African cabbage is of economic importance as it is among the herbs that are used as indigenous vegetables in rural areas of southern Africa. Analyses have shown that it is rich in minerals, vitamins and amino acids.
This is an erect, annual herb up to 250–600 mm tall, much branched and sometimes becoming woody with age.
The stem is sticky with glandular hairs and marked with longitudinal parallel lines.
Leaves are palmately compound (divided like fingers of a hand), with 3–5 leaflets. The leaf stalk is 20–50 mm long with glandular hairs. The leaflets radiate from the tip of the leaf stalk, are 20–100 x 8–40 mm, smooth or with glands, and taper toward the base; on the undersurface they are smooth to finely glandular, and often with scattered multicellular hairs on the main nerves.
The inflorescence is a terminal raceme, many-flowered, elongating in fruit; the bract is 3-foliolate to simple above, resembling the leaves but smaller and sessile. The flower stalk is 10–20 mm long with glandular hairs. Petals are white, sometimes fading to rose pink, 10–20 x 3–5 mm, rounded at the apex, abruptly narrowed to a basal claw.
The capsule is linear, suberect to spreading, 30–150 x 2.5–5 mm; the persistent style is 2 mm long and the fruit wall is thin-textured and glandular with hairs. The seeds are brown, circular in outline, 1.5 mm in diameter, with an obscurely netted surface. Each plant can have more than 20 seed capsules and each capsule contains more than 50 seeds.
Distribution and habitat
Cleome gynandra is a common plant occurring throughout the tropics and subtropics of Africa. In South Africa, it is found in agricultural land and near human settlements. It is less common in areas with highly humid climate and it tolerates some drought. It extends from Limpopo, North-West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, and Northern Cape to Namibia. Being semicultivated as, for instance, in the Kentani District of Eastern Cape, has probably extended its distribution. It is probably a native of Africa and now widely distributed in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. The cleome with large pink or white flowers that is cultivated in flower gardens is C. hassleriana, native to tropical America.
Cleome gynandra is pollinated by ants and flying insects. It is generally found growing in full sun or semishade in disturbed areas and around pan edges. Seeds are wind-dispersed.
Uses and cultural aspects
Only young fresh leaves are harvested for preparation as side dish. They are cooked in water with little salt and some tomatoes, and are eaten as spinach with porridge. They can also be mixed with other plants used as vegetables such as Bidens pilosa, an exotic but ubiquitous weed, and species in the Solanum nigrum complex or Amaranthus species.
They are also harvested, dried in shade and stored for use during the winter months.
The plants are sold at Thohoyandou and Sibasa towns by street vendors. Some people believe that plants referred to as "indigenous vegetables" (although some are exotics) are more nutritious and healthy than more usual vegetables. They also believe that these vegetables serve as food and medical remedy at the same time.
Growing Cleome gynandra
It grows from seed which are dispersed and germinate during the rainy season. Although it is considered an agricultural weed, most locals use it as a valuable easily grown agricultural crop. Seeds can be collected and distributed before or after tilling the soil. The plant does not require any maintenance. If not controlled, it can take over. Consequently people often remove excess plants and retain only what is sufficient.
References and further reading
- Codd, L.E. & Kers, L.E. 1970. Cleome. Flora of southern Africa 13. Botanical Research Institute, Pretoria.
- Everett, T.H. 1981. The New York Botanical Garden , vol. 3. Garland, New York & London.
- Smith, A.W. & Stearn, W.T. 1972. A gardener's dictionary of plant names. Cassel, Sydney, Toronto.
- Van Rooyen, N., Bezuidenhout, H. & De Kock, E. 2001. Flowering plants of the Kalahari dunes . Ekotrust, South Africa.
- Van Wyk, B.-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants . Briza Publications, Pretoria.