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OCR for page 324

OCR for page 324
12 SUGARPLUMS Africa is home to more than 30 species of wild fruit trees belonging to the genus Uapaca. Several produce fine flavored and attractive looking fruits that are in high demand in various parts of the continent. They are an African heritage that adds zest to traditional foods from porridges to desserts. But so far none has been accorded much—or even any— horticultural recognition. This should change. These are promising resources for widespread cultivation. They are highly respected; farmers clearing land normally leave the wild groves standing. The public likes the fruits so much that in several countries an organized trade occurs, much as if the harvest came from orchards rather than wild stands. And in nature the trees seem fully at home on adverse sites where food production is generally poor. Indeed, because of that feature they have traditionally helped people survive famine. Fully ripe, these typically plum-sized fruits are yellow-brown in color, juicy and honeylike in taste. They enclose several white seeds, each with a characteristic ridge along its back. Most are eaten fresh, but some are pounded with water and served as a refreshing drink. If left to ferment, this sugary liquid develops into a pleasant fruit wine. In addition, tasty snacks are made from the pulp by adding water, flour, and sometimes egg, flattening the doughy mixture into round cakes, and frying them. Although little is known about these fruits’ nutritional value, it is thought to be outstanding. The level of vitamin C can be especially high. In part, this is what makes sugarplums important foods in time of famine. When left on the tree, fruits tend to ripen unevenly. Thus, although they can be picked up effortlessly from the ground, most are picked green and stored several days in the dark. They may be put into plastic bags or other containers. Commonly, they are placed in a shallow hole in the ground and covered with leaves from the tree. Other times they are placed in the village grain bins. In each case, they are exposed to ethylene, the fruit-ripening hormone, and they ripen evenly. Once ripe, they exhibit a good shelf life. These valuable trees could be useful components of several cultivation systems, including backyard gardens or orchard-like plantings, as well as in agroforestry operations. They are ideal tools for projects proposing to protect soil and/or conserve habitats and native biodiversity. They are promising for 325

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LOST CROPS OF AFRICA 326 More than 30 species of wild fruit trees belonging to the genus Uapaca can be found across Africa. Several produce fine flavored, attractive fruits that are loved wherever they occur. These yellow-brown plum-sized delights add sparkle and zest to traditional foods from porridges to desserts. Fully ripe, they are juicy and honeylike in taste. Shown here is Uapaca kirkiana, near Vumba Junction, Zimbabwe. (B. Wursten, www.zimbabweflora.co.zw) food security and poverty reduction enterprises. They seem suitable for public health initiatives aimed at balancing diets and reducing malnutrition. But no one yet knows how to get the most out of the various sugarplum species. Indeed, so much remains to be done that the possible next steps seem overwhelming. From food science to soil science, opportunities for important advances abound on all sides. Some might advocate that a deep understanding be given priority before anyone venture into growing these fruits on a bigger scale. That was, in fact, the opinion of one contributor, who felt “popularity on the market might little affect production.” The view has merit, but as with other fruits highlighted in this book there are open opportunities for immediate amateur and professional endeavors that should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed,

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SUGARPLUMS 327 a collection of incremental improvements coming from many committed and observant people may produce faster progress than any laboratory or experiment station can deliver. Thus, in addition to formal projects, a sugarplum website might be created as a nexus for gathering and comparing information, catalyzing individual and team efforts, and sharing ideas and planting materials. And even small awards for special successes in research or promotional activities would likely stimulate dedicated investigations and outstanding developments far-exceeding any cash value of a prize. Seen in overview, sugarplums need the same basic help as Africa’s other outstanding wild fruit species. For one thing, wild resources need protection. For another, selection and perhaps breeding are needed to bring out exceptional fruits that are bigger, better, more attractive, and more valuable. Thirdly, promoting the fruits through individual, government, or group action can change attitudes toward a neglected food that has long been a traditional mainstay. And application of horticultural techniques can go far toward transforming sugarplums into crops. One specific horticultural feature to surmount is the trees’ apparent tendency toward alternate bearing. All in all, for food and health, these are worthy producers of quality fruits and, given improvement, are likely to produce far better ones than the forest fruits of today. Indeed, tomorrow’s sugarplums could be astounding. Species especially deserving of attention include the following. Mohobohobo The best known species (Uapaca kirkiana Müll. Arg.), this is one of the most popular wild fruits in the zone where eastern Africa meets southern Africa.1 Throughout Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique people like its sweet and pleasant taste, which is said to be somewhat reminiscent of pears. Vast quantities are eaten. Indeed, in some locations collecting parties, which may extend over several days and yield basketfuls of fruits, are organized for the enjoyment of everyone in the village. A very pleasant wine is made from them as well. This is one of the few wild fruits with an organized distribution system. The districts where the trees grow send the fruits to distant markets. In Zimbabwe, for example, agents in Mashonaland, where the trees are abundant, truck enormous quantities of the fruits into Harare, where they are mostly sold by street vendors. The tree producing these delights is a many-branched evergreen. Normally 5 to 6 m in height, it sometimes towers to 12 m. Commonly found on poor soils, it is often locally dominant on leached quartz sand and gravelly sites that are of little use for agriculture. In nature, it occurs mainly 1 Mahobohobo is a Shona name. Other names include wild loquat, mazhenje, muzhanje (tree), and masuku (Zambia and Malawi). In both Malawi and Zimbabwe, the name mohobohobo is also applied to white sapote (Casimiroa edulis), a fruit from America.

