Imbe: Africa’s Queen of Fruits

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By Kim Kido

With sap that makes arrow poison, leaves that contain antibacterial compounds, and fruit as tasty as its cousin mangosteen, the uses of imbe (Garcinia livingstonei) are as varied as the places visited by its namesake David Livingstone. One of about 400 varieties of Garcinia, imbe is the best known relative of the mangosteen in Africa.


Imbe fruit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

The fruit is eaten raw, cooked with porridge, seeded and dried, or crushed like grapes to create a drink. The fruit can also be fermented to make a purplish wine or soaked in alcohol and mixed with syrup to make liqueur.

Although the fruit is tasty, the plant is more often used as an ornamental in landscaping than a source of food. The tree decorates Mozambique’s capitol and can be seen near Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Hardy, somewhat salt-tolerant, and drought-resistant, the tree occurs naturally in landscapes as varied as the sand dunes of Tana Delta in Kenya, open woodland of South Africa, the Okavango Delta of Botswana, and termite mounds in Zambia. The tree provides forage for wildlife like elephants and canoe-building material, although the latex produced by the tree can make the wood difficult to carve.

In one of few studies regarding imbe, an antibacterial compound was isolated from the leaves. The bark and root of imbe is currently used in Namibia to treat various ailments from Cryptococcal meningitis to tuberculosis, and the fruit contains compounds with potential anti-cancer effects.

The tree is also potentially a good candidate for intercropping with other species, and its drought-tolerance and attractiveness to insects and birds may make it useful in ecological restoration of degraded landscapes. Despite its potential and current uses, the tree has yet to be domesticated. Little documentation of production under cultivated conditions exists, and virtually no studies have been done to try to improve plant characteristics through genetic selection.

What foods have you tried that can’t be found in a typical supermarket?

Kim Kido is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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