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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III 13 SWEET DETAR Throughout much of tropical Africa the tree called detar (Detarium senegalense J. Gmelin)1 is common and its rounded pods are well known. It occurs in two types. The so-called forest type is tall (to 40 m) and has reddish pods whose yellow pulp tends toward bitter and inedible. The so-called savanna type is much smaller (5-10 m) with brownish pods whose greenish pulp makes good eating. At first sight fruits of the latter type look like apricots, but physically they are more like tamarinds with a crisp shell enclosing a rather flaky pulp and a single seed. These are what are known as “sweet detars.”2 As with tamarinds (see part 1 of this volume), sweet detars are especially enjoyed in West Africa. Most are eaten fresh, but some are dried in the sun and sold in markets. Although sweet detars are today eaten largely by children, they have potential throughout society. The hard shell and dry pulp give them an exceptional shelf life and the sweet-and-sour flavor appeals to all palates. 1 The savanna form is these days usually classified as a separate species, Detarium microcarpum Guillemin & Perrottet, which we treat jointly here. For taxonomic details see Berhaut, J. 1967. Flore du Sénégal. 2d ed. Clairafrique, Dakar.. In this treatment, D. senegalense has 10-13 leaflets; foliate stipules; 15-25 translucid points between 2 lateral veins; and a tomentatious calyx. By contrast, D. microcarpum has 7-10 leaflets; 40-50 translucid points between 2 lateral veins; and a glabrous or glaborescent calyx. (See also Lock, J.M. 1989. Legumes of Africa: a Check List. Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.) 2 Other English common names include tallow tree, dattock, and dittock. Although sweet detar is little known to science, the tree and its fruit have an abundance of names in languages across western Africa. The following list is far from inclusive. Arabic: abu leita, abu leila; Amharic: gudi; English: sweet detar, sweet dattock (D. microcarpum), tallow tree (D. senegalense); French: détar, ditax, detah de Sénégal, niey datah, datah ney, boiré; Wolof: ditah (D. senegalense); dank (D. microcarpum); daha, dak, detax, detakh, ditakh, ditarh, wanta; Serer: ndoy (D. microcarpum); Bambara: bodo (D. microcarpum); Mossi: kaguédéga (D. microcarpum); Hausa: tsada (D. microcarpum);Igbo: ofo (D. microcarpum);Hausa: taura (D. microcarpum); Kanuri: gatapo (D. microcarpum); Nupe: gungorochi (D. microcarpum); Tiv: agashidam (D. microcarpum); Jola: bugungut, butchanjack, boubounkoute, fulibehen, mounhayona; Mandika: bodo, mamboda, taba, taleo, tallo saranokke, woko; Fula: boto, boto-burareh, botomel, dile, karkehi, konkehi, mobdey
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Although normally consumed out of hand, sweet detars are also processed in different localized ways. In northern Nigeria, to mention just one locale, they are mixed with other fruits,3 and boiled, strained, and concentrated into a sweetmeat resembling fruit leather. In Sierra Leone, they are made into refreshing drinks. One interesting feature: if a ripe fruit dries out, it can be revived by a soak in sugar water—the result being eaten as if it were freshly picked and the liquid being used separately as a fruity drink. Sweet detar is an outstanding source of vitamin C—perhaps the finest of all. In 1988, researchers studying 29 fresh fruits consumed in Senegal discovered it to be the richest in vitamin C (up to 1,180 mg per 100 g). Nothing else came close.4 One analysis of the pulp showed it about half sugar, with about 20 percent fiber, 4 percent protein, and 2 percent fats (on a dry-weight basis).5 Botanically speaking, this species, a legume, is related to tamarind. It produces equally vast quantities of fruit—indeed, the tree sometimes becomes almost enshrouded in dangling pods. Robust and resilient, it is a candidate for reforestation purposes. Although leguminous, it is probably not nitrogen fixing. Like tamarind, carob, and honey locust, it belongs to the Caesalpinioideae, a subfamily whose species usually possess few or no nodules, let alone rhizobial bacteria. Nevertheless, it survives in harsh and infertile sites and it tolerates some drought and much heat. All in all, sweet detars seem likely to make good backyard-, village-, and street trees, providing welcome shade and copious food. Among its other useful outputs are the following: Seeds The purple-brown, sweetly scented seeds have edible kernels. To extract those kernels, the fruit is broken open, the seeds are boiled for an hour, and their seedcoats removed. The resulting naked kernels are normally pounded into powder. In part of southern Nigeria this ofo flour is commonly added to egusi soup or cooked separately with leafy vegetables.6 It is notably nutritious, having about 12 percent of a protein that is rich in the amino acids lysine and tryptophan. 3 Notably jackal berry (see Ebony chapter) and black plum (Chocolate Berries chapter). 4 It was followed by baobab at 165 mg per 100 g (see Baobab), guava (156 mg), and cashew (150 mg); both guava and cashew are tropical-American in origin. Diop, P.A., D. Franck, P. Grimm, and C. Hasselmann. 1988. High-performance liquid chromatographic determination of vitamin C in fresh fruits from West Africa. J. Food Compos Anal. 1(3):265-269. It should be noted, however, that detars vary in their vitamin C content, depending on their level of sourness, with some exceeding 1,200 mg per 100 g. 5 Favier, J-C., J. Ireland-Ripert, C. Toquc, and M. Feinberg. 1999. Répertoire Général Des Aliments: table de composition (2nd ed.). Le Centre Informatique sur la Qualité des Aliments (CIQUAL), Maisons-Alfort cedex, France. 6 It is eaten notably with leaves of Pterocarpus, tree legumes that produce tasty leaves and some of the world’s great timbers. Egusi and egusi soup are dealt with in the companion volume on African vegetables.