Why Didn't They Tell You?


... three extraordinary African plants: yam bean, icacina, and tamarind

In my last blog on West African domesticated plants, I promised to tell you something about the plants on the list that you probably know nothing about. Instead of describing them all in one post, I will spread them out over several weeks. Sometimes I will also talk about some of the plants you may have heard of but may not know much about them. As you will see, some of these plants have extraordinary and wonderful characteristics and properties.

Below I describe three plants of African origin, with pictures of the plants. The featured image above is a Tamarind Tree taken from Lost Crops of Africa, V. III.

Yam bean

  •  “There are two yam beans: one with its origin in the Americas and the other in West Africa… the African yambean is closely related to the American version and also is grown for its fleshy swollen roots” 1
  • The African yam bean plant produces edible seeds and leaves in addition to elongated edible tubers which look more like sweet potatoes than yams.
  •  “In nutritional terms, they are a class above the mainline root crops, containing more than twice the protein of sweet potatoes, yams, or potatoes and more than ten times that of cassava. Moreover, the protein is of exceptional nutritional quality… Eating African yambean together with those major foods helps provide the body a “complete protein.” The combination, in other words, closely matches the chemical requirement for constructing the thousands of separate proteins human bodies need to make constantly.”2 .
  • Uses: “… the yambeans’ swollen underground stems are succulent, white, sweet, mildly flavored, and crisp as a fresh-picked apple. They can be eaten out of hand. They can be used to add crunch to green salads and fruit salads. They can be steamed or boiled, and have the unusual property of retaining their crispness even under conditions that convert potato to mash. In cooked form they taste like potato, but whereas it averages 5 percent protein, African yambean tubers have from 11 to 19 percent protein (on a dry-weight basis).” (p. 326) (2)
  • “The invisible bacterial microbes inhabiting its roots relieve the farmer of the necessity to supply additional nitrogenous fertilizer. This is, in other words, a food source that supports itself while helping both the soils under it and the species that succeed it.


  • Like the yam bean, the icacina plant, a small drought-resistant shrub, yields 3 different types of food: fruits, seeds, tuberous roots what are consumed as snack, staple, and famine food. Though cultivated, the icacina plant is not fully domesticated; the bushes also grow in the bush.
  • Uses: fruit is eaten, seeds pounded into flour, and tubers used as flour which can make porridge. The giant tuber is such a great source of emergency moisture and food energy to the plant that it can survive at least four years without rain. (Lost Crops, V. III, p. 282). It can be used to treat constipation, food poisoning, hypertension, asthma, malaria, rheumatism, and toothache. It can also be used as an aphrodisiac and to induce emesis (vomiting) and abortion.3  
  • Found in Senegal, Guinea, Northern Ghana, Benin, Gambia, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Chad, Congo, & parts of Sudan.


Tamarind Tree Pods
  • Tamarind is a massive, slow-growing, long-lived shade tree that produces a sweet-sour fruit which has multiple uses (See featured image above). The tree can grow up to 25 meters [82 feet] high. It has been called the tree of life because its sugar-rich fruits can be stored without refrigeration and safely served weeks or months later.
  • Uses: an ingredient of Worcestershire sauce, eaten as a fruit, and used to sweeten and season foods such as 1. Cereals, 2. Soups, sauces, curry, chutneys, and fish, 3. Confections, preserves, ice cream, and syrups, and 4. Drinks of many different kinds including carbonated drinks which rival coke in popularity. Parts of the tree is used as (1) fodder for animals, (2) fuel, and wood. It is also used as an ornamental tree because of its graceful foliage.  (Lost Crops of Africa, V. III, pp. 149-153)
  • Long thought to have originated in India, but is actually of West African origin. Spread from western Sudan to Egypt and India and other parts of Asia.


1. Yambean.” National Research Council. 2006. Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11763.

2.  ICACINA.” National Research Council. 2008. Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11879.

3. Che CT, Zhao M, Guo B, Onakpa MM. Icacina trichantha, A Tropical Medicinal Plant. Nat Prod Commun. 2016 Jul; 11(7):1039-1042. PMID: 30452189; PMCID: PMC6552679.


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