Food Plants of Zimbabwe – with old and new ways of preparation

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Food Plants of Zimbabwe – with old and new ways of preparation

M.H. Tredgold, Mambo Press, Harare, 1986

Of all of the reference books on my shelves there is none more used than Food Plants of Zimbabwe. The formerly white pages are now brown and dog-eared and the cover has been stuck on with tape. I bought the book when it had just come out in 1986 for ZW$24 and I would be lost without it.

Now unfortunately out-of-print, Food Plants of Zimbabwe provides a catalogue of traditional Zimbabwean knowledge and practices which are rapidly disappearing. The 180 edible plants and fungi described and illustrated include indigenous, naturalised and cultivated species each carefully researched by artist and author Margaret Tredgold who died in 2012 aged 102. She produced the book in collaboration with H.M. Biegel and S. Mavi of the Harare National Herbarium and Dr H. Ashton of Bulawayo.

Although a scientific work, this book is written in a cheerful style with delightful colour or black and white illustrations of each species described. It is divided into seven sections detailing climbing and trailing plants, fungi, grasses and sedges, herbs, shrubs, succulent plant, trees and water plants giving details on their botanical, English, Shona and Ndebele names; where each species can be found; dates when they are edible; preparation methods; medicinal uses and points of general interest. The book also contains descriptions of traditional rituals, collection, harvesting and preparation practices.

The forward by Professor Michael Gelfand (OBE, CBE) one of Zimbabwe’s most distinguish medical practitioners and ethnographers describes how “the traditional diet of the [Zimbabwean] people is excellent and has been for hundreds of years.” He notes how colonial doctors were struck by the fact that “many diseases of the bowel, such as cancer of the colon, diverticulitis and ulcerative colitis were noticeably rare in Africans” and puts this down to the fact that traditional African foods, in comparison to Western foods, are highly nutritious and rich in fibre. Unfortunately since the book was written, the Zimbabwean diet has changed radically and diseases which were uncommon before including cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular problems have now become widespread.

In my work with nutrition and agriculture in Zimbabwe I have found that many people still use wild food plants particularly during times of hardship due to lack of money or drought. Because of this, traditional foods have a low status and are associated with poverty and famine. Colonialism and globalisation have also taken their toll, instilling a belief that if food cannot be bought in a shop then it must be inferior. Driven by a search for niche market products, health products, medicines and foods which are resilient to climate extremes, researchers are returning to investigate underutilized traditional plants across the globe. In Zimbabwe a number of traditional crops and wild products are being promoted and many of these can be found in Food Plants of Zimbabwe.

It is hard to choose a favourite Zimbabwean food plant from the book but just looking at the illustration of Lannea edulis (tsambatsi, intakubomvu) makes my mouth water and brings back childhood memories of walking through burnt vlei land with the only colour being wine red tsambatsi fruits. From the climbing plants section I have to single out Rhoicissus tormentosa which is now almost a weed in my garden climbing up trees and covering our carport. The bitter grape-like fruit attracts flocks of louries and makes a very tasty jam. From the fungi section my favourites are undoubtedly Boletus edulis (cep, dindindi) found abundantly in damp pine forests of Nyanga during the rainy season and the delicious apricot mushroom Cantharellus longisporus (chantarelle, maphunha, vufirifiri) . The Cep mushroom is likely to have been introduced to Zimbabwe from Europe and has naturalised. In Europe you can easily pay the equivalent of $20 for a small packet of dried ceps, a fact which has not escaped some enterprising locals who, rumour has it are harvesting and selling dried ceps to foreigners for export which is depleting the stocks for the rest of us.

Like the Rhoicissus, many of these wild plants could be cultivated and this will go some way to avoid them being over-exploited. In her preface, the author encourages us to gather only enough for a meal making sure that “sufficient plants are left to propagate”. In addition, she cautions us to protect the wild areas in which the plants and fungi grow. Tredgold concludes by saying “If this book has been worthwhile it has opened your eyes to something, however small, that you had not noticed before and awakened your curiosity to lead you to a new awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of the wild plants of our land”.

It is unfortunate that such an important document is no longer easily accessible and it would be a valuable project to scan the book and put it on the internet along with photographs to help with accurate identification. For more information on Zimbabwean plants you can join the Flora of tropical Africa group on Facebook or visit http://www.zimbabweflora.co.zw/.

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Anna Brazier

Anna Brazier is the editor of Naturally Zimbabwean. She was born in Zambia but has lived most of her life in Zimbabwe. She has a BSc in Ecology and an MSc in Sustainable Development and works as a consultant promoting sustainable agriculture, nutrition, traditional foods and community resilience in Africa and beyond. She lives in Harare with her husband and three children.