Discovering indigenous vegetables at ARC

Willem from ARC Roodeplaat explains his indigenous vegetable research.

Indigenous vegetables were the focus of a Slow Food Johannesburg organised tour of the Agricultural Reseach Council (ARC) in Roodeplaat. We visited ARC’s Vegetable and Ornamental Plant Institute, where they conduct fundamental and applied research on commercial crops and also indigenous vegetables.

Willem Kilian from ARC conducted our tour. He introduced the group to a number of lesser-known indigenous vegetables, many of them of African origin.

The opportunity to taste a wide variety of wild or African greens collectively called morogo (Sesotho, isiPedi) or imifino (isiZulu, isiXhosa), which loosely translated means leafy vegetables, was the highlight of our visit.

These traditional indigenous vegetables are similar to spinach and are found throughout southern Africa, where it’s estimated that over 100 different species of plants may be classified as leafy vegetables.

Gathering edible plants from the wild is as old as the history of modern man in South Africa. Although the women of many indigenous communities continue to harvest (some even cultivate) these vegetables, western influences have considerably modified their consumption and popularity, especially in urban areas where other exotic vegetables are readily available.

The work of ARC in cultivating and conserving these indigenous vegetables cannot be understated as they are not only endemic in certain instances, but highly adaptable, nutritious and an important element of our country’s gastronomic heritage.

During our visit, we also tasted a few varieties of sweet potato, and the more adventurous eaters among us sampled mopane worms. The mopane worm (Gonimbrasia belina) is a species of moth found in southern Africa, whose large edible caterpillar is an important source of protein for millions of indigenous people.

A volunteer cooking food for the students on a gas installation donated by Slow Food Johannesburg.

Our tour served a dual purpose; to learn about indigenous vegetables, and to raise funds to purchase equipment for a rural school project operated by one of our members, Mike Crewe-Brown. Our thanks go to everyone who contributed to our communal tour-end picnic, and who gave generously towards the project.

To the hospitable and knowledgeable staff at ARC who hosted us; a big thank-you. ARC also donated an assortment of morogo seed and varieties of sweet potato for the feeding scheme.

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