Richo's World of Seeds, Weeds and Deeds

Botanizing Zanzibar

The lights of Mkoani were just blinking on when our bus pulled in to the docks.  A crescent moon hung like an Arabian scimitar over the blue-black waters of the Indian Ocean where the tramp steamer awaited my departure, the first voyage of a journey that would bring me home.  I’d been botanizing the islands of Zanzibar for a month and three days, and I was returning home with journals filled with writing, a grain sack stuffed with dried spices, and a precious bundle of about 70 species of dried seeds, tightly packed in a red flour sack, the bounty of a month’s worth of delving and dealing, picking and preening, separating and drying, buried now deep within my goods.  Politely refusing many offers of assistance with the luggage, I disembarked, stood briefly in line at the ticket seller’s, and purchased a one way ticket on a first class berth to the island of Unguja.  I would share the cabin with a family of curious cockroaches, but would be spared the raucous company of revelers that otherwise packed the noisy,  oily, cramped and humid second and third class levels of the steamer.  It was the first night of Ramadan, a religious holiday observed by the vast majority of the population.  During the day people fasted.  At nightfall special foods were laid out, and people feasted.  I pocketed my ticket and swung my bags to a resting place against the trunk of a friendly hardwood tree that overhung the tin roof of the ticket office.  Then, I seated myself against the aromatic bulk of my bag of spices and watched as the parking lot came alive with activity.  Food sellers made two sinuous lines from the barricades at the dock up along toward the rows of claptrap busses and taxis.  The women sat or crouched, opening baskets filled with fried octopus and squid, fishes on skewers, samosas and soft rolls, bright candies, oranges, green coconuts and the omnipresent banana.  People crowded around these food sellers and gave them eager business, bringing the food in folded newspapers to benches and low walls that surrounded the parking, eating voraciously after the day’s fast.  A murmur of happy conversation welled up from the docks, and there was much rumpling of newspaper and smacking of lips.  I was hungry, too.  Surmising that my luggage was too heavy to be easily carried off by miscreants, I left it propped there against the tree, and sauntered over to a girl who had soft, newly baked rolls and tough fried squid, purchasing the warm viands with colorful local currency and returning safely to my seat.  Having finished eating, I was approached by a large man dressed in black pants and a white shirt.  The pants were held up around his jolly belly with a knotted string.  The shirt was pulling apart at the buttons, revealing a smooth black belly that pillowed out like overstuffed sausage. 

                “What are you doing in Zanzibar?” he asked in standard Swahili.  I was glad that he wasn’t using the local island slang, which I’d never quite picked up on.  “I’ve been botanizing,” I answered. 

                “Oh,” he said, “do you know the local plants?”  “Some of them,” I answered.  “And I use them, too.  I’m a witch doctor.”  “Well then,” he replied, only half believing me, and smiling challengingly.  “What tree is this where you are sitting?” 

                I looked up into the darkened branches and just discerned the pointed, compound leaves of a neem tree.  “It’s mwarobaini,” I said, and needlessly explained that this meant “treats 40 diseases” and proceeded to list as many of them as I could think of at the moment.  “The leaves can be chewed to heal rotten gums and improve the breath,” I said.  “And the twigs make good toothbrushes.  The fat from the seeds will kill scabies and head lice.  The bark can be made into a cold infusion to cure the fever of malaria.  And the bark can be cut away from the tree to make the soles of shoes.” 

                All throughout this recitation the man remained unimpressed, as if I was telling him nothing new.  But at this last statement, he visibly brightened.  “Hey,” he said, “I didn’t know you could make shoes out of the bark of mwarobaini!”  Then, in order to illustrate my point, I indicated  the trunk of the tree above my head, where two foot-shaped scars revealed the spots where somebody had harvested a handy pair of sandals from this giving tree.  The man laughed until I thought his shirt buttons would surely pop.  Then someone called to him, so wishing me safe travels, he melted back into the crowd.  I settled down to wait for the steamer, and as I sat there, undisturbed, my mind roved back over the plants and trees I’d learned to identify and utilize to treat myself and local people during my travels.  They were ingrained in my memory, and I recounted them mentally, and this is what I was thinking about . . .   

A walk through a spice plantation. 

