Edible wild berries and seeds which grow in this region could enrich our diet and for those with commercial potential provide hardy crops which require less water than Eurasian and Tropical fruits.
Earlier on the 17th of May I had the privilege to attend a fascinating talk by Loubie Rusch. She is a landscape designer turned activist for indigenous foods, who has experimented extensively with the use of our wild berries and seeds in creative new ways, (bravely, I might add) and has helped establish a number of wild food gardens on the Cape Flats. She can be found on the facebook page Making KOS. I took copious notes at her lecture on the species she’s used and some of her tried and tested ideas ideas on how they can be used as ingredients in innovative ways. There was so much information, I could not keep up with my note taking, but this here is some of it, to give one a taste of the creative possibilities in the use of indigenous wild berries and seeds as food.
Firstly Loubie made a joke about her default culinary experiment trying all these wild berries in gin ! They often give the gin interesting beautiful colours, like intense pinks.
She started with Sideroxylon inerme (milkwood). The latex from the berries is very sticky and gummy and has to be scrubbed off containers. She’s tried them in gin, cordials and for flavoring vinegar.
Euclea Racemosa (Guarrie) has been likewise experimented with, as has Osyris compressa (pruimbas).
Lycium ferocissimum (slangbessie, relative of yogi berry) has a very fine flavour, sweet savory and tomato like. It is a very thorny shrub.
Asparagus sp. Have berries but the seeds are very bitter generally.
Dipogon lignosis creeper has pea like young fruits. They are available at Goodhope Nursery.
Carissa macrocarpa or bispinosa (Num Num, also known as Amatungulu) fruit can be found all around the city in public plantings as hedge plants. These large wild berries, the size of small plums, bear on the 2nd year growth and the city often trim them too frequently for them to bear. They are available at nurseries. I have heavy bearing bush which is seldom pruned in Goodwood. On my plant at at home, I’ve found that many fruit which dry on the bush have lost their physical integrity, and powder to dust, and a small fraction of the fruit have dried up with colour and integrity. Pick these good dried fruit. The low hanging fruit are regularly harvested by other people, and I’ve even had a lady knocking on my door and asking if she could come into the garden to harvest. She explained she was from KZN and missed eating these berries a lot. I find them incredibly delicious fresh and ripe with vanilla ice-cream, but I’m lazy, much more can be done with them. The dried on the bush wild berries and can be harvested to use in baking, mustard, jams, brownies, and baked with pears. Loubie has made jams from the fresh and the dried form.
Carissa bispinosa, Num Num or Amatungulu
Dovyalis caffrum (Kei Apple) is also available at nurseries. I find the flavour not reminiscent of an apple at all, but of a beautifully perfumed apricot. Loubie recommends harvesting fallen fruit because the bush is hellishly thorny. They have male and female trees, and indeed, I only have 2 in Goodwood and they have never borne fruit, though 20 years old, and now I know why ! Make sure you have both sexes when you buy from a nursery.
Searsia crenata (crowberries or kraaibessies) and the many other Searsia species, have been refered to as a superfoods, presumably because of their nutritional content, which is yet to be tested. When green they are intensely sour, whin ripe they are juniper like. They are available at some nurseries.
Searsia laevigata, S lucida and S glauca also have berries. Use them green in stir fries with sandkool (see page on green carpet edibles). Dry roast the green berries and combine with seeds in yoghurt sauces for fish. S glauca ground with castor sugar and bullrush pollen can be used in baking. The plants are available at nurseries.
Osteospermum monoliferum (bietou) the berries and flowers have a caramel flavour when ripe. You can add them to cider vinegar or snack on them straight off the bush. Available at nurseries.
Harpephyllum caffrum berries grow on a large tree often found as a street tree in South Africa. The berries are very high in pectin, so they can be mixed with low pectin berries like strawberries to set jam.
Loubie also uses them in a cordial with Num Nums. I loved these berries as a child in Port Elizabeth. We spent lots of time climbing the tree or gathering them off the ground. They are available in nurseries. Those which grow as street trees in Goodwood are never harvested, it appears. (Loubie notes – most aren’t). I have harvested them and used them for making tiny quantities of wine to make vinegar. The wine had a superb aroma.
Syzigium cordatum (waterberry) produce black berries on big trees which are also commercially available at nurseries.
Acacia karoo (soetdoring or sweet-thorn) has pods which when young have delicious seeds. They can be used as a coffee substitute when ripe and dry, or can be eaten raw ground in yoghurt, or added like a spice to salt. For sale in nurseries. I tasted these minute, fresh and pale peas recently on my tree at home. They are somewhat mealy in flavour, and slightly sweet, with a delicate wild legume flavor. We also used to collect the gum of the tree and other thorn trees, and eat it as children. Perhaps this could be used as a sugar replacement in small quantities.
The diverse flora of the Cape and the southern regions of Africa was used for millennia by Khoesan people living in this region, who made use of over 500 plants species before the arrival of the colonists. The rich indigenous plant lore has remained with some individuals, passed by word of mouth from generation to generation, but specific to the Fynbos region, this is quite rare, and in general knowledge of the uses of a very much smaller number than 500 of our local plants, and a few words in the Afrikaans language, like soutslaai or “salt lettuce” are what remain. In my personal experience the use of indigenous plans can be eloquently seen in the lexicon of Khoekhoegowab, which I studied for my Master’s degree in Linguistics. Not only the names of plants and animals, but the verbs for processes, show that these plants were used in very diverse ways: soaked, bleached, leached and blanched, squeezed for sap, drained, burned, roasted, pounded, chopped, mashed, ground, milled, fermented, dried and more.
The vocabulary for culinary processes in Khoekhoegowab appears to be much larger than the original Anglo Saxon vocabulary in English, necessitating the borrowing of French words into English “cuisine” (and there you have an example) in the late Middle Ages.
I hope this has inspired you to help with the reintroduction of these foods into our diet, and to promote their growth and propagation in wild reserves, in all indigneous planting projects, in guerilla gardens, horticultural projects and farms.
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