Cover Image
close this bookTraditional Food Plants of Kenya (National Museum of Kenya, 1999, 288 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentLocal names
View the documentColour plates
close this folderSpecies accounts
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcacia drepanolobium Sjöstedt
View the documentAcacia hockii De Wild.
View the documentAcacia nilotica (L.) Del.
View the documentAcacia senegal (L.) Willd.
View the documentAcacia seyal Del.
View the documentAcacia tortilis (Forssk.) Hayne
View the documentAcokanthera schimperi (A. DC.) Schweinf.
View the documentAdansonia digitata L.
View the documentAerva lanata (L.) Schultes
View the documentAlbizia amara (Roxb.) Boivin
View the documentAmaranthus blitum L.*
View the documentAmaranthus dubius Mart. ex Thell.*
View the documentAmaranthus graecizans L.
View the documentAmaranthus hybridus L.*
View the documentAmaranthus sparganiocephalus Thell.
View the documentAmaranthus spinosus L.*
View the documentAnnona senegalensis Pers. ssp. senegalensis
View the documentAntidesma venosum Tul.
View the documentAsystasia gangetica (L.) T. Anders.
View the documentAsystasia mysorensis (Roth) T. Anders.
View the documentAzanza garckeana (F. Hoffm.) Exell & Hillcoat
View the documentBalanites aegyptiaca (L.) Del.
View the documentBalanites pedicellaris Mildbr. & Schlecht.
View the documentBalanites rotundifolia (Van Tiegh.) Blatter
View the documentBasella alba L.
View the documentBerchemia discolor (Klotzsch) Hemsley
View the documentBorassus aethiopum Mart.
View the documentBoscia coriacea Pax
View the documentBoswellia neglecta S. Moore
View the documentBrassica carinata A. Br.
View the documentBridelia taitensis Vatke & Pax
View the documentCajanus cajan (L.) Millsp.
View the documentCanthium glaucum Hiern
View the documentCanthium lactescens Hiern
View the documentCarissa edulis (Forssk.) Vahl
View the documentCatha edulis Forssk.
View the documentCitrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Mansf.
View the documentCleome gynandra L.
View the documentCoccinia grandis (L.) Voigt
View the documentCoffea arabica L.
View the documentCommelina africana L.
View the documentCommelina benghalensis L.
View the documentCommelina forskaolii Vahl
View the documentCommiphora africana (A. Rich.) Engl.
View the documentCommiphora rostrata Engl.
View the documentCommiphora schimperi (O. Berg) Engl.
View the documentCorchorus olitorius L.
View the documentCorchorus trilocularis L.
View the documentCordia monoica Roxb.
View the documentCordia sinensis Lam.
View the documentCrotalaria brevidens Benth.
View the documentCrotalaria ochroleuca G. Don
View the documentCucumis dipsaceus Spach
View the documentCyperus blysmoides C. B. Cl.
View the documentCyphia glandulifera A. Rich.
View the documentDactyloctenium aegyptium (L.) Willd.
View the documentDactyloctenium giganteum Fischer & Schweick.
View the documentDialium holtzii Harms
View the documentDialium orientale Bak. f.
View the documentDigera muricata (L.) Mart.
View the documentDioscorea bulbifera L.
View the documentDioscorea dumetorum (Kunth) Pax
View the documentDioscorea minutiflora Engl.
View the documentDiospyros mespiliformis A. DC.
View the documentDobera glabra (Forssk.) Poir.
View the documentDovyalis abyssinica (A. Rich.) Warb.
View the documentDovyalis macrocalyx (Oliver) Warb.
View the documentEleusine coracana Gaertn.
View the documentEragrostis tef (Zucc.) Trotter
View the documentEriosema shirense Bak. f.
View the documentErucastrum arabicum Fisch. & Meyer
View the documentEuclea divinorum Hiern
View the documentFicus sycomorus L.
View the documentFicus thonningii Bl.
View the documentFlacourtia indica (Burm. f.) Merr.
View the documentFlueggea virosa (Willd.) J. Voigt
View the documentGarcinia livingstonei T. Anderson
View the documentGrewia bicolor Juss.
View the documentGrewia tembensis Fres.
View the documentGrewia tenax (Forssk.) Fiori
View the documentGrewia villosa Willd.
View the documentHoslundia opposita Vahl
View the documentHydnora abyssinica Schweinf.
View the documentHyphaene compressa H. Wendl.
View the documentHyphaene coriacea Gaertner
View the documentIpomoea aquatica Forssk.
View the documentIpomoea lapathifolia Hall. f.
View the documentIpomoea longituba Hall. f.
View the documentIpomoea mombassana Vatke
