Edible Plant Workshop 2018
Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
We held this workshop from Friday 9th March to Saturday the 10th on the JDM Keet Plantation close to the town of Tzaneen. It was hosted by the Botanical Society of South Africa and CREW; our teachers and leaders were Ernst van Jaarsveld and Anton Cilliers. The idea of the workshop was to acquaint us with edible wild plants to be found in South Africa. The knowledge of doing this of course goes back into the amazingly distant past when all humans were all still hunters and gatherers – this being the 'gathering' part of the equation. While gathering may not seem as exciting as hunting, it is vitally necessary and without it, we would never have gotten far. Even today, we still have communities that very much depend on this kind of gathering. Not only the San people, which in some places still live very close to the way they've always lived, but also many people in rural communities still go out and gather wild plants for their nutritional benefits. These plants aren't farmed; some would indeed be amenable to farming, while some would pose great challenges to any attempts to cultivate them, but as it is, they're out there, in the wilds, growing where they please, if we should allow them, and we only need to go out to find them.
I went to the workshop already knowing much about our indigenous plants and their uses, but even I was surprised to discover just how much edible stuff is out there! So far I've been growing plants just for their beauty and fascination, but now I'll seriously consider growing some with the idea of letting people get a taste of them.
When we arrived at the venue, we were greeted with displays on various kinds of edible plants: printed sheets with information about them, and small samples of every kind, including leaves and fruits or pods. These were not to be tasted – that came later! Ernst then introduced us to himself and his work at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden and now the Babylonstoren cultivation project. There's a history to it all going back to the work of Jan van Riebeeck who founded the Dutch colony at the Cape – which initially wasn't supposed to be a colony as such. His initial project was just to start a small garden at the point where the Dutch ships rounded Africa on their way to Asia where they traded in spices. The garden was to provision the sailors with food, including fruits and veggies so they would not get scurvy. From that time on there was interaction with the native Africans – the Khoi people – and their own knowledge of native plants. For instance, Ernst told us the story of how many of Van Riebeeck's men became sick trying out the wild almonds, Brabejum stellatifolium¸ and then the Khoi told them to leave the fruit in sacks in a running river for eight days, to leach out the poisons. From then on, they were able to eat the fruit.
Over time many Europeans decided to settle permanently and many came to spread inland until they landed up north, here where I now live, where the plants are completely different, but here as well the African peoples – and the Boer farmers also – found a wealth of plants that they could gather in the veld and eat. Only today so much of this knowledge is dying out as everybody finds it more convenient to get food from supermarkets, which sell mainly the small selection of crops that can productively be farmed on a huge scale, of a far lesser diversity than the things growing naturally out here … nobody has time anymore to go out each day and seek amidst the rocks and trees and grass and bushes.
We can't realistically go back to that lifestyle. But we can keep the knowledge from dying out and at least preserve a link with our own past.
Ernst then lectured us on many groups of wild South African plants. His expertise is down in the Cape, but Anton Cilliers, based at the University of Pretoria, knows very much about the plants here in the summer rainfall grassland, savannah and forest regions. After Ernst's lectures, Anton led us through practical sessions. We shelled native nuts and tasted them. We tasted Sterculia nuts both raw and roasted; we all preferred them raw! We had some tea, and had a chance to flavour them with a few different kinds of indigenous herbs. Anton led us through an arboretum planted on the plantation, many of which have edible fruits. These are not all native to South Africa, but include many trees that thrive in tropical or subtropical regions, like the White Sapote. The photo here shows Anton telling us how to prepare the inflorescence of the Delicious Monster, Monstera deliciosa, for consumption.
We also headed to the forests around the Debegeni Waterfalls to find more forest food plants. We didn't only look at the edible plants, but at many other fascinating things found in the forests. Here you see beautiful Crocosmia aurea flowers. And here are some pods of the Forest Bushwillow, Combretum kraussii, a tall forest tree. Ernst is an expert about Plectranthus-spurflowers, and we went out seeking a specific kind, which he knows from the area – sadly, we didn't find it. Among the edible plants we found was Mondia whitei, which has roots with a pleasant, sharp-sweetish taste.
On Saturday the workshop continued, starting with practical matters. We went out to pick some wild plants to cook as vegetables; Anton roasted some nuts for us. My team and I went for a specific plant called a pepperwort, Centella asiatica, of which we were to pick only the leaves. We found lots growing under a tree; I found it easier to gather them while sitting on my bum and shuffling around, much as gorillas gather their plant food from the forest floor. We filled three bags with leaves, choosing the freshest and most appetizing-looking ones. We returned to the venue to cook; all in all we had gathered four different species: the pepperworts; some wild nettles, Laportea peduncularis; black-jacks, Bidens pilosa, and a species the common name of which I don't know, Riocreuxia torulosa. These are all rather weedy plants, the black-jacks especially being bad, with black, sharp-tipped seed capsules that stick in your clothes if you walk through the bush. I never thought of eating them! Well, we ate the leaves, not the sticky-things.
I must say I was rather skeptical, and Anton warned us as well that these wild veggies may taste rather sharp, bitter and funny, and advised us to eat only small portions. But the cooked leaves turned out to be surprisingly tasty! The pepperworts were a bit pungent and I think we should perhaps have cooked them a bit more, but the others were all quite tolerable, pleasant even. I was surprised especially with the black-jacks, which tasted a lot like spinach. I ended up sampling all four species, and I ate a good amount of each.
The nuts were also on offer: elands-bean, Tylosema esculenta, Marula-nuts, Sclerocarya birrea, and Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba … not actually indigenous at present, but millions of years ago ginkgos occurred world-wide so it was actually indigenous, it only went temporarily extinct over here. I ate quite a large amount of nuts also!
The last part of the workshop was driving to a farm where we walked in the bush and Anton and Ernst pointed a few more trees and other plants to us. The farm had other interests also, such as mini-horses. We found some frogs and toads: a red toad, Schismaderma carens, not particularly red (there's a lot of variation between individuals of this species), and some banded rubber frogs, Phrynomantis bifasciatus, underneath a rotting log which some of the kids had thoughtlessly kicked away. The rubber frog, a very poisonous species, treated us to a threat display, blowing itself up and raising its back on straightened hind legs. I do hope the froggies could dig in below what remained of the logs; there were lots of cockroaches and insects in the rotting wood so there was at least good eating for the froggies there. We also found edible mushrooms at the base of some trees. The trees on the farm included jackal-berries, tassel-berries, and several species of wild fig tree (Ficus), all of which have edible fruits, and camel's foot, Piliostigma thonningii, the seeds of which can be roasted and eaten.
Well, it's now the aftermath, and I had no stomach or other complaints! I found the workshop highly informative and interesting and am happy to have had the opportunity to sample so many wild food plants. We also each got a little booklet with info on edible plants to take back. Ernst and Anton went to an enormous amount of trouble to organize the event, and I also must thank Bronwyn Egan and the people of CREW and BOTSOC for setting it all up. I really hope we can do this kind of thing again!