Explore the world of forest foods. Discover how millions of people around the world use plants to make nutritious meals and produce hundreds of sustainable products from rope, dyes and cloth, to beauty products and herbal remedies.

Adansonia digitata

Adansonia digitata is one of nine species of the Baobab tree. It is native to the African savannah and Madagascar, where the climate is dry and arid. It grows in dozens of countries in belts across the continent – from Mauritania in the west through Nigeria, Chad, and Ethiopia and down through Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. It has also been introduced to countries in Asia, South America, and Australia.

Known as the “Tree of Life,” each part of the Baobab can be used. The fruit can be eaten or soaked in water to create a refreshing drink. It is also used in jams and fermented to make beer. The leaves can be boiled and eaten like spinach and can be dried and used throughout the year as a vegetable. Fiber from the bark is used to make cloth, baskets, and rope. The seeds can be pressed to produce oil that is used in skincare products. Even the roots can be used to make dye.

The leaves are used medicinally to treat many illnesses including diarrhea, anemia, asthma, and kidney and bladder disease  

The Baobab is also a source of food, water, and shelter for a wide range of wild animals and helps reduce soil erosion.

The tree can survive over two thousand years, and many have become popular tourist attractions.

The baobab fruit has been called the “ultimate superfruit’ due to its high levels of calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin C and carbohydrates. The fruit also contains high levels of fiber and antioxidants, while the seeds contain zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron. The leaves are rich in iron, calcium, and zinc.

Balanites aegyptiaca

Known by many names including “Egyptian balsam” and “desert date,” Balanites aegyptiaca can be found across much of Africa and parts of the Middle East – from Senegal and Mauritania across the Sahara to Algeria, through Egypt and Libya as well as Burma, India, and Pakistan. The plants grow in many habitats, tolerating a wide variety of soil types and climates from arid to sub-humid.

The pulp is rich in carbohydrates and monounsaturated fat. The leaves, flowers, and fruit pulp are good sources of protein, and minerals including potassium, iron, manganese, zinc and copper.

There is evidence that Balanites aegyptiaca has been cultivated in Egypt for more than 4000 years. Today the fruit is often mixed with porridge and eaten by nursing mothers. The oil is consumed to treat headaches and to improve lactation. 

The tree is used as a famine food as it continues to produce fruit even during dry spells. The leaves are eaten raw or cooked, and the oil is extracted from the kernel. The remaining seed cake is often used to feed animals. 

Bark extracts can act as a pesticide and to treat worm infections, malaria, colds, and skin problems. 

In West Africa, Balanites aegyptiaca has been used as an antidote for arrow poisoning, and in the Sahel region, the sharp thorns are used to create traditional tattoos. 

Dacryodes edulis

This beautiful purple fruit grows in dry tropical savannahs at elevations up to 1,000 meters. Known as the African bush pear, the tree originates from the Gulf of Guinea and Central Africa – from Angola, Sierra Leona, Cameroon, and Nigeria to as far east as Uganda. It grows wild in the humid forests of central Africa, but is also cultivated in the region around homesteads.

The oil-rich pulp is boiled, or roasted. The cooked flesh has a similar texture to butter, giving it the nick-name – bush butter. In Cameroon, it is often eaten as a side dish with meat or fish.

Dacryodes edulis is also a source of many herbal medicines. It has been used for wounds, parasitic skin diseases, dysentery and fever. The root bark has even been used to treat leprosy.

Every part of this versatile plant is used. The resin can be turned into glue, the kernel can be fed to livestock, while the flowers can be used to cultivate bees and the leaves as a dye. The wood itself is also suitable for carpentry. 

Dacryodes edulis has a high oil content and is a rich source of nutrients. The fruit contains protein, carbohydrates, and fiber as well as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, and vitamin C.

One tree can yield 20 – 50 kilos of fruit, each with a high content of essential oils and saturated fatty acids.

Gnetum africanum

This climbing vine grows in humid tropical forests from Nigeria through Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, DR of Congo to Angola. It grows year-round mainly on the edges of forests and does well in shaded areas.