View the documentIpomoea oenotherae (Vatke) Hall. f.
View the documentKedrostis pseudogijef (Gilg) C. Jeffrey
View the documentKigelia pinnata (Jacq.) DC.
View the documentLablab purpureus (L.) Sweet
View the documentLagenaria siceraria (Molina) Standley
View the documentLandolphia buchananii Stapf
View the documentLandolphia kirkii Dyer
View the documentLannea alata (Engl.) Engl.
View the documentLannea edulis (Sond.) Engl.
View the documentLannea rivae (Chiov.) Sacleux
View the documentLannea schimperi (A. Rich.) Engl.
View the documentLannea triphylla (A. Rich.) Engl.
View the documentLantana trifolia L.
View the documentLaunaea cornuta (Oliv. & Hiern) Jeffr.
View the documentLeptadenia hastata (Pers.) Decne.
View the documentLippia carviodora Meikle
View the documentLippia kituiensis Vatke
View the documentMaerua decumbens (Brongn.) De Wolf
View the documentManilkara mochisia (Baker) Dubard
View the documentManilkara sansibarensis (Engl.) Dubard
View the documentManilkara sulcata (Engl.) Dubard
View the documentMeyna tetraphylla (Hiern) Robyns
View the documentMimusops fruticosa Bojer
View the documentMimusops kummel A. DC.
View the documentMomordica rostrata A. Zimm.
View the documentMondia whitei (Hook. f.) Skeels
View the documentMoringa oleifera Lam.
View the documentMyrianthus holstii Engl.
View the documentNymphaea nouchali Burm. f. var. caerulea (Savigny) Verdc.
View the documentOxygonum sinuatum (Meisn.) Dammer
View the documentPachystigma schumannianum (Robyns) Bridson & Verdc.
View the documentPappea capensis Eckl. & Zeyh.
View the documentParinari curatellifolia Planch. ex Benth.
View the documentPennisetum glaucum (L.) R. Br.
View the documentPhoenix reclinata Jacq.
View the documentPiliostigma thonningii (Schum.) Milne-Redh.
View the documentPortulaca oleracea L.
View the documentRhus natalensis Krauss
View the documentRhus tenuinervis Engl.
View the documentRhus vulgaris Meikle
View the documentRubus apetalus Poir.
View the documentRubus pinnatus Willd.
View the documentRubus volkensii Engl.
View the documentRumex usambarensis (Damm.) Damm.
View the documentSaba comorensis (Bojer) Pichon
View the documentSalacia madagascariensis (Lam.) DC.
View the documentSalvadora persica L.
View the documentSclerocarya birrea (A. Rich.) Hochst.
View the documentScutia myrtina (Burm. f.) Kurz
View the documentSesamum calycinum Welw.
View the documentSesamum orientale L.
View the documentSolanum nigrum L.
View the documentSorghum bicolor (L.) Moench
View the documentSorindeia madagascariensis DC.
View the documentStathmostelma propinquum (N. E. Br) Schltr.
View the documentStrychnos henningsii Gilg
View the documentStrychnos madagascariensis Poir.
View the documentStrychnos spinosa Lam.
View the documentSyzygium cordatum Krauss
View the documentSyzygium guineense (Willd.) DC.
View the documentTamarindus indica L.
View the documentThylachium thomasii Gilg
View the documentTylosema fassoglense (Schweinf.) Torre and Hillc.
View the documentUrtica massaica Mildbr.
View the documentUvaria acuminata Oliv.
View the documentUvaria scheffleri Diels.
View the documentVangueria apiculata K. Schum.
View the documentVangueria infausta Burch. ssp. rotundata (Robyns) Verdc.
View the documentVangueria madagascariensis Gmel.
View the documentVangueria volkensii K. Schum. var. volkensii
View the documentVatovaea pseudolablab (Harms) J. B. Gillett
View the documentVernonia cinerea Less.
View the documentVigna friesiorum Harms var. angustifolia Verdc.
View the documentVigna membranacea A. Rich.
View the documentVigna subterranea (L.) Verdc.
View the documentVigna unguiculata (L.) Walp.
View the documentVitex doniana Sweet
View the documentVitex ferruginea Schum. & Thonn.
View the documentVitex mombassae Vatke
View the documentVitex payos (Lour.) Merr.
View the documentXimenia americana L
View the documentZanthoxylum chalybeum Engl. var. chalybeum
View the documentZiziphus abyssinica A. Rich.
View the documentZiziphus mauritiana Lam.
View the documentZiziphus mucronata Willd.
View the documentTermitomyces-mushrooms (edible fungi)
View the documentAppendix: Nutritional composition of edible parts of plants
View the documentGlossary
View the documentBibliography
View the documentList of families and species
View the documentBack Cover



