By Matt Styslinger
Stretching across much of Africa, from Madagascar to Senegal, native fruiting trees of the genus Parinari can be found. Collectively, the fruits are referred to as “gingerbread plums,” and are renowned for their sweet, strawberry-like flavors. The fruits are plum-sized and are firm like a crisp apple. The most common of the gingerbread plum trees is the mobola plum (Parinari curatellifolia), and it is indigenous to the low-lying woodlands and savannahs of Southern and tropical Africa.
Gingerbread plums—including mobola—are the size of plums, are crisp like apples, and taste more like strawberries. (Photo credit: Fruitipedia)
The mobola tree is well-loved for its fruit, beauty, sweet-smelling flowers, shade provided by its large drooping crown, and the many traditional uses of its wood, bark, and roots. Other names sometimes associated with the tree are sand apple, cork tree, hissing tree, mbula, munanzi, and mbura. The mobola plum tree stands out among surrounding vegetation because of its large size and mushroom-shaped canopy.
Millions of Africans enjoy the mobola plum, and in Malawi it is regarded as one of the best wild foods. The tree yields large quantities of the reddish-yellow fruit, which are high in Vitamin C. They are generally consumed as snacks, but during the harvest season they become prominent in the diets of some groups. Mobola plums are usually eaten fresh, but sometimes they boiled with a cereal. The fruit can be pounded with water and the resulting liquid added to citrus juices. The liquid is sometimes thickened with maize or cassava flour and cooked into porridges or gruels. A mobola syrup is made from the fruit, and then poured over cereal or added to drinks. Mobola beer can also be brewed.
Mobola seed kernels—or mobola nuts—are also eaten. The nut, an excellent substitute for almonds or cashews, is eaten raw or cooked with vegetables, fish, or soups. Mobola nuts are high in oil, which is sometimes extracted by pressing and used for cooking. Nuts can be easily stored and eaten over time. There is about 1 kilogram of seeds in every 5 kilograms of fruits.
Wildlife also enjoy the fruit and nuts. Elephants and primates may take the fruits straight from the tree, while others eat them off the ground—which the fruits often clutter underneath a mobola plum tree. Caterpillars of the Striped Policeman butterfly—a pollinator species—commonly feed on mobola leaves. The tree is pollinated by bees. Beekeepers often set their hives near the tree because it produces abundant pollen and nectar.
The mobola tree has a number of non-food uses as well. The edible oil can also be used in paint, varnish, and soap. A pink-brown dye is extracted from the bark and is commonly used to color traditional woven baskets. Infusions made from mobola bark and roots are used to treat snake bites, fractures, and tooth aches. The roots are sometimes soaked for several hours in cold water to make a liquid that is used for both eye drops to treat cataracts and eardrops for earaches. The mobola wood is light brown, hard and heavy, and resists borer insects. It is coveted for fine woodwork because it can be polished to a shiny finish, although the presence of silica crystals in the wood can blunt tools. It is also used in canoes, mortars, and poles for simple construction. Although the silica crystals make the wood fire resistant, it is popularly used as firewood and in charcoal.
The mobola tree is already a common site in much of sub-Saharan Africa as they are intentionally preserved when foliage is cleared for construction or crop fields. Because the tree and its tasty fruit are so highly prized, it could succeed in commercial cultivation in the future. The fruits are abundant and do not bruise easily, and therefore transport well. Little research has been done on the tree, and no one has ever attempted to domesticate it as a crop. Selection of high quality, high yielding varieties could spawn a homegrown mobola plum industry across Africa.
Do you know of any dishes or drinks that are made from wild fruits and nuts in your area? Tell us in the comments!
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To read more about crops indigenous to Africa see: Five Vegetables You’ve Never Heard of That are Helping to End Hunger, Imbe: Africa’s Queen of Fruits, Ackee: West-African Expatriate, Celosia: Nature’s Prettiest Vegetable, Wild Ethiopian Coffee: Harvesting the Perks of an Indigenous Crop, and Potato, Potahto.