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LOST CROPS OF AFRICA 328 in open woodland at medium altitudes (trees have been reported as thriving at 700-2,000 m). It seems to grow poorly at low elevations, although that may be due solely to temperature. Indeed, the plant is so frost sensitive its presence is used as an absolute indicator of frost-free zones. Fruits are borne in clusters close to the stem. Their hard skin reddens as it ripens. Although renowned for surviving in dry areas, the most succulent fruits are said to come from wetter areas, e.g., eastern districts of Zimbabwe, where the rainfall is fair, the land slopes, and surface water drains well. Fruit here is said to ripen evenly on trees and not to need any special treatment. Mohobohobo is a nutritious food. The ripe edible part is especially high in vitamin C (1.8 mg per g of pulp)—higher even than guava. It is not just Zimbabwe that admires these fruits extravagantly. In Zambia masuku are much sought after, and for part of the year they can basically underpin the diet. The fruits are also commonly seen across Malawi, although by default the trees generally occupy the drier and poorer soils. Reportedly, certain trees have exceptionally sweet fruits. In addition, it has been said that most trees bear a particularly heavy crop every second year. This may reflect the genetic condition known as alternate bearing or may result solely from cyclical environmental stresses on the plants. The timber is attractive, with a reddish color and fine grain. It works easily and takes a high polish. It is fairly resistant to termites, and so is used for construction purposes. It provides a good charcoal, also. Uapaca heudelotii Baillon This West African tree—an evergreen up to 30 m—bears strongly scented flavorful fruits containing three seeds. It extends from rainforest regions into wetter parts of the savannas. Throughout its range, people not only value the fruits, they revere the charcoal from the wood, considering it the finest of all. Goldsmiths and silversmiths throughout the area seek it out. Uapaca nitida Muell. Arg. A small to medium sized evergreen tree reaching 10 m or more in height, this widespread species is found in Central and southern Africa, including Congo, Burundi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola. Its ovoid fruits are three-celled and up to 2 cm long. When ripe, they are yellow- brown and tasty, but not as tasty as the mohobohobo, which overlaps its geographical range. The wood is used for framing beds and as a structural timber. Charcoal made from it also has a high reputation.

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SUGARPLUMS 329 Sugar Plum (Uapaca guineensis Muell. Arg.) This fruit, with two distinct grooves, 3 to 4 seeds, and a sweetish pulp, comes from a forest tree of the Guinean savannas, extending from Sierra Leone eastward to the Central African Republic and Congo. It is most commonly found on steep slopes in open savanna woodlands, where the fruits are yellow or red when ripe. This savanna type is not highly esteemed, and seldom enters commerce. In the moist forest, however, the fruits are yellow, larger, fleshier, and much sweeter. Those forest types are sold in markets. In the unripe state they are also used as a cough medicine.2 An evergreen tree growing up to 30 m tall, this species produces a reddish timber whose many lines and intricate figures make it very attractive. Hard, durable, and a respectable cabinetmaking wood, it has been called a fine substitute for oak.3 2 Information from P. Kio. 3 This is not southern Africa’s Uapaca guineensis, a rare swamp forest tree now designated Uapaca lissopyrena Radcl.-Sm.