Mixed crop systems are very common, with groves of cinnamon and clove interspersed with towering nutmeg trees and an understory of bananas, cardamon and vanilla.  The people have made a business not only of growing and preparing spices for export, but in giving taste-test tours and showing off the plants and trees that have earned Zanzibar the “Spice Islands” adage.  Once you get to know the local people, they will inevitably ask “Have you gone on spicey?” This means,  “Have you toured a spice plantation yet?”  If the answer is no, then they will enthusiastically recommend that you do so.  And I would recommend this, too.  It’s amazing to see and taste the plants and trees that produce the familiar spices of world cuisine. 

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum).  The Swahili is “mpilipili manga” which means “Arabian pepper.”  I had imagined that this would grow on a tree but was surprised to find that it grows on a vine.  The farmers train the vines to a post, and harvest the drooping clusters of fruits at different times and process them in various ways to produce three grades of peppercorns:  white, red or black.  These are mainly given over to export, although the pepper is sometimes used locally,  to preserve and/or spice various dishes, mostly containing meat.

Cardamon (Elettaria cardamomum).  The Swahili is “iliki.”  At least two varieties exist:  small cardamon and giant cardamon.  This is an herbaceous plant that grows much like ginger and has extraordinary flowers that give way to the pods filled with sticky, aromatic seeds.  The pods are used as a spice, as a flavoring for tea, and as a carminative medicine.  Although many of the spices of Zanzibar are used very sparingly in local cuisine, cardamon is an exception.  It is commonly used in chai, and my guides (and I) chewed the pods as we walked. 

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum).  The Swahili is “mdalasini.”  The trees are very fast growing and can be allowed to grow singly, in which case they attain the form of a midsize, fountaining hardwood, or they can be planted in a line and trimmed to a hedge, for the purpose of privacy and as a wind break.  The bark is reddish and thick, and can be rossed, then peeled back from the trees in vertical strips so as not to kill the tree.  The bark is then sun dried whereupon it curls into quills.  Thick and ugly bark is ground up into powdered cinnamon.  Thinner, higher grade bark is dried into cinnamon sticks.  Let the buyer beware–Cassia bark is often substituted for true cinnamon.  But in Zanzibar, I saw only true cinnamon growing.

Clove (Eugenia aromatica).  The Swahili is “mkarafuu.”  This is the name of the tree.  The Swahili for the pregnant, bright red, swollen fruits that can be planted to produce more trees is “matende.”  The spice is made up of the flower buds, which are colored green at first , then turn bright red, and are then sun dried to produce the cloves of commerce.  The cloves are dried on mats in the sun, and turned several times daily.  Everyone rushes out to cover the cloves when a rainstorm approaches, lest the wetting of the cloves result in a diminution of quality.  Clove wood is used in construction and for fuel.  In local medicine, the cloves are a treatment for vascular disease.  They are ground, mixed with fat, and applied to the skin.  There is also a brisk business in clove oil (a topical and oral analgesic) and in clove soap (delightful).  Cloves as a commodity are controlled by the government of Zanzibar, and the price is very low to the producer and relatively high to the buyer.  Zanzibar produces the majority of cloves that are consumed on the world market.  Locals complain that the work of picking the flower buds is laborious and dangerous (one must climb high up into the trees) and that the wages are inadequate.  I observed many large sacks of cloves being loaded onto a steamer at the docks of Wete, on the northern coast of Pemba, the greenest island in the archipelago.  Higher prices are paid for black market cloves, but they must be exported surreptitiously.  Native dhows  with hand-carved wooden hulls and sails made of sewn-together rice sacks are loaded to the gills.  They brave the seas between the spice islands and the port of Mombasa in Kenya where the cargo is sold at a premium. 

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus/flexuosus).  The Swahili is “nchaichai” meaning  literally “tea-tea,”  which implies “something tea-like.”  The plant is used in local production of crude essential oil and in perfumery.  The dried leaves are used by traditional healers to make an infusion against headache and cough.  They sometimes recommend aspirating the tea through the nose. 

