Nature diary 9: local vitamin bombs 3: Delicious hair / Dushi kabei

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Dushi kabei tree with full crown and characteristic growth of the leaves. Identification in the field is relatively simple.

Local fruits are popular and that makes sense. Many people have wonderful childhood memories of picking fruit from the tree and eating it right away. Many have grown and stayed healthy in scant years, because the local fruits growing in the gardens were an indispensable supplement to the meager diet of the children. You can hardly imagine it, but there are plenty of people among us who know what it is to go to school hungry, and who benefited immensely from the loaded mango tree and other fruit trees along the walking route to school.
It’s quite sad to realize that many of the fruits that were once so popular are now barely known and that those fruits often go bad because no one eats them anymore. An example of such a forgotten plant is the Dushi kabei, loosely translated as ‘delicious hair’ and scientific known as the Maclura tinctoria.



Historical drawing of the Dushi Kabei from +/- 1867

I’m no boaster, but …

I often mention names of local fruits, such as Dushi kabei, when I talk with people about the nature of the island. In 8 out of 10 cases, I am stared at dumbfounded and no one knows what I’m talking about. Admittedly, the fruit in question is not really a striking appearance in the sense that it is greenish in color and hardly noticeable in the green foliage. In close up, you’ll notice that the fruit is quite hairy and rough looking and does not seem to be edible. But it’s edible, all right!. When the fruit ripens it swells up and gets the appearance of a blackberry, but with a subdued milky green color instead of the deep purple of a blackberry. The Spanish called the fruit and the tree the Mora, and the Latin family to which the plant belongs is Moraceae, and that pretty closely describes the look. The ripe fruit tastes incredibly sweet. It is actually a composite fruit, several small fruits that create the impression of being a single, large fruit.
This species has a dioecious inflorescence, which means that every tree is unisexual. Theoretically, about half of the trees produce male flowers that look like long pollen producing strings. The others are trees that produce female flowers that look like the fruits themselves, but with very long thick hairs which can reach a length of up to 6 centimeters.

Closeup of the fruits of Dushi kabei. These are not yet ripe, which can be concluded based on the color of the fruit but also because of the fact that the hairs are still very long. When the fruit ripens and swells the hairs get shorter.

Color dye

The Dushi kabei occurs throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina and the Caribbean. In many locations the wood is used which provides a beautiful warm yellow gloss, and is strong and rot resistant. That’s probably because the plant juices contain anti fungal compounds. A yellow dye which is extracted from the wood was and still is used to produce yellow pigments as well as for making brown and green pigments. The dye was widely used during the First World War to produce khaki clothing, and for this application was exported from Jamaica and Trinidad in large quantities.
Even today, in spite of all possible man-made yellow dyes available on the market, the dyes from this tree are still in use.

Dushi kabei and landscaping

Not only the fruit and the wood of the tree are valuable, the tree itself is ideal for use in landscaping and also simply as a valuable addition to any garden. The tree can reach an impressive height, around 20 meters, but also has a round and full crown with bright green leaves with serrated edges. Frater Arnoldo, the plant connoisseur of the island, already mentioned in his publications of 1967 that the tree is very suitable for reforesting diabase soils. It is therefore very suitable for planting in gardens and alongside roads, because there the soils often consist of diabase or it has been applied during road construction. Unfortunately, this recommendation was barely noticed and certainly not acted upon by government officials, hence nowadays widespread elimination of this tree instead of planting it seems to be a sad fact.

Typical arrangement of the leaves on the branches. The leaves are serrated at the edges and pointed.

A trained eye driving along stretches of ‘mondi’ instantly recognizes the tree because of the characteristic way it grows and the distinctive look of the leaves as well as the way these are arranged on the branches. The trees occurred in great quantities along the road to Bullenbaai, within the ‘mondi’ areas, but also in Veeris and along the road in between Bethesda and the University. Unfortunately, not much is left of that. The area of Zuurzak also harbored large trees, which have been bulldozed away not so long ago. Nice big trees can still be found in the nature area of Den Dunki. In Bandabou, groups of this tree can also be found.
It might be a good idea to include this tree on the list of plant species used for the replanting of new roads and roundabouts, for beauty and shade, but also to honor the historical value it has for the island and its inhabitants. And perhaps we can develop innovative-authentic products with it. I have not been able to locate info on whether the fruit is used elsewhere in the world to make jam or fruit juices with, but I can imagine that it must be very tasty. Any entrepreneur out there dares to try it out?

About Michelle da Costa Gomez