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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III 3 CUSTARD APPLES The food markets of tropical America routinely exhibit a number of large green premium fruits whose soft and delicious pulp is likened to fruit-salad from a tree. Variously known as “sops” or “custard apples,” these attractive greenish globes include soursop (guanabana), sweetsop, custard apple, sugar apple, cherimoya, and bullock’s heart. In recent decades these delicacies have been planted ever more widely and certain ones have turned into popular commercial products in locations far beyond their ancestral home, including Europe, the United States, and Australia. What is not well known is that this famous fruit family (Annonaceae) has African members as well. These, however, are little studied and are not well understood even within their natural habitats. Now they deserve the same kind of attention as their botanical brethren across the Atlantic. One, the African custard apple, has been called “the best indigenous fruit in most parts of tropical Africa.” Another, the junglesop, produces probably the biggest fruits in the whole family—as long as a person’s forearm and as thick as a person’s thigh. A third—perhaps the strangest of all—“hangs like a bunch of sausages,” each fruit a bright scarlet link. At least two more produce small tasty fruits that make people’s mouths water at just the remembrance from a long-ago childhood. And this group includes a tangy fruit borne on a plant so strange that it barely rises above ground level. This is a good time to investigate these unusual fruits. Their American relatives, especially the highland cherimoya, are rising in horticultural importance throughout many parts of the world. And crosses between different species are creating hybrids that appear to have their own attractive futures. Clearly, the African counterparts should now join in this march of culinary progress. Scientifically speaking, Africa’s annonas are so neglected that their genetic variability still awaits discovery and description. Fruits of above-average in size and excellent taste exist in abundance. Gathering those should be a priority. Types with few or no seeds are known, and should also be sought. Certain plants also show other useful genetic traits. Some, for instance, grow upright while many others sprawl. In addition, hybrids between the African species and their American relatives may well produce brightly colored, larger fruits with few (or
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III perhaps no) seeds. Those are genetic qualities that could bring breakthroughs to both sides of the Atlantic. However, much remains to be learned before anyone can cultivate the African species with confidence. At present, for example, many of the seeds are reluctant to germinate.1 And some of these species–junglesop is an example–take as long as 10 years to produce their first flowers. Vegetative propagation is apparently untried, but experiments along this line seem likely to overcome the delay as well as several other practical difficulties. All in all, then, these inter-related species comprise a great group for Africa-wide collaborations and for both professional and amateur contributions. As with other pre-domesticated species, urgent needs are: Making better use of the existing wild resource; Documenting traditional and modern usages; Collecting different species and types for comparative testing; Genetic selection; and Horticultural development. Philanthropists could help a lot. Funding any of these steps would immensely speed up the process of bringing these crops to modern life. Progress and satisfaction will not even be notably expensive. Notable interesting delights among local custard apples are described below. AFRICAN CUSTARD APPLE Best known among the indigenous annonas, African custard apple (Annona senegalensis)2 produces fruits that smell like pineapple and taste like apricot. Found from Senegal to South Africa, the tree is a surprisingly common companion to thousands of villages. People everywhere go out of their way to preserve a few trees around their houses or in the fields where the crops grow. But for all that, this species has never been awarded serious agronomic attention. If now given horticultural help, the African custard apple will likely become planted quite intensively and its fruits will become better foodstuffs, far more widely eaten and far more widely sold in local and city markets than they are today. As a result, the crop would contribute substantially to Africa’s future nutrition, not to mention its overall rural economy. 1 “Despite many attempts,” write our contributors Roy Danforth and Paul Noren, “we have been unable to germinate Annona senegalensis seeds except about two plants out of thousands of seeds.” 2 This plant’s botanic name is in dispute. The full formal name is Annona senegalensis Auct. Another name often cited, but apparently in error, is Annona senegalensis Pers. Some taxonomists denote the plant as Annona chrysophylla Boj.