Indigenous potatoes in Africa – Another Lost Crop

Today I was delighted, when looking for something totally different in one of the ‘Lost Crops’ volumes published by the National Academy of Sciences, to find a chapter on native African potatoes.  Here in Burundi I have heard about ‘local potatoes’ from upcountry folk, as being a kind of ‘famine food’.  Very few are said to be left.

No one has paid attention to them, as so many indigenous crops and livestock breeds of local origin.

African Potatoes (pictures)

Solenostemon rotundifoliu PROTEA database

Here is some information from NAS:

Despite the name, the plants …are neither potatoes nor potato relatives. Nor are they related to sweet potato, yam, or cassava. They are members of the mint family. This 3,000-member family graces human existence with numerous herbs and fragrances, including lavender, mint, spearmint, rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, basil, and marjoram, but no major root crops. Indeed, Africa’s native potatoes are the only mints producing human food below ground.

The “northern” species (S. rotundifolius) is most often referred to as Hausa potato, Sudan potato, Zulu round potato, fabourama, and frafra potato. The “southern” species (P. esculentus) is most notably referred to as Livingstone potato, Madagascar potato, and scrambled eggs. The literature also treats them under a (sometimes inaccurate) mix of common names…

African locations of Solenostemon rotundifolius- Source: PROTEA

These data  elaborate what, coincidentally, I read in Livingstone’s travel diaries  last night, who in 1867 describes them as follows:

Among the vegetable products of this region [upland central Africa], that  which interested me most was a sort of potato. It does  not belong to the solanaceous, but to the  papilionaceous or pea family, and its flowers have a  delightful fragrance.

It is easily propagated by small cuttings of the root or stalk. The tuber is oblong, like  our kidney potato, and when boiled tastes exactly like  our common potato.

When unripe it has a slight  degree of bitterness, and it is believed to be  wholesome; a piece of the root eaten raw is a good  remedy in nausea.

It is met with on the uplands alone,  and seems incapable of bearing much heat, though I  kept some of the roots without earth in a box, which  was carried in the sun almost daily for six months,  without destroying their vegetative power…

Nearly 150 years ago, Dr. Livingstone was considering the possible expansion of indigenous potatoes to address problems of hunger.  Interesting to contemplate.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Colonialism, Cuisine, Explorers & exploration, Food, Health, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Indigenous potatoes in Africa – Another Lost Crop

  1. Georgia Bovenizer says:

    Hi, do you know anyone who would ship tubers to me?


  2. Malusi says:

    i know its been over 3 years now but i just wanted to find out more on the progress of the livingstone potato and possibly grow them

    Liked by 1 person

    • dianabuja says:

      Malusi – Thanks for your followup on this important, but neglected crop. I’ve seen no followup in the various agro-journals to which I link, but have been quite ill since late August – in the hosp and bed-rest. Am now returning to daily activities – a bit every day. So, an in the process of checking up on materials received over the last 4 mos – over 24,000! If you don’t hear anything in the next couple of weeks, jog my memory again! So many links to sort and articles to read! Thanks, and have joyful holidays!


  3. Pingback: INUMPU – Burundi’s Indigenous Potatoes and A Recipe | DIANABUJA'S BLOG

  4. Yokahu says:

    Were can i get seeds or tubers to propagate?



    • dianabuja says:

      Yokahu – Good question! Since this is a very lesser-known species, tubers are simply not commercially available, except perhaps in conjunction with a research station that is doing work on indigenous potatoes. Now, if you lived near us, in Burundi, we would happily supply you with some tubers. In fact, Nona just came down a few weeks ago with about 5 kg of tubers that we planted a few days ago. I will be reporting by this blog how they grow here in the lowlands, by Lake Tanganyika. Diana.


  5. Pingback: Livingstone’s Potatoes in the 21st Century « Dianabuja's Blog

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