The leaves are very commonly eaten throughout the Congo Basin and used as a vegetable in soups and stews – usually cooked with meat or fish and sometimes eaten as a salad. In parts of Nigeria, it is considered a ceremonial delicacy. 

Gnetum africanum is also used for medicinal purposes – from disinfecting wounds and treating warts to nausea, sore throat, constipation, pain during childbirth, enlarged spleen, and even as a hangover remedy. 

Gnetum africanum is a good source of protein and fiber and is rich in iron and beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A). A common stew prepared in Cameroon with leaves of Gnetum africanum and red palm oil can provide 100% of recommended daily intake of vitamin A. The leaves have also been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. One study found that higher consumption of leaves of Gnetum africanum was associated with lower rates of anemia.

Habenaria clavata

The wild orchid tubers that are used to make “chikanda,” are found in the shallow wetlands of Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, DR Congo, and Angola. Some of these orchid species are becoming endangered due to chikanda’s growing popularity. 

Sometimes called “Zambian meatloaf” because of its consistency, Chikanda is enjoyed as a snack or as a part of a meal with traditional porridge. It is made by combining orchid tubers, ground peanuts, and chilies. The mixture is then cooked until it reaches a solid consistency. 

This edible orchid also plays an important role in some cultures. The Bemba women in northern Zambia, for example, are expected to know how to forage and cook Chikanda. New brides often prepare the plant for their in-laws to show respect, and it is served on special occasions. 

The plant used to be considered a “poor man’s food” and eaten only in rural areas in communities where meat was a rare delicacy. But that has changed. Chikanda has become a popular snack food. Even in Zambia, the commercial supply chain now relies on tubers harvested across Tanzania, Angola, Malawi, and the DRC. There is increasing concern that its commercialization and consumption in urban areas may be causing overhavesting of local and endemic orchid species.

Chikanda contains protein and minerals, and there is enough vitamin C in 10 grams of the tuber to meet minimum daily requirements. 

Inga edulis

Inga edulis is native to the Amazon regions of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia,  but it is also popular in many parts of South America. It is known as the ‘ice-cream bean’ because of its’ sweet flavor and smooth texture. The trees grow quickly in hot, humid climates and mature trees can reach 30 meters.

Inga edulis is very popular in South America, where it is commonly gathered in the wild and also cultivated. It is used as a shade tree for perennial crops like coffee and tea. The tree also helps control erosion and improve soil fertility.

The fruit can be eaten and is a popular snack, especially among children. Its creamy vanilla flavor makes it an ideal flavoring for desserts. In some countries like Colombia, it is used to produce an alcoholic beverage called cachiri.

Inga edulis is also used for medicinal purposes. Extracts of the root are used to treat diarrhea, while the leaves are used to treat coughs. Cuna Indians of Colombia used the plant for headaches.

The Ice Cream bean is a good source of antioxidants and dietary fiber. It contains protein as well as vitamins A, B1, and B2 and C. 

Matteuccia struthiopteris

Commonly referred to as fiddlehead ferns, these plants are found in many places, including Indonesia, Cameroon, DR Congo, Northern India and Nepal, Philippines, parts of Europe, and North America.

Around the world, the furled fronds of hundreds of types of young ferns are served as a vegetable in various ways, including stews, soups, and cooked salads. The flavor has been compared to a combination of green beans, asparagus, and okra.

In Indonesia, young fern fronds are cooked in a rich coconut sauce spiced with chili pepper, lemongrass, turmeric leaves, and other spices. This dish is called gulai pakis and originated from the Minangkabau ethnic group in western Sumatra.

While in France, there are accounts of it being used as far back as the Middle Ages. They are often sautéed in olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice.

Native Americans also ate fern fronds and used them medicinally for back pain, during childbirth, and as a diuretic. 

Ferns have a trace amount of a toxin, so should never be eaten raw.

Fern fronds are a good source of niacin, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C., as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They are a source of antioxidants and dietary fiber. They are low in sodium, but rich in potassium.