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III The African custard apple tree is a surprisingly common companion to thousands of villages from Senegal to South Africa. Resembling its more famous American cousins, the fruits smell like pineapple and taste like apricot. (Paul Latham) In its present unselected state, this local custard apple is smaller than its American counterpart. Also, its pulp is packed with many pale brown seeds. Despite that, however, ripe ones are very attractive with bright colors and tasty flesh. In appearance, these fruits are lumpy skinned, roughly spherical, yellow to orange in color, and fleshily soft to the touch. They are best picked before achieving full ripeness and stored in a warm, dark place to ripen slowly out of reach of the sun. The tree bearing these fruits branches so prodigiously it is usually hardly more than a shrub. Under exceptionally favorable conditions it may reach 8 m, but more often is only 3 m tall. It has large leaves and is deciduous. Although distributed throughout tropical Africa (Senegal, Congo, Sudan, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, for example), it clearly possesses at least modest cold tolerance. It occurs, for instance, in subtropical parts of South Africa, reaching its southern natural limit on Natal’s north coast. Ecologically, the plant appears best suited to warm-but-not-hot conditions, as well as to fairly moist environments (probably those where annual rainfall exceeds 750 mm). In nature it tends to occur in mixed woodlands and open savannas. It also seems to favor sandy sites; indeed, in the wild, it is commonly found on deep sands. However, it also readily colonizes rocky outcrops. In addition to its own promise, the species may also benefit its better-known American relatives in at least two ways. For one, smaller seeds could
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III perhaps be induced in the popular cherimoya or soursop through creating hybrids from them using the African custard apple as a pollinator (it produces pollen prodigiously). The African custard apple may also make an excellent rootstock for its relatives. The fact that it likes deep sandy soils suggests that its roots plunge deep and downward, a feature of special significance in conferring drought resistance. The plant has seldom been tested outside Africa, but there is a reference to it growing in Brazil. According to this report, it has become well established especially around Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Espirito Santo.3 Beyond its fruits, African custard apple could have other important local uses. Various parts of the tree are renowned for providing medicines. In Swaziland, for instance, the bark is used to treat open sores.4 And there may be merit in using the leaves against lice and other skin pests because other members of this genus are known for their lethal effects on insects. JUNGLESOP The junglesop (Anonidium mannii (Oliv.) Engl. & Diels)5 is a medium sized tropical African tree bearing the fruits that are almost as long as a person’s forearm and as thick as a leg. Typically these giants weigh between 4 and 6 kg; they are often as big as jackfruit (the world’s biggest fruit). Despite being more than half a meter long, most of those seen today are not fully rounded out because of inadequate pollination. Although a rarity, the plant is very popular where it occurs. In the Central African Republic, for instance, people reportedly pay up to two days salary for a single junglesop. And special trips are organized to collect the fruits during the season. This fruit’s tough and leathery brown skin has a surface patterned with raised diamond-shapes. About four or five days after picking, the fruit softens and can be easily broken open to expose the soft, yellow-orange flesh inside. In some varieties this is deliciously sweet and very good to the taste; in others, it can be not only sour but downright awful. Just how mature the fruit was when picked can affect the sweetness, but genetics also plays a part, and locals know individual trees that are always sweet and others that are always sour. As in most annonaceous fruits, the flavor is rich—but in this case it is sometimes so rich that a person cannot eat more than a few bites at a time. But apparently not everyone is so inhibited: People in northern Congo, for 3 Cruz, G. L. 1979. Dicionario das Plantas Uteis do Brasil. Editora Civilizacao Brasileira S.A., Rio de Janeiro. The plant is locally known as araticum da areia. The fruit is described with a rougher surface and much bigger than in Africa; it may be an elite germline but could also be a hybrid or even a variation of some other Annona species. 4 Information from Harry van den Burg. 5 Previously known as Annona mannii. Information in this section came especially from Roy Danforth and Paul Noren.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Bangui, Central African Republic. In this area, custard apple trees are a common accompaniment to rural houses. They are beloved for the deep shade they provide as well as for the quality fruits that are tasty and salable in the market. (Roy Danforth and Paul Noren) instance, say that five hungry men can completely fill their stomachs with a good-sized junglesop! Although (or perhaps because) this is a common tree in some of the Central African rainforest, people have so far failed to develop it as a crop. Attempt after attempt has come to nothing. Part of the difficulty lies in fungal diseases that attack the plants. Today, these problems can probably be