Botanical and ecological diversity in Kenya

Plants are essential for human existence. They are the direct source of the world's staple foodstuffs in the form of their seeds, fruits, leaves and tubers, for example, or as less important products such as edible gums. Other species provide products or services that people depend on directly or indirectly, e.g. medicine, fodder for livestock, fibre, materials for construction, shade-the list is a long one!

Ecologically, there is a great deal of variation within Kenya which has extremes of environments (see Map 3). Land rises from the coastal zone and the lowlands of the north and north-east-where day temperatures exceed 40°C - to the cool highlands and mountain tops in the centre of the country, including Mt Kenya with a summit at 5,199 m, which is permanently snow covered. This great altitudinal range significantly influences rainfall and temperatures in various areas of the country, which in turn dictate the dominant vegetation types. Precipitation ranges from 150 mm annually in the dry low-lying deserts of the north and north-east to over 2,500 mm on the slopes of Mt Kenya. Likewise, vegetation ranges from almost bare rock and sand dunes in the deserts through Acacia-Commiphora bushland to grassland with scattered trees, dry highland forests, tropical rain forests and to alpine vegetation. This wide ecological range has resulted in a rich flora of about 7,100 distinct plant species and several thousand subspecies and varieties. Some of these species have a wide, almost world-wide distribution (e.g. some weedy species such as Amaranthus spp.), while others, or their subspecies or varieties, may have a more limited distribution. Some, for example Bridelia taitensis, are only found within the country (that is, they are endemic to Kenya), and others occur in even more restricted areas; for example the yet-to-be-described Salacia sp. = ndendela, Thui Hill, has only been reported from a single hill that covers an area of less than 4 hectares.

Ethnic diversity

The population of Kenya is also characterized by high diversity. Kenya is a meeting point of three major groups of people: Bantu, Nilotic and Cushitic speakers, each with a diversity of ethnic groups (see Map 1 and Table 1). Altogether, there are over 55 distinct languages and several hundred dialects. Some of these ethnic groups, such as the Kikuyu and Luo, comprise many millions of people, but others, like the Suba and El Molo, are small and their languages are on the verge of extinction. These original inhabitants of Kenya were later joined by people from other continents, e.g. the Arabian peninsular, India and Europe, thus further diversifying the linguistic and cultural situation. With the passage of time, and through observation and trial and error, a wealth of knowledge and experience about the environment, its resources and how best to exploit them was accumulated-for example, knowledge about the uses of plants as food, medicine and as poisons. This deep-rooted indigenous knowledge is necessary for the survival and well-being of a community in its environment. The Mijikenda, for example, use over 80 local species of plants as leafy vegetables, while the Turkana exploit over 140 species of edible plants obtained from their arid environment.

Historical and cultural change

The last century has brought more change for the people of Kenya than perhaps any other before. Western culture and modern science and technology are encroaching on traditional practices and eroding local knowledge. Modern times have brought new food habits and even several new crops. The plants from which traditional foods were obtained are now suffering a double tragedy: genetic erosion and loss of traditional knowledge on how to grow and use them. Many traditional cultivars, which evolved with the cultures concerned as they were consciously selected to meet specific cultural roles, have disappeared within the lifespan of the present generation. In many areas, even outside towns and cities, diets are based on fewer and fewer plant species: one in particular-maize-is becoming an increasingly dominant and widespread staple to the detriment of the health of families and national food security. This, coupled with low incomes and a misguided preference for expensive exotic foods, has contributed significantly to poverty in the country. Traditional farming systems, which are associated with specific traditional crops, varieties and technologies, are being abandoned, also resulting in increasingly monotonous diets and the loss of food-plant resources and indigenous knowledge about them. Specialized habitats such as indigenous forests and wetlands are being destroyed, similarly endangering specific forms and varieties of plants and sometimes resulting in the loss of entire species.

The role of food from the wild

Food from the wide range of traditional food plants makes supplemental, seasonal and emergency contributions to household food supplies.

Supplements to the staple food add flavour, which enhances the appetite. Some foods increase the absorption of vitamins, e.g. gum arabic (from Acacia senegal), and may help maintain the normal intestinal flora.

Table 1. Linguistic classification of the communities of Kenya

Many traditional plant foods are characteristically energy rich and play a crucial nutritional role during hunger periods. They may be equally important during periods when people have less time for food preparation, such as during peak agricultural seasons, or in arid regions where seasonal food-supply fluctuations are particularly acute. Commelina spp., for example, are strategically available at the beginning of the rainy season before other species can be harvested.

