Nelly Bassily | February 25, 2008
In parts of Western and Central Africa, the Icacina plant is known as a living grocery store. Growing wild and untended in woodlots and plains, the shrub is sought out by those who know its bounty.When the dry season comes to an end, the shrub comes into bloom. Small, bright red fruits appear in abundance. Huge edible roots known as “false yams” are available all year round.
The Icacina plant was described in a report on “Lost Crops of Africa” produced by the American National Research Council. The 14 wild fruits that the report examines are not lost to locals, who know where to find them when food is scarce. However, they are virtually unknown to agricultural scientists who preserve and propagate only a small number of high-value fruit crops.
And the research suggests that, unless these fruits are recognized and protected, they could disappear entirely.
Since colonial times, commercial fruit production in Africa has focused on imported varieties from Asia and the Americas. For the most part, these imported fruits have been carefully cultivated and mass produced.
At the same time, local populations have quietly continued to supplement their diets with wild fruits. Children are most vulnerable to malnutrition, but the simple childhood pastime of collecting fruits from the forest provides essential vitamins. And when staple crops fail, wild fruits are absolutely vital.
Mark Dafforn is a researcher with the National Research Council who directed the “lost fruits” research. He explains that wild fruits are characteristically hardy. Unlike imported fruits, wild fruits do not require fertilizer and are naturally resistant to many pests. They have adapted to local climates, withstanding years of flood and drought. The Icacina, for example, can survive up to four years without water.
But in the push to develop the most commercially successful fruits, wild fruits are losing the conditions they need to survive. As forests are lost, so are many wild fruits. Other fruit trees are simply torn up in favour of fields.
Mr. Dafforn suggests that recognizing the importance of wild fruits is the first step towards their preservation. The report suggests that individual farming families could improve their nutrition by maintaining wild fruit trees on their land. It also suggests that many African fruits could enjoy commercial success if they received more attention from agricultural science.