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III overcome by careful selection of growing site and perhaps other techniques such as grafting onto resistant rootstocks or the judicious use of fungicides. Although essentially unknown outside Central Africa, individual trees now can be found in southern Florida, Hawaii, Malaysia, and northern Queensland (Australia). All are young, but each is growing well. This indicates possibilities for a better international understanding of the species, its management, and its fruit. GROUND SOP This plant (Annona stenophylla Engl. & Diels) is a dwarf of the family. Indeed, it is so small it bears its fruits literally “on the ground.” Nonetheless, those low-borne fruits rank high in people’s esteem. They are said to be better eating than even the African custard apple. A southern Africa native, it is found in northern Botswana, northern Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Despite the plant’s diminutive size, the fruits are large. They are yellow or reddish orbs crammed with pumpkin-colored flesh. They are said to be tasty, and people eat them raw, cooked, or preserved. In the diets of those living in the semi-arid northern areas of Botswana and Namibia, ground sop becomes almost a staple during the season. OTHER SPECIES Other African Annonaceae yield edible fruit delights as well. Nothing much can be said about them because as of now they are among the most obscure resources in the world. Essentially nothing has been contributed to the scientific literature describing their qualities and promise. Despite that neglect, however, these seem to have qualities that make them worth exploration and perhaps exploitation. They include the following species. Baboon’s Breakfast This plant (Hexalobus monopetalus (A.Rich.) Engl. & Diels)6 is a shrub or small deciduous tree (2-8 m tall) found throughout tropical Africa—as far north as Senegal and Sudan and as far south as Gauteng in South Africa. Its small, oblong fruits are scarlet when ripe and sometimes are patterned with green-veins. Inside is a juicy white pulp that is eaten fresh or in the form of jam (said to be delicious). Fresh, they have a pleasantly acid taste. The seeds are sometimes separated, dried, and employed as a spicy condiment. The cluster of oval scarlet to orange fruitlets, each about 5 cm long, are borne in a single flower. According to one report they taste like the red, sweet ‘Satsuma’ plum, and are much sought by local people, not to mention myriad animals. In nature, the plant grows in open woodlands in dry regions as well as reasonably well-watered ones. It therefore seems quite adaptable. 6 It is known as shakama plum (from the Shangaan name in South Africa) and, in Zambia, as mkandachembele (N); Bambara names include sama-bolokoni (elephant’s little toe).
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Junglesop produces probably one of the world’s biggest fruits—as long as a person’s forearm and as thick as a person’s thigh. Like America’s custard apples, especially cherimoya, this one is sweet and soft. Clearly, this and the other African custard apples should now join this culinary wave that is lifting other custard apples in horticultural importance in several parts of the world. (Roy Danforth and Paul Noren) Elsewhere in tropical Africa are found the botanically related Hexalobus senegalensis A. DC (a savanna species) and Hexalobus crispifloris A. DC (a forest species). Both also offer good fruits, and people like having the trees around. The latter species is abundant in Cameroon cocoa plantations, “undoubtedly the result of effective conservation, enrichment planting or other type of human intervention,” notes an FAO report.7 7 van Dijk, J.F.W. 1999. An assessment of non-wood forest product resources for the
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Dwaba-Berry The dwaba-berry (Monanthotaxis caffra [Sond.] Verdc.) is a climber, shrub, or small tree (up to 3 m) that occurs in evergreen forests and nondescript scrub in eastern South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique. Its small, flask-shaped fruits come in clusters. Yellow at first, they ripen to a very bright red. Most are eaten fresh and have a slightly acidulous flavor. Among the wild fruits of northern KwaZulu (South Africa), these are a favorite of the summer. In Swaziland, fibers stripped from the bark are made into baskets or even woven into a cloth (traditionally used for burial shrouds). Monkey Fingers The so-called Monkey fingers (Friesodielsia obovata [Benth.] Verdc.)8 is the fascinating fruit that “hangs like a bunch of sausages” from a single flower of a small tree. The individual fruitlet fingers are bright scarlet, fleshy, and tart. They are eaten fresh or stewed or cooked as a tasty jelly. Some are fermented into wine. A fruit of such strange shape and such bright color seems likely to create great interest in the modern upscale marketplace, whatever it tastes like. development of sustainable commercial extraction. In T.C.H. Sunderland, L.E. Clark, and P. Vantomme, eds., Current Research Issues and Prospects for Conservation and Development. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome. 8 A synonym is Popowia obovata (Benth.) Engl. & Diels.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III