Perhaps the most common use of food from the wild is as snacks. Traditionally, people ate fruit between meals while herding cattle or working in the fields. Snack foods are especially important for children since they need to eat more frequently than adults. In addition, these wild fruit may supply micronutrients that are very important for the healthy growth of children but may be deficient in the bulky cereal-based diet in the home. Grewia spp., for example, are a major nutritional resource for pastoralists in dry zones.

Leafy vegetables collected from the wild play an important role in traditional diets in rural areas. In some cultures such as the Luhya, Kisii, Luo and Mijikenda, traditional indigenous vegetables are a common food in the diet. While some may be collected from the wild, a sizeable number have now been cultivated, including Cleome gynandra, and Crotalaria, Solarium, and Amaranthus species.

Nutritional value of traditional food plants

If hunger periods lead to actual starvation, or if other calamities such as war cause emergencies, a range of food plants, although sometimes requiring complex preparation to avoid toxicity, can provide a life-saving buffer, as is the case with Balanites pedicellaris and Boscia coriacea among the Turkana of north-western Kenya.

Although malnutrition and famine did also occur in the past, the nutritional benefits that resulted from the consumption of a wide variety of plants in the olden days were undoubtedly great and have been lost in modern times. If these traditional food plants could be promoted through extension work, better nutrition and better health could be achieved (see Appendix 1).

Nutritional problems in Kenya

The main nutritional problems that occur currently in Kenya can be summarized as follows:

Low energy and protein intake

People do not eat enough food of all kinds. In many areas food shortages are seasonal, being most severe at the end of the dry season and at the beginning of the rains. In addition, eating habits are changing-tea, for example, is replacing the more nutritious millet porridge for breakfast among many communities, a habit that is particularly detrimental for children's nutrition.

A number of traditionally used wild plants are good sources of unsaturated fats which, even in small quantities, can play a vital role in increasing the energy content of staple foods while making them more palatable and less bulky for children to eat.

Lack of variety in the diet

A varied diet is likely to be a well-balanced one. More important, the use of different foods, even in small quantities (snack foods), improves the flavour of the staple food and thus tends to increase overall consumption of the staple. Dietary deficiencies and food insecurity are strongly related to the decreasing diversity of traditional diets.


Vitamins are essential for the body's metabolic processes to take place normally.

Lack of Vitamin A: Vitamin A deficiency can lead to dry-eye disease (xerophthalmia), night-blindness and eventually complete blindness. Children who are deficient in vitamin A are more likely than healthy children to die from infectious diseases. Yellow fruits and green vegetables, as well as dark green leaves, are good sources of this vitamin. Fats, protein and zinc help the body to absorb and use vitamin A, thus a diet low in these nutrients can contribute to vitamin A deficiency. Nuts and oil seeds, in addition to fruit and vegetables, help to meet this nutritional shortfall.

Low levels of riboflavin (Vitamin B): Riboflavin deficiency is responsible for eye and skin disorders. Many wild foods, especially leaves, are good sources of this vitamin, and wild leafy vegetables have sometimes been found to have significantly higher riboflavin levels than cultivated varieties.

Other vitamins: Several other vitamins are essential for a healthy body. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is readily obtainable from fruits and fresh vegetables. Fruits such as baobab (Adansonia digitata) and morula (Sclerocarya birrea) are exceptionally rich in the vitamin. Vitamin E is abundant in vegetables such as purslane (Portulaca oleracea).

Iron and iodine deficiency

Iron is essential for the manufacture of haemoglobin, the red pigment in the blood. Low levels of iron lead to anaemia which is a major health problem in many parts of eastern Africa, particularly for women. Many traditional foods, especially dark green leaves, are good sources of iron.

In some areas of Kenya, the soils are deficient in iodine and therefore the diet is also deficient in this mineral. Iodine deficiency causes goitre and mental retardation in children. This deficiency can be prevented by importation of foodstuffs grown in other areas where there is no iodine deficiency and by use of iodized salt.

