Indigenous Edible Plants

When it comes to indigenous edible plants, a few spring to mind, especially the fruit of the marula tree that was so memorable in Jamie Uys’s iconic film Beautiful People (1974). In it, wild animals like elephants, baboons, ostriches and warthogs gorge themselves on fermented marula fruit and then find themselves quite drunk. For those who are not as old as me, you can still see clips from the movie on YouTube for a good laugh.

Amongst them, more than 22 000 indigenous plant species found in our country, there are a host of indigenous edible ones including grains, roots, leaves, berries and fruits. However, there are also about twice as many that are poisonous, so it’s good to be sure before eating any plant. Here are some of the most common edible plants we can call our own and for which we can be truly thankful. With the growing challenges of climate change and the real dangers on our food security, these local crops just might be our saviours. It’s time to learn more about them:


One of the most nutrient-dense veggies around is amaranth. It is a source of many vitamins and minerals as well as protein, and comes with a host of medicinal properties. Amaranth flour is also gluten-free while the leaves are used as a green vegetable and the seeds as a grain. Amaranth prefers the warmer, summer-rainfall, sub-tropical areas and needs space to grow to its full height of around 1.8m. It likes lots of water but will cope with drought if necessary. The drooping blooms make exceptional cut flowers.


The grain Sorghum bicolor is milled into a meal and mainly used to make porridge like maltabella as well as baked goods. It is also used to make a malted beverage and a beer and is an important feed for animals. You wouldn’t know it, but it’s the fifth most-grown cereal crop in the world and has been cultivated for thousands of years.

Sorghum grows on canes reaching on average 2 – 2.5m high with broad corn-like leaves and tall stalks with thousands of flowers clustered on the top that turn into the seeds that are then harvested. It will grow in poor soil but will do better in fertile soil with added compost and extra fertiliser, and it is drought resistant once established. It is pest and disease resistant too, apart from birds that love the seeds. Cover with bird netting.

African cabbage

Known locally as the African cabbage, Cleome gynandra is a pretty flowering cleome that is rich in vitamins and minerals. It’s an annual herb that is often referred to as a weed because it grows anywhere, and is often found in disturbed areas in sun or semi-shade. Young leaves are harvested and cooked like spinach and often mixed with other veggies like tomatoes and eaten with porridge. The leaves have a peppery taste similar to mustard greens. The flowers are also edible and bloom white, turning to pink as they age.

The African cabbage grows well from seed, needs very little attention, and may get out of hand if not kept in control. It needs water to grow well.

Sour fig

Carpobrotus edulis is a useful plant that just about has it all: it’s used as a groundcover slope stabiliser, has succulent triangular leaves with medicinal properties, is water-wise, has pretty bright flowers and it has edible fruits that give it its common name, sour fig. And that’s just the start. It’s a perennial that covers areas with poor soil and is often used as a fire-resistant barrier.

Carpobrotus species also supply food for honeybees. and in addition to all this good stuff going for it, it’s also incredibly easy to grow. In fact, it will thrive even with a little neglect. Plant in well-draining soil, in a sunny spot with room to grow. Don’t feed it and avoid humid or frosty areas.

READ MORE: Take a look at these medicinal herbs that are indigenous to South Africa


Our local olive tree, Olea europaea subsp. africana, is a winner with fruit that can be eaten right off the tree, where some types of olives need to go through several processes to make them palatable. This is a neat tree with beautiful silvery leaves that grows to around 12m high and is drought resistant. It grows just about anywhere, is extremely hardy and is a haven for birds, insects and wildlife.

It’s a very slow-growing tree but does have an aggressive root system so should be kept away from walls and foundations. Add plenty of compost and fertiliser when planting to speed up the growth, and water moderately.


Colocasia esculenta, also called taro in certain parts of the world, has a tuber that is rich in vitamins and minerals and an excellent source of low-GI carbohydrates – a much better choice than potatoes or sweet potatoes, health-wise. It prefers warmer weather and in tropical climates will grow throughout the year in full sun or shade with loads of water in rich fertile soil. Feed with a slow-release fertiliser at least three times during the summer growing season for the best results and harvest in autumn once the leaves have turned yellow and died down.

The whole plant is edible but must be cooked first to rid the plant of calcium oxalate, which is a toxic chemical that can irritate the mouth and throat. Leaves are eaten like spinach and the tubers are boiled and cooked as you would potatoes.

Orange bird berry

Hoslundia opposita is an attractive shrub that grows to about 1.2m tall and has creamy-green flowers and edible orange fruits. It’s a bird and butterfly magnet and also great for bees. Interestingly, the soft green leaves have an aroma that bees find unpleasant so are used by people when harvesting honey.

It’s a hardy plant that does best in warmer climates in well-draining soil and makes a good container plant. It needs a good yearly prune to encourage new growth.


Grewia occidentalis is a very attractive, purple-flowering shrub or small tree that reaches 3m tall. The four-lobed fruits that give the tree its common name turn reddish to purple when ripe and are enjoyed by birds and wildlife. People dry them for their high sugar content and use them in cooking and baking. The leaves are browsed by many an animal and the bark and roots are used in traditional medicine.

Besides its many other qualities, this plant also makes a good garden plant and is frost- and drought-resistant. It grows well in full sun or dappled shade, in fertile soil and with plenty of water, but can go dry if necessary.

READ MORE: Here are some more indigenous edible plants that are proudly South African


This list of special edibles would not be complete without adding the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea), which can be planted in a garden in a frost-free area with enough space for a tree that will reach between 4 and 13m in height. There are male and female trees, with the female trees bearing the most fruit. The fruit is made into jelly or liqueurs, the nuts are also eaten and the bark is used medicinally.

Grow in full sun in a protected spot in well-draining soil for the best results. It grows fast at around 1.5m a year.


This plant is food for rhinos, which is reason enough to grow it, but it’s much more than that: Kraussia floribunda is a great screening hedge plant with glossy green leaves and clusters of white flowers followed by purple-black edible berries that are enjoyed by birds, animals and humans alike.

It grows happily as a forest-margin plant as well as in full sun, it is drought tolerant but prefers moderate watering and seasonal feeding. Keep it in shape with light pruning.

The Gardener