6 incredible plants you might not have heard of

Tasty, nutritious crops that are clearly missing from your diet!

eggplant grown by Embaraga women's cooperative in Musanze, Rwanda
eggplant grown by Embaraga women’s cooperative in Musanze, Rwanda

All over the world local varieties of fruit, vegetables and grain are grown. Many are seemingly forgotten or are underutilized despite having outstanding nutritional or taste qualities. Some have good commercial potential and could be an excellent cash crop for a small scale or family farmers, aimed at the local, regional or international market.

Here are six traditional crops and six facts about them which might amaze you:

Amaranth leaves are usually picked fresh for use as greens in salads or blanched, steamed, boiled, fried in oil, and mixed with meat, fish, cucurbit seeds, groundnut or palm oil. It is gluten free and good for cardiovascular diseases, stomach ache and anaemia. It is a native species to the Andean region of South America, including Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. The leaves of the plant are frequently used in countries throughout Africa, the Caribbean, India and China

Moringa leaves are rich in protein, vitamins A, B and C, and minerals – highly recommended for pregnant and nursing mothers as well as young children.

Moringa is a genus of shrubs and trees with multi-purpose uses: its leaves, roots and immature pods are consumed as a vegetable. All parts of the moringa tree – bark, pods, leaves, nuts, seeds, tubers, roots, and flowers – are edible. The leaves are used fresh or dried and ground into powder. The seed pods are picked while still green and eaten fresh or cooked. Moringa seed oil is sweet, non-sticking, non-drying and resists rancidity, while the cake from seed is used to purify drinking water. The seeds are also be eaten green, roasted, powdered and steeped for tea or used in curries. Moringa is an important crop in India, Ethiopia, the Philippines and the Sudan, and is being grown in West, East and South Africa, tropical Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Florida and the Pacific Islands.

Moringa oleifera is the economically most valuable species and is native to South Asia, where it grows in the Himalayan foothills but is widely cultivated across the tropics. Nine species occur in eastern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and Somalia, of which eight are endemic to Africa.

Teff grains are white, mixed or red, with the white fetching the highest and red the lowest price. Teff accounts for about two-third of the daily protein intake in the Ethiopian diet and is mainly used for making different kinds of enjera (pancake-like flat bread), porridge and feed.

Teff is a staple food crop of Ethiopia and Eritrea, having originated and diversified there. It has been introduced to South Africa where it is cultivated as a cover and forage crop while it is cultivated as a cereal crop in Northern Kenya.

Cultivated finger millet was domesticated about 5 000 years ago from the wild subspecies in the highlands that range from Ethiopia to Uganda. It can be stored for up to two years without harmful pesticides, acting as a food reserve during the lean season. Cultivated finger millet was domesticated about 5 000 years ago from the wild subspecies in the highlands that range from Ethiopia to Uganda. Domesticated finger millet was then also farmed in the lowlands of Africa. This was introduced into India around 3 000 years ago, with the result that India is now a secondary centre of diversity for finger millet.

Bambara groundnut is known as a “complete food” as the seeds contain on average 63% carbohydrate, 19% protein and 6.5% fat, making it a very important source of dietary protein. It is a grain legume grown mainly by subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Bambara groundnut is a grain legume grown mainly by subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. It is cultivated for its subterranean pods, is extremely hardy and produces reasonable yields even under conditions of drought and low soil fertility. The pods are approximately 1.5 cm long, and may be wrinkled and slightly oval or round, containing one to two seeds. The colour of the seeds varies from black, dark-brown, red, white, cream or a combination of these colours. At harvest, i.e. when the pods ripen, the plant is extracted from the soil, exposing the subterranean nuts.

The nuts may be eaten fresh (i.e. boiled or roasted before they are dried) as snacks but the majority of the nuts are consumed after they are dried. The dried nuts, with very hard seed coats, are milled and sieved to yield very fine flour that is used to prepare a variety of dishes including dumplings, cakes and biscuits. Bambara groundnut is indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa where it is widely cultivated. The centre of origin is most likely North-Eastern Nigeria and Northern Cameroon, in West Africa. The species is also grown to a lesser extent in some Asian countries such as India, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.

In different parts of Africa, the roots and fruits of the African garden eggplant are used as a sedative, and to treat colic and high blood pressure while the juice obtained by macerating the leaves is used to treat uterine complaints. Also, the extract of the leaves is used as a sedative and anti-emetic and to treat tetanus associated with miscarriages.

©West Africa Plants/Annette Gockele

If you’re ever in the mood to try something new, the good news is that there is certainly food you haven’t tasted before (and the list is growing)

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