Table 2. Marketed species


Common name

Areas commonly sold

Leafy vegetables

Adansonia digitata


Kitui, Coast

Amaranthus hybridus



Amaranthus dubius



Amaranthus lividus


Kisii, Kericho, Nyanza, Western, central Rift Valley

Amaranthus spinosus

spiny amaranth

Nyanza, countrywide

Asystasia mysorensis

Nairobi, West Pokot, Western, Nyanza

Asystasia gangetica

Nyanza, Western

Basella alba

vine spinach

Nairobi, Coast, Western, Nyanza, central Rift Valley

Brassica carinata


Nyanza, Western

Cleome (Gynandropsis) gynandra

spider herb

Kisii, Nyanza, Western, Coast, Central and northern Rift Valley, Nairobi

Corchorus trilocularis

Nairobi, Coast, Western, Nyanza, central Rift Valley

Corchorus olitorius


Nairobi, Coast, Western, central Rift Valley, Nyanza

Crotalaria ochroleuca

Nairobi, Western, Nyanza, central Rift Valley

Crotalaria brevidens

Nairobi, Western, Nyanza, central Rift Valley

Digera muricata

northern Rift Valley, Coast

Ipomoea aquatica

Coast, Malindi

Kedrostis pseudogijef


Launaea cornuta

Western, Nyanza, Coast

Sesamum calycinum


Nyanza, Western

Solanum nigrum

black nightshade

Nairobi, Nyanza, Western, Coast, central Rift Valley, countrywide

Vigna unguiculata




Citrullus lanatus

water melon

large towns countrywide

Coccinia grandis

ivy gourd

northern Rift Valley, other parts of the world

Cucumis metuliferus

spiny cucumber


Lagenaria siceraria


Nyanza, Central Rift Valley, Eastern, Coast

Cucurbita maxima



Cucumis ficifolia




Zanthoxylum chalybeum


northern Rift Valley

Lippia carviodora


northern Rift Valley

Tamarindus indica


Nairobi, Eastern, Coast, Western, Nyanza


Acacia Senegal

gum arabic

Maralal, Isiolo, northern Kenya

Acacia seyal

Nairobi, Maralal, Isiolo, northern Kenya, exported

Boswellia neglecta


northern Kenya

Pulses/other seeds

Cajanus cajan



Lablab purpureus

lablab bean

Nairobi, Central, Eastern, countrywide

Sesamum orientale


Nairobi, Coast, Western Nyanza, Central Rift Valley

Vigna subterranea

Bambara groundnut

Nairobi, Western, Nyanza, Coast

Vigna unguiculata




Eleusine coracana

finger millet


Eragrastis tef


Nairobi, northern Kenya

Pennisetum glaucum

pearl millet

Eastern, Nairobi, Coast

Sorghum bicolor




Acacia tortilis

northern Rift Valley

Adansonia digitata


Coast, Eastern

Annona senegalensis

wild custard apple


Azanza garckeana

Embu, Tharaka, Kitui

Balanites pedicellaris

northern Rift Valley, Lodwar

Berchemia discolor

northern Rift Valley, Eastern

Borassus aethiopum

African fan palm


Boscia coriacea

northern Rift Valley

Carissa edulis

Nairobi, central and northern Rift Valley

Citrullus lanatus

Nairobi, northern Rift Valley

Coccinia trilobata


Cordia sinensis

Lodwar, northern Rift Valley

Dialium holtzii


Dialium orientale

Malindi, Coast

Flacourtia indica

Indian plum

Kapenguria, Chepararia, northern Rift Valley

Hyphaene compressa

doum palm

Lodwar, northern Rift Valley

Lagenaria siceraria



Landolphia kirkii

rubber vine


Landolphia petersiana


Lannea alata

Eastern, North Eastern

Manilkara sansibarensis


Manilkara sulcata


Myrianthus holstii

giant yellow mulberry


Physalis peruviana*

Cape gooseberry

Nairobi, Western, Nyanza

Salacia madagascariensis


Sclerocarya birrea


northern Rift Valley, Eastern

Syzygium cumini*


Syzygium guineense

water berry

northern Rift Valley

Tamarindus indica



Vangueria infausta


central and northern Rift Valley, Eastern

Vangueria madagascariensis



Vitex payos

black plum

Embu, Kitui, Kilifi

Ximenia americana

tallow nut

Eastern, northern Rift Valley

Ziziphus mauritiana

Coast, northern Rift Valley


Colocasia esculenta*

coco yam

Nairobi, Central, Eastern, countrywide

Dioscorea bulbifera


Dioscorea minutiflora

Nairobi, Embu, Meru, Central

Mondia whitei



Catha edulis


Most towns, exported


Termitomyces spp.

edible fungi

Nyanza, Western, central Rift Valley

Elaeis guineensis

Guinea oil palm

commercial centres

Kigelia pinnata (K. africana)

sausage tree

Eastern, southern Rift Valley

The species listed in Table 2 have either been seen in markets or arc reported to be sold either in the raw or processed form. Most of the species are marketed in specific areas and seasons. The buyers may also be a specific group of people.

* Exotic species


1. Many important food plant species are normally protected in their wild state but only a few are widely cultivated.

2. This list excludes those species sold for medicinal and other purposes.

3. Nyanza, Western, Coast, Eastern, North Eastern, Nairobi, Rift Valley and Central refer to Kenyan administrative Provinces.

