Dietary Diversity with Indigenous ‘Super’ Fruits
South Africa is a rich and diverse country and this is evident in even our plant kingdom.
We have many useful plants in our country, including some very elusive, very tasty and very nutritious fruits. Indigenous fruit are fruits that are found in the wild in the southern African region. They originated in the area and slowly spread upward into Africa and eventually all over the world. Most indigenous fruit has been used by our ancestors for thousands of years but has become increasingly less popular as eating habits change and indigenous people become more reliant on commercial food crops. This has also led to the slow degradation of this lost food source and possible commodity.
A recent study showed that indigenous fruits are very high in certain nutrients. Some more popular fruits like the baobab are being explored for their high antioxidant properties and it is already widely sold as a superfood. A lot of the other fruits are now being looked at. Some contain high levels of calcium and others, potassium; most South African fruits are high in vitamin C, vitamin B and other antioxidants. These make these foods good choices to help combat food insecurity and malnutrition among the poorest of our society.
Indigenous fruits are very well adapted to our climate and are drought tolerant; they have also evolved to be pest resistant and need little to no care to produce excellent fruit. Indigenous fruit could make very valuable crops if grown alongside other crops. They make excellent hedges to keep livestock and wildlife away from your garden; they act as pollinators, attracting many bees and butterflies and the fruit can act as a distraction crop to keep monkeys out. Most of these plants can be used as pioneer plants to restore damaged land; they are used to prevent erosion on embankments and help hold back vulnerable dunes. Most of the plants are fed to livestock.
These fruits can be turned into very viable secondary products like jams, pulses, juices and even wines. The recent interest in the fruit has also turned them into food additives that can be used to increase nutrient density in meals, as well as flavouring other foods and as preservatives in food and cosmetics, making them a viable economic crop that can help alleviate unemployment and empower the marginalised communities.
There are many viable fruits. Most of them are widely unknown to the general population but increasing interest might turn these into South Africa’s next export. Here are just some of the fruits currently being investigated for their nutritional and ecological importance.
Wild Medlar (Vanqueria infausta) is a deciduous shrub about three to seven metres high and can be single or multi stemmed with low-hanging branches. The leaves are light green, velvety and ovate. They make very attractive garden plants when trained. The flowers normally appear with the new leaves in spring. They are small, greenish-white to yellow and appear in clusters along the branches.
The plants grow on stony koppies, woodland, sandy valleys and even exposed grasslands and are found in most of southern Africa, including Namibia and Botswana.
The medlar fruit is dull orange to purple. When ripe, they have a sweet-sour taste with a floury texture and are mainly eaten raw. The juice can be mixed with water and sugar to make an ‘apple juice’. Medlar is very high in vitamin C, high in calcium and potassium, making it a good plant to assist in malnutrition.The fruits are also fermented to make ‘mampoer’ or beer and even wine and vinegar. Tea made from the leaves and roots can help treat malaria, chest infections, as a purgative and to treat ringworm. A mouthwash of the leaves can also help alleviate toothache. The fruit can also be; dried for storage.
Wild medlar or, as it is sometimes called, evil medlar, was believed to possess evil powers; it was said to cause cows to produce only bull calves. The tree’s powers are so feared that not even the wood should be used to make fires.
Sour fig, or Hottentot’s fig (Carbobrotus edulis) is a creeping succulent with erect, smooth, fleshy leaves, triangular in shape. It has striking yellow flowers that fade to pink. The flowers open in the day and close again at night. It’s easy and fast to grow, ideal for water-wise and low maintenance gardens. These plants originate in the coastal regions of the Eastern and Western Cape but have spread to most of South Africa. In the US, where it is known as the ice plant, as well as on the Australian coastline near Perth, it has become an invasive.
These plants have been proven to be very good stabilisers for dunes and embankments. They can also be used as a pioneer plant in disturbed areas. Even though they are hardy and drought-tolerant, they are frost sensitive.
The soft fleshy fruits of the sour fig look like spinning tops and are yellow when ripe. The inside contains a mass of seeds in a gel-like goo, which is sucked out of the bottom of the fruit. The fruit is quite astringent, with a salty, sour taste. It makes a very tasty jam. The leaves, however, are more prized for their medicinal qualities; fresh leaves have been used for sunburn, bluebottle stings, mouth ulcers, itches, cold sores and nappy rash. It is also being investigated as a cure for tuberculosis.
The Amatungulu or big num-num (Carissa Bispinosa) are attractive ornamental shrubs. They are short evergreen shrubs but can be trained into small trees. They have beautiful green, glossy, ovate leaves; the green branches are sometimes hairy and split in a repeated fork pattern, making these bushes very twiggy and almost impenetrable. It is this feature, as well as the twin thorns on the end of the twigs, that make these plants excellent hedge plants. The fruit can also help as a distraction crop for monkeys. They are wind and drought resistant and can withstand salty sea breezes, but can be frost sensitive.
The small jasmine-like flowers are sweetly scented, attracting lots of pollinators. They turn into small, ovoid, red berries. The whole fruit, including the seeds and skin, is edible, even though the skin produces a white milky substance when cut. The fruit can also be used to make jams and jellies. The fruits are very high in calcium, magnesium and vitamin C.
Monkey Orange (Strychnos spinosa) is a small branchy tree with dark green leaves that turn yellow in autumn. They make very attractive garden plants. The tree produces clumps of small white flowers at the ends of the branches. They grow singly in well drained soil in the bushveld and sandy forests along the eastern coast.
The fruit is smooth and hard and takes a long time to ripen. They tend to appear only after good rains. The fruits are sweet-sour and juicy; they have hard brown seeds that should be avoided. This nutritious fruit is high in vitamins B and C, iron, and zinc. It also has a high antioxidant activity. Traditionally the fruit was buried to allow the contents to liquefy. The fruit pulp can be eaten raw, dried into fruit rolls, made into jams, juices and wines.
The leaves are used for animal feed and the dried discarded shell of the fruit is used to make musical instruments or sold as curios.
Kei Apple (Dovyalis caffra) is an evergreen, spiny shrub between three and five meters high. They originate in the Kei River valley and are found along most of the eastern coast up to Tanzania. They have long stem spines in the leaf and large sturdy thorns. They make good hedge plants when planted close together. This hardy shrub is drought- and frost-resistant. It is also useful on embankments to prevent cliffside erosion.
The fruit is acidic and tastes like apple but with a juicy, floury texture like apricot. It’s used for jams, cakes and juices. The fruits are high in vitamin C, potassium and other potent antioxidants. It is also regarded as a good source of essential amino acids.
Liquid from fermented fruit mixed with water can be used as a natural herbicide. This is due to a biochemical it produces to avoid competition for resources by inhibiting growth of nearby plants.
These plants have huge potential in our country, especially considering the impact of climate change and the current economic situation we are finding ourselves in. These plants might just be the next new trend in health and conscious eating. As new information and technology develop, we will be introducing some less well-known fruits and hopefully bring more diversity into our diets and food gardens.
Chris Viljoen has a background in naturopathy and psychology, is a member of the Green Net, owner of Journey Café and Ghost Kitchen, a conscious food eatery, and manages a community garden focused on alleviating food insecurity on the South Coast.