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).  The Swahili is “mkungumanga” which means “Arab nutmeg,” a name which is generally pronounced with a hushed, conspiratorial, and slightly embarrassed tone of voice.  The reason for this is that most locals know the fruits to be an intoxicating sexual stimulant.  The tree is very large and spreading, a handsome tropical hardwood.  The nut occurs inside a large fleshy pericarp, a presentation not unlike our English walnut.  Around the seed is wrapped a bright red, waxy net-like lattice,  which is the mace.  Basically, this is two commercially recognized spices in one, although the taste of mace, albeit stronger than seed nutmeg, is nonetheless very similar.  Locally, the seeds are ground into powder and used as a flavoring in porridge.  At night, the amorous couple may grind the seeds with anticipatory ardor, and make a hot tea, which is drunk before bed. There is good international trade, although the spice tends to get old and consequently loses much of its kick before it makes its way to the world market.  Fresh nutmeg is astoundingly potent.

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia).  The Swahili is “mvanila” which is pretty easy to remember.  This is the dried pod of the vine of the vanilla orchid and it is an expensive commodity, reflecting the great care and hand labor required to grow it.  The saprophytic vines are mulched with coir and trained up a nurse tree.  The flowers must be hand-pollinated on a dry morning, and if this narrow window of opportunity is missed, there will be no vanilla pod.  It would be like trying to milk your cow without breeding her.  The pods are carefully picked at maturity and fermented and dried to produce the familiar sticky, black spice that one likes to find in very small chunks in one’s ice cream.  Even in Zanzibar, vanilla pods are expensive and somewhat rare.  As an aside, I inquired as to the name of the nurse tree and was told the trees were “mjengaua.”  I thought this was a great find, to know the name of the nurse tree, and wrote it in my notes, and eagerly went back to my little room at Sharook’s Guest House in the little town of Wete to pore over my references and find the Latin name.  But then I leaned back in my squeaky chair and looked at the stained ceiling and murmured “mjengaua, mjengaua, why is that so familiar?”  And in that moment I realized what the guide had done–not knowing the real name of the tree, he’d made up a contraction on the spot.  Mjengaua means “that which hangs the flower!” 

Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata).  The Swahili is “mlangilangi,” again, easy to remember.  The “m” prefix simply means “tree.”  Another full-sized tropical hardwood.  On “spicey” I smelled the characteristic, heavenly fragrance, before I even saw the tree.  My guide ordered one of his workers to scale the tall trunk and bring down a flowering branch.  I kneeled down to change my camera lens, which only takes a second, and when I stood back up was amazed to find the fellow standing before me,  proffering a nice branch.  He wasn’t even out of breath.  I’ll never know how he did that so fast!  Anyway, the branch was thickly studded with the star-like, green flowers, redolent with oil glands, and the entire affair smelled so strongly that I nearly went to sleep on the spot.  Later, in the car back from the spice tour, we were all fighting sleep–the whole car was redolent with the fragrance.  Locals make an oil infusion by partially drying the flowers and leaves, then steeping in coconut oil for a day or two in the sun, then straining and bottling up in the usual manner.  This is a potent sexual stimulant, a perfume, and an invitation to deep sleep and Elysian dreams. 

Tropical annuals for planting in the temperate north:

One of the main motivations for visiting Zanzibar (besides pouring cultural WD-40 on the rusty hinges of my dormant Swahili) was to identify tropical annual herbs that could conceivably be successfully grown in the temperate north.  This part of my mission was released to the winds of chance, and with good luck I came across a number of cultivars that turned out to be useful.  These were grown out in our gardens at Horizon Herbs with good success, so that we could produce our own organically certified seed.  They have become popular varieties that are now  grown throughout the US. 

African Bird Peppers (Capsicum frutescens).  The Swahili is “mpilipili hoho.”  These make bright red fruits, pointed, as small as the beak of a finch, occurring on heavily studded, short, globe-shaped bushes.  The fruits are very hot, and they are used sparingly in curries.  A rubefacient oil is made by grinding the dried peppers and making an oil infusion.  The fresh peppers are ground with salt and oil or vinegar to make a condiment, used mainly on rice dishes.  “African Bird Peppers” sold by seed companies in the US represent an astounding number of questionable cultivars.  My hope was to introduce some reliably identified germplasm into the public domain.   