Economic considerations

Easy access

Many traditional food plants grow wild. Therefore, where they are accessible, they can be collected freely and are thus available to everyone, including the poor. But these traditional vegetables may also conveniently be grown within the homestead in kitchen or homegardens. This is a common practice among the Kisii, Luhya and Mijikenda.

Contributions to household economy

Other traditional food plants are commercial in the sense that they are collected and sold, and yet others are cultivated either for household use or for sale. Many species, especially leafy vegetables, contribute to income generation, and such sources are often important for women and children in poor rural areas (Table 2).

Plant domestication

All wild species treated in this book are occasionally consciously protected by the communities in areas where they occur and therefore are often spared when vegetation is being cleared. A few may also be managed in their natural habitat (e.g. by pruning), while in other species seeds, saplings, cuttings or other parts of the plant are collected for propagation in fields or homegardens. Selection of tree species for domestication or management is based on their overall usefulness (e.g. as a shade tree), availability of propagating material and convenience of growing it.

Table 3. Wild food plants rated highly for domestication

Alcoholic beverage

Parinari curatellifolia

Kedrostis pseudogijef*

Borassus aethiopum

Rubus volkensii

Leptadenia hastata

Cordia sinensis

Saba comorensis

Portulaca oleracea

Sclerocarya birrea

Sclerocarya birrea

Sesamum calycinum*

Tamarindus indica*

Sorindeia madagascariensis

Solanum nigrum*

Strychnos innocua

Solanum scabrum*

Fermentation media

Strychnos madascariensis

Solanum villosum*

Aloe spp.

Strychnos spinosa

Vatovaea pseudolablab*

Kigelia pinnata (K. africana)

Syzygium guineense

Vernonia amygdalina*


Tamarindus indica*

Vernonia cinerea

Annona senegalensis

Uvaria scheffleri

Vigna membranacea

Azanza garckeana

Vangueria infausta

Nuts and roasted seeds

Balanites rotundifolia

Vangueria madagascariensis

Cordeauxia edulis*

Berchemia discolor

Vitex doniana

Sclerocarya birrea

Borassus aethiopum

Vitex payos

Carissa edulis

Ximenia americana

Pulses (legumes)

Coccinia grandis

Zanthoxylum chalybeum

Vatovaea pseudolablab

Cordia sinensis

Ziziphus mauritiana

Roots and tubers

Cucumis metuliferus

Leafy vegetables

Eriosema shirense

Diospyros mespiliformis

Amaranthus dubius*

Ipomoea lapathifolia

Dobera glabra

Amaranthus hybridus*

Stathmostelma propinquum

Flacourtia indica

Amaranthus blitum (A. lividus)*

Spices, flavourings and tea substitutes

Basella alba*

Lippia carviodora

Garcinia livingstonei

Cleome (Gynandropsis) gynandra*

Ocimum gratissimum

Kedrostis pseudogijef*

Corchorus olitorius*

Zanthoxylum chalybeum

Landolphia buchananii

Corchorus trilocularis*

Landolphia kirkii

Crotalaria brevidens*


Lannea alata

Crotalaria ochroleuca*

Catha edulis

Momordica rostrata

Myrianthus holstii

Digera muricata var. patentipilosa


Pappea capensis

Ipomoea aquatica

Mondia whitei

* = semi-domesticated: this group includes plants whose food resources are picked from the wild but which are also often planted on a small scale in cropland and near the homestead.

Considering the vast number of potentially edible plants that occur in the wild, many of them yet to be discovered, there is considerable scope for domestication and breeding of new crops (Table 3). Introduced crops often require reliable rainfall and large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers to perform well. Indigenous plants exist in a better balance with other components of the ecosystem, and can produce without expensive inputs.

Few of the plants described in this book are currently cultivated and little or no consideration has so far been given to their genetic improvement. Therefore the vast potential of the genetic resource represented by traditional food plants has barely begun to be exploited.

Cultivated species

Out of some 3,000 different plant species that have been commercialized (1% of the total number of plant species in the world) only 20 are consumed on a large scale. In fact, as much as 80% of world human energy intake comes from only 15 species of plants and animals. These 15 main foods are, however, not always the most nutritious. As already pointed out, this concentration on a few species has resulted in a vast number of potential food-plant species being neglected, genetic erosion and loss of associated indigenous knowledge.

The few crops that are now dominant were domesticated long ago, most in just a few regions in the world, e.g. the Middle East, the Ethiopian highlands, South East Asia and the highlands of South America (Table 4).

The promotion of traditional food plants

Traditional food plants, both domesticated and non-domesticated, have been neglected throughout the world. Kenya is no exception. Instead of concentrating on commercial food crops, extension efforts should now be aimed at maintaining, popularizing and improving the accessibility of a wide range of species as this can do much to improve nutrition and food security. A rich flora providing a variety of snack foods located near or in school compounds, for example, would improve the health of school children.

