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A liquorish-like vine for your food forest: Growing African Ginseng

NOV 14, 2022 | Written & photographs by Jason Sampson

uMondi | Mondia whitei

 

Above: Mondia pods take a full year to develop. Photo by Jason Sampson

 

There are a number of unusual crop species, food and utility plants that were important to people before the simplification of the food supply, as industrial agriculture spread. And these can – and should be – important again in a more ecologically sensitive, small-scale farming community

Among these you’ll find African Ginseng, also known as uMondi or Mondia whitei.

This fast-growing vine is completely undomesticated. Yet it deserves a place in any food forest and has a host of potential commercial applications for someone with a bit of imagination and an adventurous turn of mind.

African Ginseng occurs throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s heavily used from the wild as both food and medicine, so much so that it’s considered endangered and at risk of extinction. But this is entirely unnecessary as the species is easily propagated and very fast growing.

It’s also remarkably attractive, with large decorative leaves and red/maroon (or rarely yellow) flowers in season. The vine is neat and binds closely to a support, so can be used to cover gazeebos or green facades with equal ease, and requires little pruning to shape.

 

How to cultivate African Ginseng

The plant is easily propagated from seed or cuttings. It does require support and can be grown on a trellis, a fence or a suitable tree. Plants are large, but tidy.

Deep, fertile soil is best as one of the usable parts of the plant is its tuberous roots, which can be harvested non-destructively, but only if the soil is easily dug and replaced.

The plant is virtually evergreen in warm climates with a short deciduous phase in late spring. But in cold climates it can be cut back by the frost to the roots, which should be mulched well to protect them from the chill.

Moderate water and fertilisation needs make this species remarkably easy to cultivate. In fact, under the right conditions it pretty much grows itself, but a good multi-nutrient fertiliser in season and some supplemental water during drought will increase growth and yields.

 

Left: Mondia flowers are magenta in shade, a bit browner in full sun.

 

Seed saving: Why it pays to collect them

Seeds are produced in horned pods in November/December after spending winter on the vines. They have thistledown and will blow away in the wind so it pays to collect them just as they start to crack open and dry them inside.

Plants produce a lot of seed, but you need two clones to produce them so do not plant all your stock from the cuttings of one plant.

Cuttings are easy from semi-hardwood cuttings in summer, and will even root in a glass of water.

 

Tastes and treatments: uMondi’s traditional uses

The tuberous roots contain aromatic compounds that are related to vanillin, the active ingredient of vanilla. The taste can be described as ginger/vanilla with a hint of liquorish, often with cinnamon notes (very complex).

They are used for a myriad of different traditional purposes, from brewing a ginger beer-like drink, to medicinal uses that can treat heartburn, indigestion, flatulence, gonorrhea, abdominal pain and constipation, bilharzia, premature uterine contractions in pregnant women, appetite stimulant, asthma, and high blood pressure. Perhaps its best-known use in South African traditional medicine is as an aphrodisiac and sperm function promoter as well as a potent energiser.

 

Above: Mondia leaves are edible and are a tasty substitute for spinach. Photo by Jason Sampson

 

A spicy addition to your rum

As a novel African spice, this plant is of huge interest to the food production industry. I like to infuse it in a neutral spirit-like white rum for both drinking and cooking purposes. It can also be dried and placed in a grinder.

The leaves are edible and can be cooked with butter or olive oil as a substitute for spinach. If made into little bundles they are almost perfect substitutes for waterblommetjies in both taste and texture.

They’re also great as a fodder for domestic animals and can be dried and taken as a supplement. They contain the vitamins A, D, K and E, and the minerals such as magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium as well protein.

For more information on this, or other orphan crops, please contact Jason Sampson at jason.sampson@up.ac.za

2 Comments

  1. Very well discribed. Thank you Jason. Keep up the good work.

  2. So interesting to have this information about the Mondia which is one of my favourite plants. There is almost no information available about them so thank you Jason.

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