and as far south as the Congo area or even Angola. It is a characteristic feature of the vegetation on the interior plateaus throughout this vast area. Mainly a savanna and understory shrub, it is often found in open forests and on laterite and sandy soils near rivers.
This climbing vine or spreading shrub once was the main rubber supplier to Senegal, Guinea, and the French Sudan (modern Mali). Some of its rubber reached Europe. A century ago, farmers were encouraged to cultivate the plant in gardens and farms, particularly after the wild vines were so decimated that the rubber supply began dropping. Propagation was both by seeds and cuttings.
The sap is even today used locally to fix bicycle tubes. However, the fruits are now much more important than the rubber. Small (3 cm in diameter), round, and yellow to orange in color, they sell well in markets. The pulp surrounding the seeds is filled with a juice that is regarded as very healthful and is sometimes prescribed as an aid to digestion. Rich in organic acids, this pulp is used as a snack, as a breakfast food, and as a source of refreshing drinks. Beer is also made, and the juice is commonly used to season rice with its sprightly sourness. In some countries—The Gambia, for instance—it is especially important during the “hungry time” each year.
The plant grows under trees and is promising for agroforestry. Farmers are likely to grow it eagerly, whether they really want fruits or not. To them, it is a self-replenishing annual fodder reserve. Goats like the desiccated leaves, and the plants thereby help a farmer’s “cash on the hoof” survive the dry season.
The eta (Landolphia owariensis Beauv.) is found in tropical Central and West Africa.6 It grows as a vine in forest; as a shrub in savanna. At the turn of last century it was a major source of rubber produced in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and perhaps other nations as well. Today people make rubber bands out of the cured latex, but this is increasingly rare.
The fruits, however, are widely eaten. They are the size of oranges and have a reddish-brown, woody shell and an agreeable pulp. This pulp is eaten directly. It is also used to season foods and to make tangy fruit drinks and even wine. Typically, the flavor is both sweet and sour at the same time.
Eta is an unusual fruit, but people really like it. Normally, the pulp is merely dumped in water and left to soak a few minutes. Being highly acidic, it makes a lot of beverage. Sugar is added to taste, and the final product conveys a delightful aroma.
The tough and leathery skin is usually opened with a whack of the fist or heel of the hand. (It can be cut open, but latex in the thick outer shell soon gums up the knife.)