Even as individual citizens we have a responsibility to maintain the maximum possible diversity in our food plants and use them for everyone's well-being. To achieve this we need to:

· Make sure we and our families eat more traditional foods;

· Discard the false and unwarranted notion that traditional foods are inferior;

· Take the initiative to grow those species that we can grow ourselves and to manage others in the wild while preserving their habitats and ecosystems, even in our own back yards;

· Promote and keep alive indigenous knowledge about edible plants, methods of preparation, local names, etc., pass this knowledge on to our children and, where possible, document it;

· Identify rare and endangered cultivars or varieties and liaise with the National Gene Bank at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) for long-term conservation.

Notes on the use of this book

Distribution maps

The maps in the Species Accounts section indicate localities where specimens of each plant were collected and stored by the East African Herbarium at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. But these maps should not be regarded as providing a complete picture of each species' distribution in Kenya as it may also occur in other areas not represented in the Herbarium collection. In the case of a crop species, the areas indicated are those where it is cultivated.

Information for future editions

The authors welcome comments, corrections and additions from readers. These contributions (to be sent to KENRIK, National Museums of Kenya, P.O. Box 40658, Nairobi) should be accompanied by details of localities and person(s) supplying the information, and will be acknowledged appropriately.

A note for genetic and information prospectors

The information and knowledge about the plants in this book, and the methods by which they are used traditionally, belong to the communities concerned. Any proposed commercialization of this intellectual property, and the associated genetic resources, should be initiated in good faith, with acknowledgement to and the full participation and knowledge of the relevant peoples.

Table 4. Commonly used cultivated food species and their origins


Common name

Probable origin

Abelmoschus esculentus*

Okra, lady's fingers

Tropics of Old World, eastern Africa

Allium ampeloprasum


North Africa, Eurasia

Allium cepa


Mediterranean region

Allium sativum



Amaranthus blitum (A. lividus)*


Southern Europe, northern tropical Africa

Amaranthus cruentus**


Tropical America

Amaranthus dubius**


Tropical America

Amaranthus hybridus**


Central America

Anacardium occidentale**

Cashew nut

South America

Ananas comosa**


Northern South America

Anethum graveolens


Western Asia

Annona cherimola

Custard apple, cherimoya

Western tropical South America

Annona squamosa

Custard apple

Tropical America

Arachis hypogaea

Groundnut, peanut


Asparagus officinalis

Garden asparagus

North Africa to southern Europe

Basella alba*

Vine spinach, Ceylon spinach

Africa, South Asia

Brassica carinata**

Kandhira, Ethiopian cabbage, texsel greens

Ethiopia, north-eastern Africa

Brassica oleracea var. acephala

Sukuma, kale

Western Europe

Brassica oleracea var. capitata


Western Europe

Brassica oleracea var. botrytis

Cauliflower, broccoli

Western Europe

Cajanus cajan

Pigeon pea

? Africa, Asia

Camellia sinensis


Southern China, South Asia

Capsicum annuum


Tropical America

Carica papaya

Pawpaw, papaya

Tropical America, West Indies

Catha edulis*

Khat, Abyssinian tea


Cinnamomum zeylanicum


Sri Lanka, South India

Citrullus lanatus

Water melon


Citrus aurantiifolia


? India

Citrus aurantium

Sour orange

S.E. Asia

Citrus limon



Citrus reticulata

Tangerine, mandarin

Far East

Citrus sinensis

Sweet orange


Citrus x paradisi


? West Indies

Cleome (Gynandropsis) gynandra*

Spider herb, cat's whiskers

Tropical Africa and Asia

Coccinia grandis*

Ivy gourd

Tropics of the Old World

Cocos nucifera**


South Asia

Coffea arabica*


Ethiopia, northern Kenya

Colocasia esculenta

Cocoyam, taro

Tropical Asia

Corchorus olitorius*

Jute, Jew's mallow

Africa, tropical Asia (India)

Corchorus tridens (C. trilocularis)*



Cordeauxia edulis

Yeheb, yeheb nut

Somalia, eastern Ethiopia

Coriandrum sativum


West Mediterranean

Crotalaria brevidens*


Tropical Africa

Crotalaria ochroleuca*


Tropical Africa

Cucumis melo

Sweet melon

? West Africa

Cucumis metuliferus*

Spiny cucumber, horned melon)


