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close this bookTraditional Food Plants of Kenya (National Museum of Kenya, 1999, 288 p.)
close this folderSpecies accounts
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View the documentZanthoxylum chalybeum Engl. var. chalybeum
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Zanthoxylum chalybeum Engl. var. chalybeum


syn: Fagara chalybea (Engl.) Engl.

Borana: gadda, gda Chonyi: mdungu Digo: mdungu, mudhungu English: knobwood Gabra: gaddaa Giriama: mdungu Giriama: mdungu Ilchamus: loisuki, lousuk, lousukui Kamba: mukenea, mukanu (Kitui) Kambe: mdungu Luoi roko Maa: oloisuki, oloisugi Mbeere: mugucwa, mukenenga, muruguci Pokot: songow'o, songouwa, songoou (plural) Samburu: loisugi, loisuki Sanya: gadhayu Swahili: mjafari Teso: eusuk Tugen: kokian, kokiin (plural) Turkana: eusugu

Description: Spiny shrub or tree to 10 m with a light narrow crown, occasionally (in old trees) spreading with dangling branches. BARK: Dark grey with scaling woody, conical or ridge-like protrusions, slash yellow, with a strong smell. Young branches wickedly armed with strongly rooted spines directed backwards and arranged spirally on stem. LEAVES: Aromatic, midrib often with little spines, entire or serrated. FLOWERS: Small, yellow. FRUITS: Strongly aromatic, grey, 5-8 mm across, pitted, cover splitting into two to expose a blue-black seed.

Ecology: Grows from Ethiopia and Somalia south to Zambia and Zimbabwe. Widely distributed in Kenya, e.g. in Madunguni (Kilifi), Waita (Mwingi), Mile-46 (Kajiado), Nginyang (Baringo), and Chepareria (West Pokot) on dry rocky hillsides, bushed grassland, wooded grassland and bushland, 0-1,800 m. Soils: Coastal sands, well-drained red clay soils, often sloping. Zones IV-V.

Uses: FOOD: The strongly aromatic leaves (Kamba, Giriama, Luo) and fruits (Maasai, Turkana, Pokot, Gabra) are used for flavouring tea (+++). Bark used for making tea (Pokot, Tharaka, Mbeere) or flavouring soup (Kamba).

FOOD/MEDICINAL: Tea made from fruits (Maasai, Pokot, Turkana), leaves (Kamba, Maasai) or a bark or root decoction (Maasai, Kamba, Tugen) is used as a cure for coughs, colds, chest pain and respiratory diseases such as asthma (Kamba), sore throat and TB. Fruits have a hot taste and are chewed by women for good breath and for fever (Pokot). A fruit infusion is used as a tonic for children (Tugen).

MEDICINAL: Leaves boiled in soup (Tharaka) are used for malaria. Bark or root decoction used for malaria and fever. Smoke from burning bark is inhaled to stop fainting or headache (Pokot). Bark infusion (mixed with bark of Terminalia brownii) is applied to sores and wounds (Tharaka). Bark used for chest pain (Kamba). Infusion of leaves used for coughs in camels and cattle. Dry-fruit infusion used for sick camels or for the goat disease chepcherim or boiled with bark for plokai (rinderpest) in cattle. Cold extract of bark used for diarrhoea in camels and for general goat diseases. Fruit infusion used for anaplasmosis (Samburu).



OTHER: The young leaves, animal fat and soda ash used to be made into soap (Mbeere). Woody protrusions are broken off and may be carved into stoppers for gourds and tops for children (Mbeere). The base may be made smooth and when words are inscribed on it act as "rubber stamps" (Kamba). The protrusions may also be burned by blacksmiths to soften metal (Tharaka). The plant is used for lighting fires (Pokot). Branches are used for smoking milk gourds and as toothbrushes (Mbeere). Good fuelwood (++).

The black seeds were used as beads for decorating traditional dresses (Tharaka). Trunk said to be termite-resistant and used as posts for construction (Tharaka, Mbeere). Camel and goat fodder. Dry leaves eaten by goats.

CULTURAL/BELIEFS: Long ago used for administering blessings during ceremonies (Mbeere).

COMMERCIAL: Fruits sold throughout the year in many market centres in northern Kenya (Nginyang, Kapenguria, Chepararia, Lodwar), especially among the Pokot and Turkana. Bark is sold as medicine throughout the country.

Season: Fruits in July-August in West Pokot and in March in northern Baringo (Nginyang).

Management: Propagated by seed or root suckers. But the success rate with seed is poor because they are normally destroyed by pests long before maturity. The plant seems to propagate itself naturally by root suckers. Coppices easily.

Status: May be locally common. Generally rare in many parts due to over-exploitation for medicinal purposes.

Remarks: A related species, Z. usambarense (Engl.) Kokwaro (syn. Fagara usambarensis Engl.) (Kikuyu: muheheti (Nyeri), mugucwa, Maa: oloisugi) has similar uses to Z. chalybeum. A tree, usually 5-8 m high, with a spreading crown and drooping branches. Bark deeply fissured. Leaves are usually smaller and less scented than those of Z chalybeum. Flowers cream, fruits paired, red and resembling those of Z. chalybeum in shape and size. More common in highlands, especially in dry forest or bushed grassland, Narok, Kiambu, Kericho, Samburu. Altitude: 1,400-2,500 m. Common at about 2,000 m. Twigs used as toothbrushes but have a hot taste. There are several related species in southern Africa. Season: Flowers in June and fruits in October in Narok.

Another genus with essential oils and used in flavouring tea is Ocimum (Labiatae (Laminacae)). Ocimum species include:

· O. gratissimum L. (syn: O. suave Willd.) (Borana: anchabbi, Digo: vumba manga, Giriama: vumba manga, Kamba: mukandu, Kikuyu: mugio, Luo: olulururuecha, Maa: olemoran, Marakwet: chesimia, Samburu: lmurran, Taita: mrumbawassi, Turkana: loguru, ichoke).

· O. kilimandscharicum Guerke (Embu: makori, Kamba: wenye, Luo: bwar, Pokot: supko).

· O. basilicum L. (Kamba: mutaa).

All are used for flavouring tea. A few leaves are boiled in water and the infusion used to prepare tea. Branches of O. basilicum are also used as insect repellants. They are often used traditionally for sweeping the household to rid it of fleas and mites. It is also placed in grain stores to reduce weevil attack. Ocimum species are used a great deal in traditional medicine, especially for respiratory diseases, and in many African traditional ceremonies. Essential oils from these species are used in the perfume industry.

Another traditional beverage plant is Cymbopogon citratus (Nees) Stapf (Gramineae) (English: lemon grass, Kamba: nyeki ya kyai, Luo: majand-lum, Meru: ndagarago). This is a tufted grass with pale green leaves and a strong lemon scent. It is planted on terraces to stabilize the soil. Leaves are used for flavouring tea (Kamba, Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Giriama, Taita). The species is a native of southern India and is grown throughout the tropics as a flavouring and source of essential oil used in the perfume industry. Propagation is through the rootstock.

Zanthoxylum chalybeum

Cymbopogon citratus