African Tea Basils.  These are widespread indigenous species that take two basic forms.  The first is an upright perennial woody bush known locally as “mtule.”  The Latin is Ocimum suave.  The plant occurs very commonly on roadside and in waste places, and is largely ignored by the populace.  The funny thing is, despite its cosmopolitan nature, I never got a very good picture of it (until we grew it out here in the US).  Every time I saw a good one in Zanzibar, I hesitated to bring out my camera, lest I be labeled a tourist and be obliged to fend off an onslaught of locals asking for handouts, selling trinkets, telling unlikely stories, or attempting to pick my pockets, etc.  Salimbum, who was the highly respected witch doctor I apprenticed to , said that the leaves were dried and made into a tea, used for treating gum disease and were also given fresh and undried to teething children, to kill the pain and to stop their crying.  Since the predominant smell is oil of clove (eugenol) I wondered first why they didn’t simply use cloves, but then realized that cloves were an introduced species, and that the use of mtule would have substantially predated the introduction of clove trees to the islands.  In any case, the use of a clove-like plant for treating dental woes is a good cross-cultural verification. 

The second form is a diminutive annual plant known locally as “kivumbasi.”  The Latin is Ocimum canum.  This, too, is a very common plant on the islands, usually found in patches where the ground is moist.  The plant goes quickly to flower and seed, smells minty, and is somewhat variable from place to place.  On the island of Unguja, I discovered a patch of citrus smelling kivumbasi, a unique accession that turned out to be quite valuable.  Since I discovered this plant while in the act of assisting some locals who were suffering from various complaints, I really saw this discovery as a bit of instant good kharma.  If only we could package that.  In Zanzibar, witch doctoring requires a communion with the physical (herb) and the aetheric (magic, if you will).  This herb kivumbasi bridges any perceived gap.  The tea is used to treat stomach ache and as a general panacea, a kind of African adaptogen.  The dried plant is used as an incense to welcome in the newborn and to banish evil spirits from the house.  It is used by the witch doctors in divination.  One of the divinatory methods I observed was exactly the same as the Gypsy method known as “reading the tea leaves.”   

African Culinary Basil (Ocimum basilicum).  In Swahili, this is known as “mrihani.”  I’m convinced there must be other cultivars, but the predominant one I found was a midsize, sweet basil with ruffled leaves and a rich, true basil fragrance.  A beautiful plant both to behold and to taste.  This is used by local people to flavor curries, and it is dried and hung about the neck in a locket known as “manukato.”   We grew the plants out here in the US and found it to be a reliable annual cultivar, previously unknown.

African Marigolds (Tagates erecta).  In Swahili, this is known as “tururu.” One of the standard ethnographic references for Swahili plants (Kokwaro, 1976) gives a straight-faced documentation of an indigenous use for this plant that was probably a joke hatched by a playful informant.  “Roots eaten with oyster nuts (Telfaria pedata) to relieve pain in the sexual organs.” If you’ve ever tried eating the woody roots of a marigold, you will know one of the reasons why this is probably a joke!  Now, I have friends in the seed breeding trade who have worked hard to create new cultivars of African Marigold, and I’m sure what they’ve come up with is very nice.   But I wanted to go the opposite direction and find the plant that started the whole business, and my thought was that this should be a midsize, upright plant bearing  orange and yellow flowers arrayed as singles (not doubles), giving forth the strong and characteristic smell of marigolds.  American herbalists (including myself) tend toward using calendula in their salves, but I’ve always been interested in trying out marigold, which is a similar flavonoid-rich medicinal flower that was a traditional salve-making ingredient (and dye plant) from the European tradition.  I shied away from doing this, because all the marigolds I could find were hybridized or heavily selected.  I was keeping a sharp eye, but all I’d seen so far as I toured around first Unguja, then Pemba, were a few marigolds growing roadside.  Then one day, walking up the road toward Kinyasini in Pemba, I stopped at a roadside stand selling fresh cane juice, and noticed behind the stand a yard, and in the yard a garden where grew hundreds of African marigolds.  These plants perfectly fit the description that had been developed in my mind’s eye!  Would the cane juice seller be willing to pick some dried seed heads for me?  Yes, he would.  He picked three, and gave them to me.  “Fine,” I said, and “thank you,” but knowing I needed a much broader genetic platform for good seed saving, I offered him a nice reward if he would give permission for me to go through and get seeds from the entire patch.   The fellow called to some neighborhood children, and as a team we picked every dried seed head, putting them in paper bags that I had handy.  “By the way,” I said as the pick neared its end.  I want to grow these in America and send the seed out to gardens all around the world.”  He stopped, smiled, looked up at me and said “That is good.  All gardens need flowers like these!”