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Sweet detar keeps well, and this traditional fruit could soon become available not just in regional cities but places far away from home. Although most sweet detar is still eaten fresh from the tree (especially by children), entrepreneurs in West Africa are bringing it to market in juices, extracts, purees, jams, dried fruit “leathers,” and even as a “paté” with other fruits. (Amadou Malé Kouyaté) The kernels are also crushed to extract their oil for culinary use. The solid residue remaining from this process is employed as animal feed. The seeds are also fashioned into ornaments. Indeed, they are commonly beaded onto strings to form necklaces that exude their own natural fragrance. Wood The trees furnish excellent timber. Often called “African mahogany” (a name applied to other woods as well), the heartwood is dark, reddish-brown, and very heavy. Hard yet easily worked, it has a fine and regular grain and is eagerly sought for carpentry, joinery, and other premium purposes. It resists moisture, weathering, borers, and termites, so it is also prized for houses, boats, and fences, not to mention firewood and charcoal. Resin If damaged, the bark exudes a sticky, pleasantly scented gum used to fumigate clothes and huts, especially in hopes of banishing mosquitoes. For all its utility, this tree remains a wild plant. Presently, it is unknown in intensive plantations, or even in extensive village plantings. Rather, it occurs in outlying forests or farm fields where scattered specimens remain from the days the land was cleared. The wood is much sought-after, but neither sweet detar nor the several other Detarium species has yet been
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III accorded much silvicultural investigation. Now is the time. As a legume, it is tolerant, adaptable, generally reliable, and relatively insensitive as to site, soil, altitude, heat, or humidity. Silvicultural success could catapult into widespread use a new forestry resource that reduces malnutrition and contributes to rural development while it grows a great timber. PROSPECTS Because sweet detar is among the least understood of Africa’s useful trees, projecting its prospects is difficult. However, the following seem to be reasonable expectations: Humid Areas Uncertain but probably good prospects. Although unreported from locations where rainfall and humidity are high, the tree should thrive there (absent any particularly devastating pest or disease). It could possibly become a viable resource in all locations where tamarinds grow. Prospects seem especially good in Senegal (notably in the tropical province called Casamance), Gambia, and Sierra Leone where local interest in sweet detars is especially high. In those and the nearby countries the trees are carefully preserved whenever land is cleared. Dry Areas Excellent prospects. These are climatic zones where detar finds its greatest humanitarian prospects. All trees providing resources in these hot, dry, exasperating locales will be welcomed as a boon. Upland Areas Fair prospects in limited locations. Today, no one can say for sure just how well this untamed tree will do beyond its geographical home in the tropical lowlands. Certainly, however, it deserves testing at altitude, but only where temperatures remain well above freezing. NEXT STEPS To boost sweet detar into its rightful place in the food-resource base several initiatives can be envisaged. Most are suited to small-scale local actions because they require determination and intelligence more than international intervention, elaborate facilities, or academic perfection. Following are examples. Survey the Scene First, people throughout tropical Africa (particularly West Africa) should assess local forests and fields and evaluate the various detar trees for productivity, genetic differences, pests, diseases, soil types, fruit quality, and other economic variables.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III A mature sweet detar on the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies. Robust and resilient, sweet detar is a candidate for reforestation purposes. This legume survives in harsh and infertile sites. All in all, it seems likely to make good backyard-, village-, and street trees, providing welcome shade and environmental benefits, not to mention highly nutritious food. (Pat McGaw, Friends of Botanic Gardens of Trinidad and Tobago) Preservation and Genetic Selection Second, in-depth germplasm collections should be made to preserve any unique diversity discovered. The edible types to be found in different parts of Africa, for example, could be collected together and compared for sweetness. Over time, the best should then be formally identified and propagules disseminated for further tests. Those plants showing the most horticultural promise can subsequently be further propagated, perhaps by vegetative means; if they exist today, so much the better. Information Exchange Third, the traditional means of handling, processing, marketing, and eating the fruits should be reviewed. The use of the various byproducts—resin, root-sugars, seeds, and seed oil—should also be detailed. This will create the baseline of knowledge whose lack now holds this crop back. Sharing this information electronically is now easy. Nutrition As of now, no one knows just how good a food it is. Other than the outstanding vitamin C measurements, little nutritional information is
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III readily available. Detar pulp contains sugar and other carbohydrates, but portions may vary wildly. Chemical analyses and nutritional research could quickly tell much. In a related vein, tests should be run to answer lingering uncertainties over toxicity. Of possible special concern are small, abortive, galled fruits that sometimes appear. They are unlikely to be mistaken for normal fruits, but they are rumored to be harmful.7 Horticulture Preliminary investigations reveal that the species can be propagated by budding.8 This discovery enhances prospects of domestication and multiplication. Therefore, attempts via bud-grafting could be made to grow sweet detar in provenance trials in different parts of tropical Africa. Comparing various types under different environments will provide the means for evaluating their relative performances relatively quickly. Also, for any obviously promising plants bud-grafting could even now be used to develop exploratory commercial plantations. Plantings The species should be immediately tested as a landscape tree, regardless of the food value of the best-looking types. Detar is a beautiful tree, hailing from the homeland of the tamarind, and perhaps could also help shade and enliven many a now-sun-scorched and dreary vista. Tests of this possibility for making life in the tropics more bearable should be mounted. If the trees in such plantings produce great fruit, so much the better. 7 If taken in excess they are reputed to cause vertigo. However, a contributor notes that: “There is no data! It is all hearsay so far.” 8 Information from J.C. Okafor.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III