2
CHOCOLATE BERRIES

Of the nearly 70 Vitex species found scattered across tropical Africa, at least some are of local commercial and nutritional importance. These small and rugged trees are quintessential wild foods. In season, they become bespangled by an abundance of blackish fruits, which passersby eagerly gather up. Part of the harvest is eaten there and then, but most goes to market for sale. The reason? Although newcomers may loathe the pungent scent and brown stain on the lips, almost everyone loves the “chocolate” flavor.

Unknown beyond Africa, these particular Vitex species, from the mint family (Labiatae), are essentially unknown to science too. But they are so useful that without them life would be even harder in many places between Senegal and South Africa. You see, villagers rely on these trees for much more than just fruits. They boil and eat the young leaves like spinach.1 They depend on the foliage to keep their livestock from starving during the long and trying months when the grass is gone. They use the twigs as chewsticks to clean their teeth. And they visit the trees to obtain medicines.2

Beyond all that, these supremely utilitarian species produce a straight-grained timber resembling teak. It is used for the walls and roofs of houses as well as for furniture, boats, crates, bowls, stools, shelves, and (at least in Uganda) chairs, drums, and knife handles. It also makes good firewood and is said to be good for rubbing together to start a fire by friction.

For all these reasons, these rugged, robust, and resilient woody plants seem excellent candidates for further development and more organized use. They are obviously not solely horticultural resources: their greatest value, eventually, may be not to fruit growers, but to livestock owners and to foresters. For this last, they are especially promising because people eagerly plant and tenderly nurture any quality seedlings supplied. Everyone likes

1

The resulting food is called dinkin in Hausa.

2

This may not be without merit. In 2001, the British Medical Journal (BMJ 322:134-7) reported on the effects of extracts from the fruit of the “chaste tree.” In the study, 170 women took this preparation over three menstrual cycles. More than half showed less irritability, anger, headache, and breast engorgement—classic manifestations of premenstrual syndrome. The study’s authors speculate that the tree has hormonal properties and also acts directly on the brain. Its scientific name: Vitex agnus-castus.



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