Grab a bunch of chubby, scarlet sausages from a dwaba-berry tree and savour the tangy fruitiness of their flesh; they provide a refreshing snack when you’re out and about in the bush.
Known in south-western Zambia as muchinga-chinga, this small tree is found on Kalahari sands from Angola to Mozambique. Its scientific name is a typical example of the (mostly discontinued) practice of honouring famous European botanists by naming genera after them. Friesodielsia obovata gives two for the price of one; the Swedish botanist and mushroom taxonomy expert, Elias Fries, and the German botanist Friedrich Diels. ‘Obovata’ refers to the shape of the leaves.
This plant belongs to the custard-apple family, the Annonaceae, which includes our purple hook-berry, Artabotrys brachypetalus, and our suffrutex species Annona stenophylla, both of which also have edible fruits.
Over the last few months, each one of the clusters of cylindrical dwaba-berries has been emerging from the centre of a solitary flower. In its early stages, the fruit looks like a fuzzy green spider dangling underneath broad, flat leaves, so it’s quite astonishing to watch its transformation into a bunch of fat, red fingers. For me, this is one of the wonders of the botanical world: observing how a plant expresses its nature through all its different life stages.
Before throwing away the seeds from the muchinga-chinga fruit you’ve sucked, hold one in your hand, and imagine how it germinates to become a seedling, which grows up into a tree, in time forming pendulous, pale-yellow flowers.
Beetles will come in the night, attracted by odours and warmer temperatures inside the flowers, to feast on pollen on the cluster of stamens, and on tasty tissues in the floral chamber, which is the area held safe by the enclosing petals. The beetles’ activity will pollinate the flowers, bringing about fertilisation which, in turn, will bring forth fruits from the flowers. What a wondrous cycle of processes!
Friesodielsia obovata has medicinal properties: tests show that extracts from the bark of stem and root are anti-spasmodic, which means that they reduce muscular tension and can suppress spasms in the intestines. Although the trunk and branches are slender and often arching, the termite-resistant wood may be used for building huts and fences.
It is important to be aware that plants provide for other living beings besides ourselves. For example, the leaves of dwaba-berry trees give food for the larvae of swordtail butterflies (Graphium species), and many birds and monkeys can be seen feasting on the abundant fruits as summer ends and the dry winter months approach.
Enjoy the sense of partaking in the wild banquet of the woodland...but leave some for the other creatures who are members of our larger community.
Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)
Read more about the region in our destination guide:
More articles in this series:
Rainforest Riches (ZT, Issue 13, June 2013)
Berry banquet (ZT, Issue 12, March 2013)
Marvellous Mangoes (ZT, Issue 11, December 2012)
Underground Forests (ZT, Issue 10, September 2012)
The healing powers of Aloes (ZT, Issue 09, June 2012)
Dogbane Drugs (ZT, Issue 08, March 2012)
Devil’s Claw (ZT, Issue 07, December 2011)
Elephant Toothpicks (ZT, Issue 06, Sept 2011)