From mythical to practical, plants are an important element of African culture. The wide-ranging uses of African plants may seem unusual from a Western perspective. For generations, Africans have used plants for medicine, food, domestic goods, spiritual purposes and poisons. While you may not be able to grow them in your own garden, learning about Africa’s plants and their seemingly strange uses gives gardeners an even deeper appreciation of the myriad powers of plants.
Africa’s baobab tree (Adansonia digitata L.) has one of the longest tree longevities in the world, surviving for thousands of years in some cases. The deciduous tree can reach a height of 75 feet and a diameter of over 60 feet. In addition to everyday uses such as clothing, medicine, food and utility items, hollow baobab trees in Africa serve as water cisterns, storage rooms, prisons and tombs. Baobab trees used as cisterns are fitted with a tap near the bottom for convenient water removal. In Namibia, a baobab tree was converted to a flush lavatory. In Europe, baobab pulp is used as a pharmaceutical binder and in cosmetic lines. In the Middle East, baobab seeds are marketed as a snack food similar to sunflower seeds in the United States.
African Soap Berry
The African soap berry or endod plant (Phyolacca dodecandra) is a climbing shrub that occurs in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Its branches grow to 30 to 60 feet in length, and the plant produces bright orange or red berries. In addition to its numerous medicinal uses, African soap berries yield a fizzing soap powder when dried, crushed and added to water. Ash from a burnt plant also yields soap when added to water. Unripe berries contain an all-natural molluscicide used in Ethiopia and other places to repel disease-carrying snails. In the United States Great Lakes region, African soap berry has emerged as a promising natural method of controlling invasive zebra mussel species.
The poison bush (Acokanthera schimperi) is an evergreen shrub found throughout Africa. The plant can grow to over 15 feet tall, and while its fruit is edible when fully ripe, most plant parts undergo processing for their poison. Hunters apply poison from the poison bush to arrow and spear tips for hunting, but the poison may also serve as a means of committing homicide. Poisoning is so common in some parts of Africa that the host must sample food and drink in front of his visitor to show the victuals are safe. Nuisance animals are often poisoned using bush poison. The poison bush contains a chemical that causes hair and nails to fall out, and death can result in half an hour after poisoning. Smoke from burning poison bushes repels insects but will harm humans if inhaled. Children use part of the ripened fruit as chewing gum. Kenyan poison bushes contain high concentrations of a compound used for treatment of congestive heart failure in Western medicine.