Thursday 5 October 2017

The power of shared identity...and imifino!
By Phumlani Cimi

People are encouraged to celebrate their cultural traditions in the wider context of the great diversity of cultures, beliefs, and traditions that make up the nation of South Africa.In an address marking Heritage Day in 1996, former President Nelson Mandela stated: "When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation." Heritage Month recognises aspects of South African culture which are both tangible and intangible: creative expression such as music and performances, our historical inheritance, language, the food we eat as well as popular memory.
The history tells us that before colonisation there were no shops to get food from. Through trial and error people managed to select nutritional plants as food. There were no hospitals and surgeons to go to when people were sick. People depended entirely on indigenous plants that were available in their environment. Some of this information has been documented but is still scattered while much remains undocumented. Some information is only available through word of mouth of the older generation, shared with their children and grandchildren.  This information should be brought together. This heritage knowledge is an intergenerational knowledge.
I grew up eating indigenous food (imifino) from wild plants such as Amaranthus hybridus (utyuthu), Sonchus oleraceus (ihlaba), Bidens pilosa (umhlabangubo), Solanum nigrum (umsobosobo), Urtica urens (irhawu) and Chenopodium murale (imbhikicane). Yet, in my school days these were not mentioned during nutrition lessons. We were instead taught about cabbage, spinach, and carrots while imifino was often referred to as weeds. The research I have done in the Eastern Cape shows that people still know and use wild plants as food, medicine and cosmetics regardless of the fact that past government educational policy did not recognise indigenous ways of knowing.
I have developed a booklet with some recipes on how to cook indigenous food (imifino). This booklet is also available in Braille and includes how and when to collect these wild plants. To get this information one must come to the herbarium department at the Albany Museum, where I work. I also provide scientific evidence which shows that these wild plants have higher nutrition content than other vegetables such as cabbages which we buy in the market. All this information is free of charge.

Friday 2 June 2017

The freedom tree

The relationship between people and plantshas always been profoundly important and plants affect every aspect of our lives. 

The AmaMfengu fled from Zululand during the time of King Shaka (1818-1828) and settled in the Eastern Cape in Hintsa’s land. On 14 May 1835, the AmaMfengu gathered under an old Sideroxylon inerme (Botanical name), milkwood (English), melkhout (Afrikaans), umqwashu (Xhosa) tree in Peddie district, in the presence of the Rev. John Ayliff, and swore a great oath to obey the Queen, to accept Christianity, and to educate their children. 
This oath was to have momentous consequences. The AmaMfengu fought alongside the colonial forces in
all the Frontier Wars that followed, and were rewarded by extensive tracts of Rharhabe land. The AmaMfengu became the first Bantu in South Africa to use ploughs, demonstrated to them by the missionaries, and also the first to plant wheat.

As the 'better-educated' and more European-aligned group, they naturally secured the bulk of elite positions as clerks, teachers, peasants, and petty traders that were available to Blacks in an elective system based on merit and achievement, as opposed to the pre-colonial Xhosa pattern of strong hereditary chiefs. They viewed themselves as the bearers of a great universal Christian civilization, and tended to regard the Rharhabe and other amaXhosa as backward and uncivilized. Several educational institutions, such as those at Lovedale, Healdtown and St Matthews supported these developments.

Every 14 May since the day the 'Fingo-Oath' was sworn has been celebrated as Fingo Emancipation Day, with a ceremony held under the old milkwood tree where the oath was sworn. The milkwood is a low-growing, evergreen tree. It is rarely found with a straight trunk; instead, its gnarled, sprawling branches often create impenetrable thickets that are home to a variety of wild life. Although also occurring inland, milkwoods are found mainly along the coast from the Cape Peninsula to northern Zululand.

The small, yellowy-green flowers have an unusual sour-smell (Jan-July). The edible, juicy, black fruit (July-Jan) are enjoyed by birds and baboons. The milky latex which gives the tree its common name makes the leaves and the bark unpalatable to grazing animals. The wood is very hard, heavy and strong. In the past, it was used for ship building, bridges, mills and ploughs. It is very durable even when wet and it shrinks little with drying.


Monkey rope for your jelly

Monkey rope for your jelly
By Someleze Gcuwa

Name: Rhoicissus tomentosa (Lam.) Wild. & R.B.Drumm.                
Family: Vitaceae (Grape family) Common names:Engl. Common Forest Grape, Monkey-rope, Simple-leaved Grape, Wild Grape, Wild Vine
Afr. Bobbejaantou, Bosdruif, Bosdruiwe, Wildedruif, Wildedruiwe
Xho. Chithibhunga

Robust canopy climber or small scrambling tree; Bark is greyish; young branchlets with thick rusty hairs, becoming hairless with lenticels; tendrils velvety. Leaves are almost circular to kidney-shaped, slightly 3-lobed, dark green above, dense with brownish rusty soft hairs below. Flowers are small in dense axillary heads, yellowish green, densely furry with rusty hairs when in bud (October-January). Fruit almost spherical, fleshy, becoming red and finally purplish black (January-April).