A Sampler of Medicinal Herbs and Trees from Zanzibar:

Aloe (Aloe kirkii, A. vera).  The Swahili is “mshubiri mwitu,” which means forest aloe.  An alternate name in Swahili is “mzimakilio” which means “to make whole the crying” or “to stop the crying” a reference to the practice of dropping the aloe juice in the infected ear of a crying infant (and what happens afterwards).  Other common uses include boiling the plant and drinking the liquid to treat stomach afflictions or diabetes.  The plant is also used for treating the sting of the poisonous sea snail (koa) (Heine & Legere, 1995).  One of the most satisfying experiences of my entire Zanzibari sojourn was coming across a wild Aloe vera on the pristine tropical island of Misale, off the coast of Pemba.  Misale is a nature preserve, and you’re not supposed to pick anything, but I confess to having done a bit of guerilla gardening.  The Aloes were growing pathside not far from the beach where we landed our dhow. Finding wild Aloe instead of propagating it on my windowsill at home  was like knowing a prisoner and meeting her  for the first time in the outside world–I saw  her in a new light.  The radiating clusters of juicy leaves were borne up on writhing, succulent stems covered in a papery bark.  Emanating from the base of the stem were many small “pups” which I knew to be good starts.  Carefully removing them from the mother, I went across the path and planted them in likely spots on the opposite side.  I hope someday to return to discover that my charges have grown as big and healthy as their parent.  Aloes are respected by all the local people, and would never be harmed or overharvested.  In fact, among the general populace, people demonstrate an innate sense of conservation, protecting plants and taking only what they need.  On several occasions, when picking seeds with the help of indigenous people, they demanded that I stop, even though it seemed like there was a surfeit, simply because something told them that it was–enough.     

Annatto (Bixa orellana).  The Swahili is “mzingefuri.”  This is a showy shrub that is commonly planted as a hedge.  It yields prodigiously.  The lovely flowers give way to red-tinged, spiny capsules that contain the soft and brick-red seeds.  These are water extracted to produce a universal coloring agent that is frequently used in the food industry.  A little goes a long way in turning white cheese into yellow cheese, for instance.  The plant is used by the Swahilis against fevers and infections.  The Vedic populace uses annatto for making the third-eye bindi mark habitually worn by married women. 

Baobab (Adansonia digitata).  The Swahilis call this “mbuyu,” which means “the tree that bears gourds.”  Many of the plants I’ve spoken of so far are spices originally imported to Zanzibar to grow on planned plantations.  Baobab however is native.  In fact, the current Genus name, which belonged to the white explorer Michael Adanson might reasonably be changed to mbuyu.  Mbuyu digitata–it flows, and such a name, if allowed, would put more emphasis on the genuine African origin of the tree.  Regardless of its name the tree is fantastic–looming, with a swollen barrel of a trunk reaching out with a few humanoid branches attempting to clasp the blistering sun.  The gourds themselves are elongated and hang pendant to the undersides of the branches.  They are filled with rocklike seeds suspended in a crystalline matrix.  This material dissolves readily, and a spoonful stirred into a glass of water produces  a delightful,  brightly sweet/tart beverage loaded with vitamins.  This is merely one of the uses of the tree, which also provides twine and herbal medicine.  Not to mention shade in a scorched landscape.    

Castor (Ricinus communis).  The Swahilis have various names for this member of the Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) including Mbarika and Mbono. This is another native, and it is well respected, left alone where it grows in open places near roads and in waste areas. The plants grow long, woody stems up to 15 feet, and the frilled flowers give way to rubbery, softly spiny capsules wherein the  seeds develop slowly.  When mature and dry the plant forcibly ejects them out into the environment, where they are left to lie, because they are quite poisonous, although only if ingested.  In native witch doctoring, the broad, smooth, palmate leaves of this plant are steamed until hot and then laid on problem areas as a poultice.  We had grown several species here on the farm for over a decade, but it was in Zanzibar where I generated sufficient confidence to actually use the plant.  In Unguja, local acquaintances were suffering from plantar warts, and I performed some minor surgeries.  I used the oily endosperm of the castor seed to pack the craterous site of extraction, then followed up with steaming castor leaves that pulled out the infection, the whole disallowing recurrence by destroying the viral core.  People recovered quickly.   

