About 40 different trees belonging to the genus Lannea are about equally divided between the tropics of Asia and Africa. The Asian species have received some horticultural assessment, but the practical literature tells little about the score or more native between Madagascar and Senegal.
Yet out of these African species perhaps a dozen merit consideration as future food resources. Wherever they occur their fruits are avidly eaten; some already play a part in commerce. In West Africa, for instance, people commonly sell them both in city markets and along rural roadsides—a feature to be witnessed in and around Ouagadougou, for example.
Although Lannea belongs to the Anacardiaceae, the same family as mango, cashew, and pistachio, the fruits are more like grapes. They come in pendulous bunches and are reddish, purple, or black, with a whitish bloom on the skin. Although some have a resinous taste, many have a pleasant flavor commonly described as “grape-like.”
In other ways, however, lannea fruits differ greatly from grapes. They are borne on trees, not vines. Most are much smaller than today’s cultivated grape—being about 1 cm long at full ripeness. Each is capped at one end with three or four little “horns,” the remains of the flower’s styles. And inside, one finds a central stone. Indeed, botanically speaking, they are more like plums than grapes, and are classified as drupes, not berries.
The trees themselves seem conducive to cultivation. They are resilient, tolerant of drought, and often occur naturally in harsh sites, including some in which the human inhabitants have few food options.1 They resist burning; the ground fires that are so prevalent and so destructive in the savannas leave them undamaged. The flowers attract bees in such numbers that beekeepers fight to hang their hives amid the branches.
Like the grape of international commerce, African tree grapes have multiple uses. They make a very good jam. Their juice is fermented into
In parts of the Horn of Africa, the roots of some Lannea species (mostly Lannea triphylla) are often considered more important as food than the fruits. After the rains come, but before anything has grown to eat, these Lannea roots swell to become juicy and tasty. Digging the roots can destroy the tree but save lives, and some efforts have begun to turn this desperation food into a sustainable resource.