Conservation status
According to the SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute) Red list of South African Plants, Rhoicissus tomentosa was not selected in any one of four screening processes for highlighting potential taxa of conservation concern for detailed assessment and was hence given an automated status of Least Concern (L.C.). The Threatened Species Programme is currently systematically completing full assessments for all taxa with an automated status. 

Distribution and habitat
This common forest grape occurs in riverine fringes, clambering over trees and bushes and almost associated with forest. Provincial distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Western Cape.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Rhoicissus is derived from the Greek rhoia, meaning pomegranate and kissos, ivy. Perhaps not the most accurate of names: like ivy, it is a climber, but it has tendrils; and the small fruits, although spherical, do not seem very like that of pomegranate. The Latin species name tomentosa means felt-like, with a dense woolly covering, and alludes to the rust-coloured hairs that cover the young growth, the underside of the leaves, buds and tendrils.

The name Chithibhunga derives from ukuchitha, to destroy, and ukubhunga, to plot or plan, meaning to overcome malevolent forces aimed at the user.

R. tomentosa fruits are eaten by birds and mammals and leaves are browsed by game. The fruits are said to be particularly popular with Knysna turaco (Tauraco corythaix) and Purple-crested turaco (Tauraco porphyreolophus). Swollen tubers, although toxic, are eaten by bush pigs and porcupines. Silver-striped Hawkmoth caterpillar (Hippotion celerio) have been recorded eating the leaves of R. tomentosa and R. tridentata.

Uses and cultural aspects
The fruits are grape-like in appearance and edible, according to the naturist Swynnerton, ‘not up to much’. When boiled with plenty of sugar they are said to make a delicious conserve and an excellent jelly. Split branches have been used as a rope tying thatch and also in basket-making. The roots boiled with milk are given calves to expel intestinal worms.

Other people used it as a ritual wash and as an emetic for good luck and protection against the witchcraft and evil spirits. It is also used as a steam treatment to ensure good fortune. A small piece is held in the mouth for protection at times of vulnerability such as during court cases.

Growing Rhoicissus tomentosa

Rhoicissus tomentosa is easy grow and has ornamental foliage, both in shape and colour, giving interest throughout the year. It is easy to grow from seed and cuttings taken in spring or summer. Plant rooted cuttings or sturdy seedlings in a shady spot below shrubs or trees where it can ramble. It can be used to cover a wall but will need a trellis of some sort so the tendrils will have something on which to cling. It is also attractive over a pergola or fence. It can be grown indoors – being a forest dweller it can adjust to low light. Water regularly until well established and use mulch and compost to retain moisture and ensure strong, healthy growth.

For further reading look

Coates Palgrave, M. 2002 (third edition). Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of Southern Africa. Struik Nature, Cape Town

Dold, T., Cocks, M. 2012. Voices from the Forest, Celebrating Nature and Culture in Xhosaland. Jacana Media, Sunnyside, Auckland Park, South Africa.

Van Wyk, B., van Wyk, P. 2011. Field Guide to Trees of South Africa. Struik Nature, Cape Town

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Surreal 360 million year old spiky armoured fishes reconstructed for the first time

Africanaspis is a genus of armour plated (placoderm) fish, only known from the Late Devonian (360 million year old) Waterloo Farm lagerst├Ątten of South Africa.  It was first named, in 1997, on the basis of isolated plates representing only three of the trunk armour plates, of a single species (Africanaspis doryssa).

Ongoing excavation of shale rescued from Waterloo Farm, by Dr Rob Gess, who found the original material, has since then produced far more complete material. In a paper published in PLOS One on 5th April 2017, by Dr Rob Gess of the Albany Museum and Rhodes University and Professor Kate Trinajstic of Curtin University, reconstructions of the entire head and body armour of this extraordinary fish are revealed. Incredibly though that’s not where it ends – in several specimens there are also compressions preserved of the unarmoured tails that protruded behind the armoured body. This soft unarmoured portion of the body is completely unknown in the vast majority of armour plated fish.

The authors furthermore reveal that a second, more robust species which they named Africanaspis edmountaini  also inhabited the Waterloo Farm lagerst├Ątten lagoon.
Specimens represent fish of a range of sizes. Although adult Africanaspis doryssa were between 20 and 30 centimetres long, one minute specimen was less than 3 centimetres long. Its large eyes suggest that it was newly hatched or born. This range of sizes indicate that Africanaspis  spent its entire life around the coastal lagoonal lake that is represented at Waterloo Farm. This differs from the lifestyle of coelacanths previously described from the same site, which are only known from juveniles, indicating that they used the ancient estuary exclusively as a breeding nursery.

Link to paper online: