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Food from Trees: the Kei Apple

by Pat Featherstone, Soil for Life

FILED IN: Issue 17 · Soil For Life

A bountiful crop of roundish, velvety, bright yellow fruits with thick succulent flesh carpeted the ground beneath a tree in the grounds of a hospital on the Cape Flats in the Western Province this past autumn. Unusual in this part of the world, the Kei-apple tree had done itself proud, yet no humans had discovered this rich source of food on their doorsteps.

It was there for the taking by the birds and, what they did not eat, fell to the ground to ferment, attracted fruit flies and rotted down, returning nutrients to the soil.

The tree, a Kei-apple, Dovyalis caffra, is well known all over the eastern parts of the country, common in open bush and wooded grassland, and often near termite mounds. It belongs to a cosmopolitan family, the Flacourtiaceae, which are all good, fruit-bearing shrubs or trees, very often armed with vicious spines, and its name derives from the Kei River where it grows in abundance as a thick, shiny, spiny shrub up to three metres in height. The branches are armed with straight, robust spines up to 7 cm long.

Some trees may grow to nine metres with a thick crown of green foliage; these large specimens are often less spiny as the tree has put its energy into its bulk, rather than into thorn production. The tree is known by a variety of other names: Dingaan’s apricot, wild apricot, wilde-appelkoos, appelkoosdoring, um- Qokolo (Xhosa and Zulu) amongst others. Although it is indigenous to warmer areas, it will survive mild frost, and long periods of drought. It grows well in poor soils. The Kei-apple makes a worthwhile addition to your garden as it serves a multitude of purposes, not least of which as a source of food for humans and animals alike.

Fresh, ripe fruits are rich in Vitamin C and pectin and, following the example of the Pedi people who squeeze the juice onto their pap, they would make an excellent addition to a fruit salad and to muesli and yoghurt. Nature seems to know best when to give us the right foods to boost our immune systems in preparation for the onslaught of winter colds and ‘flu.

In addition, Egyptian scientists have also reportedly identified 15 different amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) in the fruit. Monkeys and baboons, antelope and birds recognise their healthgiving qualities and devour them voraciously in the wild! Most people, however, consider the fruit too acid for eating out-of-hand, even when fully ripe.

So, cut the fruits in half, remove the peel and two rings of hairy seeds. Sprinkle with sugar and leave them to sit for a few hours before serving as a dessert, or adding to a fruit salad. The fruits can be cooked, but take only a few minutes of cooking before they turn into a sauce. Thicken this with a little crème fraiche and serve it over ice cream. Kei apples are more usually made into delicious jams and jellies or, when unripe, into pickles.

Kei-apple Jam
Because of the apples’ high level of acidity, no lemon juice need be added to the jam.

• 450 g Kei apples, halved, peeled, de-seeded and thinly sliced
• 450 g white sugar
• Grated zest of one lemon (be careful not to include the bitter white pith)
• 1 teaspoon ground (or 1 large stick) cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon raisins, a bay leaf, 2 cloves – optional extras

Pack the sliced fruit into a jar, stand it in a saucepan of boiling water and let the apples stew for about 15 minutes, or until they start to become tender. Put the apples into a clean, heavy-bottomed pot, add the sugar and the grated lemon zest. Do not add the cinnamon if using ground cinnamon, because it will tend to become viscous when boiled.

Bring the mixture to a simmer, and simmer for 20 minutes, removing any scum as it rises to the surface Add the cinnamon and any of the other optional extras. Place the jam into small sterilised jars with airtight lids. It will keep for a long time in a cool, dry place.

Insignificant male and female flowers are borne on separate trees in late spring giving rise to bunches of brightly coloured fruits on the female trees which will not only create a visual feast for you in the bleakness of autumn, but will also attract a plethora of birds to the garden. Apart from their immediate appreciation of a food supply, the birds will take advantage of the thorny boughs for anchoring their nests, and for providing good protection for their young from marauding cats and other predators. Try planting a tree amongst shrubs in a mixed border designed to attract birds.

Include such plants as the Bush-tick Berry (Chrysanthemoides monilifera), Puzzle Bush (Ehretia rigida), Mickey Mouse Bush (Ochna serrulata), Dune Crowberry (Rhus crenata), Cape Honeysucle (Tecomaria capensis) and Lemon Pistol Bush (Duvernoia aconitiflora). Work out your planting plan to ensure a supply of food around the year.

In the Eastern Cape barriers around kraals and sometimes fields are often made of the thorny branches of trees like the Kei-apple and gardeners can take advantage of the ferocious barbs by planting the trees as a living fence which will ultimately create an impregnable barrier against burglars and the like. The plant has the habit of retaining its lower branches, unlike many other species, to create a good, thick hedge. No more catapulting over electric fences and razor wire. One landing in a Kei-apple tree will sort out the derriere of even the most earnest thief, and wire-cutters will make little impression on the woody boughs.

Cultivation from seed is easy. Allow the fruits to dry out, remove the seeds and sow them quickly before they lose their vitality. It is interesting to note that in spite of the fact that this tree has no showy flowers it is grown widely in other parts of Africa, Australia, the Mediterranean countries, and in England where it is cultivated for its fruit or as a hedging plant.

Trees of Southern Africa, Volumes 1 and 3 – Eve Palmer and Norah Pitman. A A Balkema/Cape Town 1972
People’s Plants. A guide to useful plants of South Africa – Ben-Erik van Wyk, Nigel Gericke. Briza Publications 2000
Food Plants of the World- Ben-Erik van Wyk. Briza Publications 200
Gardening With Indigenous Trees And Shrubs – David and Sally Johnson. Southern Book Publishers1993
The Jamlady Cookbook, Pelican Publishing Company 2004
Chef Justin Patterson of Chef-on-Call (www. chefoncall.co.za)


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  1. I came upon this site by accident and read it with pleasure. Very informative and looking foreward to reading up about some of the other trees as well.
    Field Guide KNP

    Comment by Werner

  2. What an incredible site you have. Now that I have discovered it I will be referring to it all the time. I have long wanted to know about the Kei Apple and now I have the knowledge and will definitely plant a few (keep the birds in the garden and the burglars out) Thank you for the recipe will let you know how it turns out. I buy the Biophile as often as I can and find it most informative. Keep up the good work and I will spread the word.
    Thanks again Caroline

    Comment by Caroline Jackson

  3. I’ve got Kei Apples in my garden for five years now and have enjoyed watching them grow from tiny single spikes about 70cm high to massive hedges close to 3m high. I absolutely love them! Unfortunately I seem to have chosen two of the same sex as I’ve yet to sample the delicious fruits. Is there anyway in which to distinguish male and female plants when buying them young? I am looking to buy some Kei Apple fruits - please can someone point me in the right direction?

    Comment by Minette Tonoli

  4. [...] – Dovyalis caffra. These fruits are not the most tasty straight off the tree, but a recipe for jam from the Biophile Magazine sounds like a good way to use [...]

    Pingback by A Selection of Sub Tropical fruits « Bermuda Daily Photographs

  5. Good Day !
    Bought ground on the river nile and want to plant the Keiapple Thanks for all info HAPPY GARDENING TO ALL
    Here in Uganda everything is growing just love getting my hands dirty.!!!

    Comment by Ann

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