As with many areas of the world, the edible South African plants of today are the product of both the original peoples and the waves of immigration and colonization that have occurred over time.
In South Africa, those have included the original San (or Bushmen) people, the Khoe (who arrived around 2000 years ago), the Afrikaaners, African indigenous peoples such as the Xhosa, and slaves from East Africa, India and Indonesia, each who have contributed to the rich culinary history of South Africa.
On doing my research for this site, I ran across an article absolutely raving about a tour of the culinary gardens at the Solms-Delta Wine Estate just east of Cape Town, South Africa, with special praise being given to the tour's leader, Dik Delta Culinary Gardens Supervisor Johan O'Rayn, on his knowledge of South African plants, both edible and medicinal.
I knew then that I had to interview him!
Born in Ceres, South Africa, Johan O'Rayn grew up with his grandmother, a midwife with an extensive knowledge of indigenous and native medicinal South African plants, handed down to her by her mother, whose family belonged to the Bushmen.
Johan has worked at the Solms-Delta Wine Estate since 2005, and has a true passion for culinary and medicinal South African plants. I am very happy that he has agreed to talk with us.
The idea of a “veldfood” (culinary) indigenous garden came from Renata Coetzee – author of books and TV programmes on the traditional food cultures of South Africa and one of SA’s most respected food researchers. Renata spent many years researching, in depth, the food culture of the Khoe, and is the author of the book “Koekemakranka”.
The garden was designed and established by Hein Joubert. Hein has an architectural background, a passion for plants and for preserving our natural heritage.
The culinary garden is laid out as a compass, with different avenues of plants, radiating from a central point. Hand-built stone walls, log benches and wood chip paths give texture and interest.
I have found that the visitors coming to the garden are always very interested to know how these plants can be used. They are surprised at the taste, flavour and smell of some of the plants, which are very different to anything they have experienced before.
We have in our garden some endangered species, such as oukossie (Gasteria excelsa, also called Khoekhoen rice), a succulent with an edible, sweet flower that looks similar to rice. The flowers are cooked as a vegetable in a stew.
By growing and propagating these endangered plants we are not only teaching visitors about our indigenous plants, but are also playing an important role in preserving our natural Heritage.
Renata Coetzee provided us with a list of edible South African plants for the garden, that she learnt about through her involvement with and cooking with Khoe women. These plants can be used to add flavour and interest to modern cooking.
With assistance from Alan Sonnenberg, a specialist Fynbos Botanist, many of these plants have been sourced and planted, some with greater success than others.
Fynbos refers to the Fynbos Biome, a unique collection of plant species that are found in South Africa's southwestern and southern Cape region. Otherwise known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, fynbos is one of the earth's six plant kingdoms.
While the fynbos vegetation is similar to that in the Mediterranean, it has many times more species.
The soil in this area is very poor, sandy soil. It used to be a riverbed, so it is very rocky as well. The climate is very hot, dry and windy in summer, with rain in winter.
A useful plant is the citrus boegoe (Agathosma crenulata, also called buchu). This plant has white flowers and leaves with a wonderful citrus aroma. The leaves are a natural flavour enhancer and we use them extensively in the Fyndraai kitchen. Medicinally the leaves are good for kidney and bladder infections, it is a natural diuretic and gives you a fresh breath.
The Koekemakranka (Gethyllis namaquensis, also called Kukumakranka) is a most beautiful and unusual plant. It has a fragrant solitary white and yellow flower that only blooms for two days once a year, usually the 2nd week of December. The whole plant is edible, flower, leaves and fruit. The fruit is much sought after for its fragrance.
Wild Garlic is a popular plant, it has a beautiful purple flower and is useful for flavouring food, and in salads. Medicinally it was an early Cape remedy for fever, colds, asthma and rheumatism. It is easy to grow and its strong smell repels insects and discourages moles and snakes in the garden.
Some of my favourite indigenous South African plants are: Oukossie, T’samma and Makataan.
T’samma (Citrullus lanatus, known as watermelon in the US) and makataan (Citrullus lanatus) are very popular melons.
They can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. They are an often used to make jam. The T’samma seeds can be ground to a meal and cooked as porridge.
Traditionally these melons were a crucial source of water for the San and Khoe, as they grow wild in dry areas.
Yes, I do have my own edible garden. I grow wild garlic, citrus boegoe, hoodia banni, oukossie and aroena (Quaqua mammillaris), which I experiment with in my own cooking.
I also use my garden as a nursery to propagate plants for the culinary garden, or to look after delicate plants.
Plans are underway to incorporate other pre-colonial features into the wider Fynbos Park area in which the veldfood garden is situated. We already proudly have a kraal of fat-tailed sheep, some Sanga (Afrikaner) cattle, ostriches and later we’d like to add wild tortoises and even examples of the traditional Khoe matjieshuise (reed mat houses) making it an educational experience for both adults and children alike.
In the final phase, we plan to build a visitor centre at Dik Delta, where we will sell rare plants, fynbos-derived products (such as traditional teas) and educational material on this precious aspect of our unique South African heritage.
Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me!
I would also like to thank two people without whom this interview would never have happened:
Much love to you both!
If you would like to learn more about the Solms-Delta Wine Estate, visit their restaurant, or take a tour of the Culinary Gardens, go to the Solms-Delta website.
Would you like to talk more about edible South African plants with a group of people who love culinary gardens as much as you do? Join the Tasteful Landscape community!
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