Coral Tree (Jatropha multifida).  This handsome bush to small tree is variously known as “mbuluki” or “miodine” which means “the iodine tree.”  Apparently the plant has been relatively recently introduced, since the main ethnographies of the East African region ignore it, and it was difficult for me to find out much about it from the villagers, many of whom dismissed it as an “ua ya bustani” which is a general term for any garden flower.  Another Spurge family member, mbuluki  builds up its fleshy branches with impressive rapidity.  When the bark is slashed, out oozes a soothing oleo-gum-resin that can be rubbed onto wounds to make an antiseptic and protectively latex-like natural bandage.  The leaves are deeply palmate and as pretty a thing as you’ll ever see on a plant.  The flower is a cluster of coral red goblets.  The fruits are large and yellow, feeding and protecting  the meaty seeds that when fully ripe become filled with fat.  With care, these could probably be rendered into biofuel. 

Curry Leaf Tree (Murraya koenigii).  The Swahilis name this one “mvuje” or “mpolio” because they say it treats polio.  Small children wear a sewn bag of the dried leaves around their necks as a charm, to discourage childhood diseases.  It is common practice to burn the dried leaves in order to drive away sickness from the house.  The witch doctors use the plant to expunge  evil spirits.  The strangely musky leaves, when  fresh,  are used by the Vedic population to flavor special curries.  India, remember, is just across a relatively small ocean.  If you’re in East Africa, and you get a yearning for India, you can take a tramp steamer across the ocean and perhaps even stopover at the heavenly  Seychelle islands, but watch out for Somalian pirates–they are active in these seas! 

Henna (Lawsonia inermis).  The Swahili name is variously “mhina” or “muhina.”  This is mainly used as a lovely conditioner and dye for the hair.  The dried leaves are ground to powder, then hydrated and applied to the hair like a mudpack, allowed to sit for several hours, and then rinsed out to reveal the new you.  Mixed with a solvent, this same leaf powder can be applied to the skin in order to stain it bright red.  In Swahili culture, this is often done in elaborate scrolls on the soles of the hands and feet, where the skin is light enough to show the decorative touch.   

Jequirity (Abrus precatorius).  There are at least 17 Swahili names for this little vine, including such descriptive terms as “macho ya tipitipi.” This means “eyes of the white brown Coucal” which the seeds resemble.  They are hard, globular, and bright red, with a large dark spot.  The powder of the seeds is potently poisonous but it is also used by the witchdoctors.  I visited two of these dynamic healers, and both of them showed me the seeds to this plant.  Supposedly the poisonous properties are rendered harmless once the seeds are boiled in water. 

Love Apple (Solanum taitense).  Defining this plant under “Love Apple” might be a stretch, because it is not the usual species that is mentioned, but to my eye it is very, very close.  This is a lurid smelling tomato-like bush, a perennial that grows in dry ground and makes patches in waste places.  The plant is fast-growing and frequently adventitiously re-sown by the dropping of its own fruits, which resemble small, green tomatoes.  The Swahilis know it as “mtunguja” and it is used to address various dental woes.  The roots are shredded and soaked in water, which is then pulled into the mouth and retained for some time, and finally spit out.  This addresses gum infection and cleans out and slows down dental caries.  The smoke from the burned plant is likewise used to fumigate the mouth against infection.  The man who taught me about this plant demonstrated how it could be used to flush worms out of the teeth, squeezing his eyes shut and  leaning over the imaginary smoke, baring his teeth like buck goat in heat.  It was quite graphic. 

References: 

Kokwaro, J.O. 1976.  Medicinal Plants of East Africa.  Kampala, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam:  East African Literature Bureau.

Heine, B & Karsten Legere, 1995.  Swahili Plants: an ethnobotanical survey.  Rudiger Koppe Verlag.  Koln, Germany.

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