Cucumis sativus


Himalayas, western China

Cucurbita ficifolia

Malabar gourd

Central America, Mexico

Cucurbita maxima


South America

Cucurbita moschata


Tropical America

Cymbopogon citratus

Lemon grass

South India, Sri Lanka

Cyphomandra crassicaulis

Tree tomato

South America

Daucus carota


Mediterranean region

Dioscorea bulbifera

Aerial yam, air potato

Africa, Asia

Dioscorea minutiflora

Kikuyu yam


Dovyalis caffra

Kei apple

Southern Africa

Elaeis guineensis*

Oil palm, Guinea oil palm

West to East Africa

Eleusine coracana

Finger millet

N.E. Africa

Ensete ventricosum*

False banana

N.E. and East Africa

Eragrostis tef



Eriobotrya japonica**


China, Japan

Foeniculum vulgare


Mediterranean region

Fragaria spp.




Common name

Probable origin

Hordeum vulgare


N.E. Africa to southern Europe

Ipomoea aquatica*

Water spinach

Tropics of the Old World

Ipomoea batatas

Sweet potato

Central America

Kedrostis pseudogijef*


East Africa

Lablab purpureus*

Hyacinth bean

Tropical Africa

Lagenaria siceraria

Gourd, calabash gourd


Lantana camara**

Curse of India

Tropical America

Lycopersicon esculentum


The Andes

Macadamia integrifolia

Macadamia nut

Australia (Queensland)

Mangifera indica**


India, southern Asia

Manihot esculenta

Cassava, manioc, tapioca


Momordica charantia

Balsam pear, bitter cucumber

? Tropical Africa, ? Tropical Asia

Moringa oleifera

Ben tree, horseradish tree

N.W. India

Morus alba

White mulberry


Morus nigra

Black mulberry

Western Asia

Musa spp.


Tropical Asia

Musa x paradisiaca


Tropical Asia

Ocimum basilicum

Basil, sweet basil


Opuntia ficus-indica**

Prickly pear


Oryza saliva


Tropical Asia, ? Africa

Passiflora edulis

Passion fruit, purple granadilla

South America

Passiflora mollissima**

Banana passion fruit

Tropical America

Pennisetum glaucum

Pearl millet, bulrush millet

The Sahel

Persea americana

Avocado pear

Tropical America

Petroselinum crispum

Parsley, garden parsley

Europe, western Asia

Phaseolus aureus

Green gram


Phaseolus coccineus

Scarlet runner bean

Central America

Phaseolus vulgaris

Kidney bean, French bean

Tropical America

Phoenix dactylifera

Date palm

North Africa, western Asia

Physalis mimina**

Tropical America

Physalis peruviana**

Cape gooseberry

Tropical South America

Pisum sativum

Garden pea

East Mediterranean to Iran

Portulaca oleracea*


Africa, Europe, Asia

Psidium guajava**


Tropical America

Punica granatum


S.E. Europe, western Asia

Rosemarinus officinalis


Mediterranean region

Rubus niveus**

Ceylon raspberry

India, western China

Saccharum officinarum


S.E. Asia

Sclerocarya birrea*

Morula plum, morula nut

Tropical Africa

Sesamum calycinum*



Sesamum orientale*

Sesame, simsim, sesamum

Africa, northern Kenya

Setaria italica

Foxtail millet, Italian millet

East Asia

Solanum macrocarpon

African egg plant

Central to West Africa

Solanum melongena

Egg plant

India, East Indies

Solanum nigrum*

Black nightshade

Tropics and sub-tropics

Solanum scabrum*

Black nightshade, sunberry, wonderberry

Tropics and sub-tropics

Solanum tuberosum

English/Irish potato, potato

Chile, western Argentina

Solarium villosum*

Wonderberry, sunberry

Old World

Sonchus oleraceus**

Sow thistle

Mediterranean region, Eurasia

Sorghum bicolor


The Sahel

Spinacia oleracea


? S.W. Asia

Syzygium aromaticum


Moluccas (S.E. Asia)

Syzygium cumini**

Java plum, jambolan

India, southern Asia

Tamarindus indica*


Tropical Africa and Asia

Triticum aestivum

Bread wheat

Middle East

Vicia faba

Broad bean

Tropics of the Old World

Vigna subterranea

Bambara groundnut

Central to West Africa

Vigna unguiculata*


Tropical Africa and Asia

Zea mays

Maize, com


Zingiber officinale


India, southern Asia

Ziziphus mauritiana*


North Africa, Asia

* = Indigenous to Kenya;
** = Introduced but now naturalized in parts of Kenya;
? = Origin uncertain or disputed

Map 2. Administrative Districts of Kenya (1998)






West Pokot












Trails Nzoia












Elgeyo Marakwet


Trans Mara










Uasin Gishu




Mt Elgon




Tana River


































Homa Bay














Taita Taveta