  • Shanley, P.; Pierce, A.R.; Laird, S.A.; Robinson, D. 2008.Beyond timber: certification and management of non-timber forest products.Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). ISBN: 978-979-1412-44-5.

Pouteria sapota

Known as mamey sapote, Pouteria sapota is a very common fruit tree across Latin America. It is found in tropical or near-tropical climates and can reach a height of 45 meters. 

Traditionally, the fruit is eaten raw, but nowadays, the pulp is also used to make a type of ice-cream, jams, jellies, and milkshakes and smoothies. Oil pressed from the seed is used in beauty products. 

Throughout Latin America, mamey sapote is used to treat various ailments. In Cuba, the seed is made into an eyewash, while in Mexico and Costa Rica, it is said to relieve heart problems. The Aztecs used it as a digestive and to treat epilepsy,

The fruit is a good source of vitamins B6, C, and E, as well as riboflavin, niacin, manganese, potassium, and fiber.

Sclerocarya birrea

Commonly known as marula, this fruit tree grows up to 18 meters tall, mostly in woodlands and low altitudes. The tree is found across much of Africa following the Bantu migrations from the western part of the continent in Mauritania and Senegal to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and as far as Madagascar.

The marula fruit is one of the most popular trees in much of Africa because nearly every part can be turned into a valuable commodity. 

The fruit is eaten raw or fermented to make a popular beer, a liqueur, or a puree that is used in juice drinks. It is the main ingredient of Amarula, a commercial liqueur produced in South Africa.  It is also a key ingredient in jellies. The white nut is eaten fresh or mixed with vegetables.

The fiber from the inner part of the bark is used to makes a rope, drums, and yokes. A reddish-brown dye is also produced from the skin of the bark. The gum is mixed with soot and used as ink.

The bark is used to treat dysentery, diarrhea, rheumatism, hemorrhoids, and to help prevent malaria. The leaves and fruit are chewed to treat coughs.

The seed produces edible oil, which is also used in skincare products.

Sclerocarya birrea contains more Vitamin C than oranges as well as calcium, iron, potassium magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and zinc. The seeds are rich in oleic acid – a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid.


Shorea stenoptera

Shorea stenoptera is found in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo. Known as Engkabang Rusa or Tengkawang, the tree can grow up to 30 meters. Due to habitat loss, it has become endangered. 

The Shorea stenoptera nut, or more commonly known as the illipe nut, is often collected in the wild by local Dayak communities, but small community forests also exist. Similar to cocoa butter, it is used in cooking and to flavor rice. In Sarawak, Malaysia, it is mixed with durian fruit and prawns to make a paste. For generations, Dayak communities have used the oil to treat skin problems.

The fat obtained from the seed is easily absorbed by the skin. Its high melting point makes it ideal for use in soaps and as a base for body care products, lip balms, and hair conditioners. But more often, it is mixed with cocoa butter to produce chocolates.

The trees’ timber, known as meranti, is a popular light-red wood commonly used to make furniture and paneling.  

Studies show Shorea stenoptera has a fat content of between 41-60% with high levels of Stearic Acid and Oleic Acid.

Uapaca kirkiana

Known as the sugar plum or mahobohobo, Uapaca kirkiana, this fast-growing fruit tree is found wild mainly in African lowland forests. The tree has been recorded growing in much of Africa, including Tanzania Malawi, Angola, Burundi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Uapaca kirkiana fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. It is considered one of the most loved fruits in Zambia. The fruit’s sweet taste makes it ideal for jam and syrup production. The fruit is also used in cakes and mixed with sorghum meal to produce a tasty porridge. It is also fermented to make wine and beer. 

The flowers are valuable in honey-making while a blue dye can be extracted from the roots, and the leaves can be used as a cockroach repellent. The wood produces valuable timber, fuel, and charcoal. The trees are also planted to control erosion.

An infusion made from the roots is used as a herbal remedy to treat indigestion and dysentery.

This popular fruit contains relatively high amounts of  iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. It is also a good source of Vitamin C and fiber.  


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