in keeping the forests standing. Some use might be found for the seeds, which, apparently, have received no attention. At present, however, the species is not regenerating adequately. Vangueria apiculata K. Schum. This eastern African species, often called shikomoli, is common to all parts of Uganda and is found as far south as eastern Zimbabwe. It, too, occurs in scrubland and forests and is typically a shrub or tree to 12 m or more. Its fruit is fleshy and 2-3 cm wide. It is produced in abundance and is commonly eaten. The pulp around the seed is thin but sweet. The root is employed to treat roundworm. Vangueriopsis lanciflora (Hiern) Robyns10 This fruit of a closely related genus is reported to be the tastiest African medlar of them all.11 It comes from a species found notably in Zimbabwe. It grows as a bush up to 3 m high in the southern part of the country and a tree up to 12 m tall in northern part. The fruits look like oblong, yellow plums. They are similar to the main African medlar (Vangueria infausta), but can be both smaller and slightly larger. The pulp is crumbly, but the skin is tough and the pulp is easily squeezed right out into the mouth. Only one or two seeds occur in these fruits. This species is in need of genetic selection. Whereas most of the fruits are exceptionally flavorful, some are reported to be tasteless. Undoubtedly, this is due to genetic differences between the trees. Vegetative propagation of superior types might quickly make this into a winner. The plant is grown from branches “stuck in the ground.” These apparently take root readily, so the cloning of great-tasting types should be easy. Lagynias lasiantha (Sond.) Bullock12 Another fruit-bearing tree from a closely related genus, this species is said to produce fruits “as good, if not better than Vangueria.”13 Native to tropical East and southern Africa, the fruits of this shrub are undoubtedly pleasant to eat and should be more widely enjoyed. 10 Often called Zimbabwe wild medlar, mutufu, umyiyo, mufilu (Bembe), msoli (Nyanja), musole (Tonga). 11 When we asked about dropping certain species from our first draft one contributor wrote back: “Please keep V. lanciflora—it is yummy!!” 12 Known in South Africa as the umtulu tree. 13 Information from A. B. Cunningham.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III