Nature Diary: Local vitamin bombs 5: (H)Oba

This post is also available in: Dutch, Papiamentu.

The trunk of the oba. This tree grows along a gully where several other trees compete for the little light that penetrates the valley. Instead of growing straight up, this tree has bent to make maximum use of the available sunlight.

The trunk of the oba. This tree grows along a gully where several other trees compete for the little light that penetrates the valley. Instead of growing straight up, this tree has bent to make maximum use of the available sunlight.

Sour sweet taste, orange-yellow in color and rare in Curaçao. Most people have never seen an Oba fruit, let alone eaten it. Only the elderly among the island population and a number of people from the younger generations who like to listen to the stories and knowledge of the elderly know this tree and are able to recognize it within the landscape of our island. The Oba, or Hoba tree (Spondias mombin) is a monumental tree, which can grow to over 12 meters tall (even trees up to 20 meters high are known) and can only be admired in a limited number of places on the island. Bonaire also has a number of these trees but in Aruba the species has disappeared. A rare beauty with delicious edible fruits. Time to take a look at this tree, especially since most Oba trees in Curacao are carrying fruits right at this moment.

Origin

The Spondias mombin is widespread in the Caribbean, (tropical) Central and South America and even Africa. In much of the literature of Africa, the plant is considered to be an introduced species, imported to the continent by man and has spread itself there. However, there are many discussions concerning this assumption. Several biologists interpret the spread of the plant on the different continents as a natural distribution scenario on which man had no influence. They are convinced the seeds of the fruit distributed themselves by sea, riding the various currents from South America to land on the African coast. There are strong indications that the plant has also spread to all the islands of the Caribbean in the same way. More recently, man has influenced the distribution of the species in the different countries, however, because of deliberate cultivation in order to collect the edible fruits, but also because the medicinal values of the plant.

The pinnate leaves of the Oba tree

The pinnate leaves of the Oba tree

Eye catching if you know it

“On Curaçao, Oba trees occur at different locations where limestone plateaus are part of the landscape, the plateau at Grote Berg and also within the hills of Knip”. This is written in the book ‘Guide to the use of Indigenous and Imported plants in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao’, by Frater Arnoldo Broeders and published in 1967. They can be fully admired in Rooi Beru in the Christoffel Park, along the path which leads to the Christoffel mountain as well as on the flanks of the hills. The tree is fairly well recognizable by the very long gray-brown trunk with cork-like bark on which in general lichens tend to grow. The leaves are elliptical, up to 5 centimeters long and arranged in a feathered configuration along a branch which can be up to 40 centimeters long. The remarkable thing is that there are always 9-19 leaves on a ‘feather’. The leaves are glossy at the top, but the undersides look velvety. In the dry season the trees lose their leaves quickly so they can only be recognized by the erratic branches and the characteristic trunk.

A bunch of green fruits.

A bunch of green fruits.

The flowers are white to off-white, not larger than 5 millimeters and are arranged together in a long plume. They emit a strong odor and are loved by bees to build their honey stocks. In the mondi, it is therefore no exception to find large bee nests in the immediate vicinity of these trees and even in the trees themselves. You should always watch out if you are in the neighborhood of these trees.
The oba fruit is oval in shape and looks a bit like a small yellow plum. When the fruit ripens it gets the yellow-orange color. The flesh of the oba is not very thick and is often not more than a few millimeters thick. The seed is packed in a corky membrane which is similar to the membrane that surrounds nutmeg nuts and is known as mace. It is this cork-like material which causes the nut to float well and therefore allows it to travel great distances in the oceans.
The flesh tastes, depending on the tree, sour to sweet-sour and is a bit comparable to the macaprein, a fruit which in Curacao is mostly imported from Venezuela and can occasionally be found in the supermarket.
In the tropical rain forests of South America, where the tree is common, the larger animals ensure the reproduction of the tree. Monkeys and other mammals eat the fruits whole and defecate the big seeds elsewhere, hence guaranteeing the distribution of the species.

A collection of fruits in different maturation stages.

A collection of fruits in different maturation stages.

Vitamins

Oba fruits are rich in vitamin C and vitamin B1 and are used in juices, ice cream and jams in many countries, and are loved by children, fresh from the tree. Alcoholic drinks are also made from the fruits and in Mexico the green fruits reportedly are pickled in vinegar to be eaten like olives. In Latin America the fruits are regularly used for the feeding of cattle.
The leaves are eaten as a vegetable in many countries, and in Thailand are often prepared as a side dish. Research on vitamins and minerals in the leaves of this tree showed that they are rich in fiber and protein and can thus be a healthy addition to the diet. 100 grams of leaves contain an average of 11 milligrams of calcium, 9.5 milligrams of potassium, 58 milligrams of vitamin C and 5.6 milligrams of vitamin A.
In case of the fruits the averages per 100 grams of fruit pulp are 37 milligrams of vitamin C, 31 milligrams of calcium, 2.8 mg iron, 31 milligrams phosphorus, and they are also rich in Vitamin A.
For comparison, an adult human needs about 70 milligrams per day of vitamin C, 1000 milligrams of calcium, 15 milligrams of iron and 700 to 1400 milligrams of phosphorus.

Medicinal

The (H)Oba, under which name this tree is known in Curaçao, has different names, depending on the location where it occurs. In Creole, the plant is called Gran Monben or Monben Fran, in English Hog Plum or Yellow Spanish Plum, Mombin Jaune in French, in Portuguese Acaiba or Pau da Tapera, in Spanish Hobo, or Jobito. In Suriname, they know the fruit as Mope. In several countries, parts of the plant are used in indigenous medicinal uses. In Mexico, for example, a tea is drawn from the flowers and leaves to relieve stomach pain, nausea, and inflammations of the eyes and throat and even to accelerate the healing of wounds.
In African countries like Nigeria, the plant is also used in different ways in traditional natural remedies. There is even scientific research conducted focusing on the various potential properties of the plant.
Different components and substances have been extracted from the leaves, bark, and other parts of the tree that have an anti-epileptic, anti-psychotic, anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-aging effect, as well as substances that act against diarrhea and malaria.

The seed of the Oba surrounded by a corky membrane which ensures that the fruits float in water.


The seed of the Oba surrounded by a corky membrane which ensures that the fruits float in water.

Where can you get it?

The Oba is not a tree that you can get at the average garden center. If you want the tree in your garden you can do so through the planting of cuttings of the tree so that the ‘new’ plant will bear fruit much faster. Planting of the seeds can also be done by sowing them into small pots with fertile soil and covering them with a thin layer of soil. These need to be placed in a sunny spot and must be regularly moistened. It may take quite a long time before the seed germinates, which probably has to do with the season in which the tree usually produces fruits. Patience is a virtue in order to get results!

Michelle da Costa Gomez

About Michelle da Costa Gomez