By Matt Styslinger
Until a few decades ago, the now popular African wild vegetable eru—the common name used for two very similar vines of the species Gnetum africanum and Gnetum buchholzianum—remained an obscure forest food in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But after the prices of major export crops in Cameroon—cocoa and coffee—plummeted in the 1980s and 1990s, and subsequent food price spikes, farmer’s lost their ability to buy food. Cameroon’s rural population turned to the forests for its food and income, and poor farmers began harvesting and selling eru on mass. Originally consumed by Cameroon’s forest-dwelling Bayangi people, eru is now one of Cameroon’s most widely consumed vegetables. Hundreds of tons of eru are exported every week to Nigeria—where it is known as okazi—and overseas for consumption by Central and West Africans living abroad.
The eru leaves are eaten raw, or shredded and added to soups, stews, porridges, and fish and meat dishes. Both species of eru are highly nutritious and an important source of protein, essential amino acids, and minerals. Although not formally traded, the fruits and seeds that grow sparsely on mature vines are also edible. Forest cultures also eat the eru tubers during periods of food scarcity.
Eru has traditional non-food uses as well. In Nigeria, the leaf of Gnetum africanum is used in the treatment of an enlarged spleen, and sore throats. In DRC, it is used for nausea and in an antidote for poison from traditional poison darts. In Congo-Brazzaville, the leaves of both species are used to dress warts and boils, and the stem is cut-up and eaten to reduce pain in childbirth. In Cameroon, the leaves are sometimes chewed to lessen the effects of drunkenness. The supple vine is often used in rope-making.
Eru has now become an important source of income and nutrition for many impoverished Central African communities. Unfortunately, the popularity of the wild vine has meant that it has been harvested from the forest at an unsustainable rate. Destructive harvesting methods often mean that there is no re-growth. Ripping the vine from the forest trees that it grows on often causes the roots to be pulled up, or damaged. In some cases, entire trees that eru vines are growing on are felled in order to collect them. Many rural communities have to go further and further into the forest to find eru, and some can no longer find it at all. Eru is becoming increasingly endangered and has been pushed to regional extinction in some areas.
Sustainable cultivation of eru has the potential to reduce poverty and increase food security in Central Africa’s poor communities. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has been training women near Lekie, Cameroon to cultivate eru and other non-timber forest products (NTFP) to improve incomes and restore degraded forests. The forest in their area has been seriously affected by a Central American invasive species—Chromolaena adoratum, called kodengui locally—that can now be found in much of West and Central Africa. The women remove the kodengui and plant eru and other NTFPs in its place—providing harvestable resources for the future and discouraging the invasive from growing back.
Eru could also be planted in fallow crop fields, secondary forests, and on community trees, shrubs, fences, and buildings. The leaves can be harvested regularly—rather than pulling the entire vine—providing a steady source of income and nutrition in rural communities. Including eru on fallow fields and in re-grown forest areas improves biodiversity and staves off invasion from destructive invasive species. By maintaining a valuable source of sustainable income, eru can reduce the temptation to cut down trees to sell as timber or clear forest to expand cropland.
The vine could also be developed into a formally cultivated crop. According to research conducted by FAO, both eru species are easily domesticated and have considerable potential in agroforestry and smallholder agriculture systems. The Centre for Nursery Development and Eru Propagation (CENDEP) in Cameroon is training local people in the domestication, sustainable production, and marketing of NTFPs. CENDEP has a nursery where they are conducting propagation trials to improve the technique. The organization trains farmers in eru propagation and shares processing techniques so that eru farmers can add value to their product.
Do you know of any wild plants that have suddenly become more popular? Let us know in the comments!
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To read more about indigenous vegetables, see: Star Apple: Prized Fruit and Timber, Shalakh Apricot: Protecting a Species’ Diversity and a Local Culture, False Yam: A Famine Prevention Trifecta, and Tamarind: Not Jsst for Sauce.
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