Although perhaps more than 20 Strychnos species produce edible fruits in various parts of Africa, three stand out. Strychnos cocculoides, S. spinosa, and S. pungens produce large, pleasantly flavored fruits that are easy to handle and often in short supply. Farmers appreciate the trees so much that when clearing land they spare them the ax—even if plowing or planting field crops will be awkward. These three special monkey orange trees are widely enjoyed and have the amazing capacity to stay edible in tropical heat for months after maturity. This is important for food security: monkey orange has been called, “A great and precious resource in times of crop failure.”
Of all Africa’s native fruits, these are perhaps the most “conventional.” They are similar in size and shape to apple, pear, and orange trees. Given horticultural attention, they probably can be raised with equal facility. There have other advantages, too. They bear fruit in abundance. They make excellent additions to gardens, parks, streets, and fence lines, by providing not only food but also shade, shelter, and erosion protection.
Above all, though, these fruits provide a profit. Indeed, they sell at very high prices and still the full demand is seldom met. A much greater commerce in monkey fruits is eminently possible. Even an export trade is not beyond question. Zimbabwe has already exported some of the fruits to Botswana, and that could be just the beginning.
High prices, high productivity, great shelf life, unmet demand…these are the makings of success in any fruit. However, few people have attempted to produce monkey oranges in organized cultivation. For all intents and purposes, they remain unknown to horticulture, and remain undomesticated.
Clearly, these three special monkey orange trees warrant intensive research and development. And that has begun…at least in a modest way. In southern Africa, selection and cultivation of monkey oranges is underway, in hopes these plants may eventually be grown intensively. Beyond the possibility of orchards, however, is the promise of improving production from the wild resource and expanding monkey orange trade within and among African nations. These fruits may find a home beyond Africa as well.