From jam to juice, wine, timber, medicine and honey, vitex payos tree is unexploited dryland gem

Honey is one of the value-added products that can be extracted from the Chocolate berry trees' flowers. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In Kenya, where it is widespread in semi-arid regions, its local names include Muhuru (Kikuyu), Mufutu (Luhya), Juelu (Luo), Mutahuru (Kisii) and Kimuu (Kamba).
  • The scientists from Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri), Makerere University, and Sokoine University of Agriculture, concluded that commercial exploitation of the tree’s fruits will aid its conservation.
  • Rose Chiteva, a research scientist at the National Forest Products Research Programme based at Karura, says most of the fruits are still obtained from wild trees, which take longer to mature.
  • Vitex payos can be propagated by seed and grafting. Seeds cost Sh1,500 a kilo at Kefri centres. The seeds have a hard coat which hinders germination.

Vitex payos, or Chocolate berry in English, is native to tropical African countries like the DR Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

In Kenya, where it is widespread in semi-arid regions, its local names include Muhuru (Kikuyu), Mufutu (Luhya), Juelu (Luo), Mutahuru (Kisii) and Kimuu (Kamba).

It grows well in areas whose altitude ranges from 980 to 1,590 metres above sea level and an annual rainfall of between 650 and 850mm.

In their study, “Distribution and regeneration status of Vitex payos in Kenyan drylands,’’ James Kimondo, Jackson Mulatya, Andrew Dino, et al., noted the resilience and commercial potential of this tree in the drylands.

The research, published in the Journal of Horticulture and Forestry, 2014, investigated population structure and regeneration status of the tree on farms and bushes in Mbeere, Mwingi and Kitui districts. Findings indicated that most trees are found in the wild.

There were more trees in Kitui where their fruits were commercially sold than in Mbeere where they were only consumed for subsistence.

The scientists from Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri), Makerere University and Sokoine University of Agriculture, concluded that commercial exploitation of the tree’s fruits will aid its conservation.

Though these findings have informed some interventions by Kefri, there has been a challenge on the domestication front.

Benefits

Vitex payos is an important source of food, medicine, timber, fuel and honey. Its fruits can be eaten raw or cooked. They can also be made into jam, wine and juice.

Kefri has assisted farmers in Embu and Kitui counties to develop, add value and market Vitex payos jam, juice and wine.

Rose Chiteva, a research scientist at the National Forest Products Research Programme based at Karura, says most of the fruits are still obtained from wild trees, which take longer to mature.

For improved earnings and regular supply of these products, she says, there is a need for the domestication of the tree.

And this can only happen with the adoption of grafted, fast-maturing varieties that produce fruits in two years, compared to 10 years for the wild trees.

Kefri has built the capacity of entrepreneurial groups from Kitui and Siakago (Mbeere), in sustainable harvesting of the fruits, product development and value addition.

“The value-added products have increased shelf-life, are well-packaged and labelled and have been verified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards thus increasing their visibility in the market,’’ Chiteva says.

Medicine

Various parts of the tree are medicinal. A decoction of the root is used as a remedy for stomach problems. The pounded bark is used to treat threadworm and skin problems.  

The leaves are boiled and the liquid drunk to treat loss of appetite. The wood is hard and is used for poles, tool handles and fuel.

The flowers play a key role in honey production while leaves provide mulch and shade for crops.

Propagation

Vitex payos can be propagated by seed and grafting. Seeds cost Sh1,500 a kilo at Kefri centres. The seeds have a hard coat which hinders germination.

This has been a big obstacle in its propagation. In the wild, the coat is often broken by fires to help germination although many of these saplings are cleared for land cultivation or trampled by wild animals.

Consequently, populations are declining causing concern on its future survival, according to Bernard Kigwa, a research scientist based at the Kefri Kitui station.

A 2010 study by Dr James Kimondo on the feasibility of grafting Vitex payos revealed a very low graft take-off of 15 per cent.

Until appropriate propagation techniques are found, pressure on this valued tree will continue to increase.

tim@storylineskenya.com

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