Velvet tamarind is one of the many underrated plants, which holds a lot of promises. It has nutraceutical, nutritional and economic benefits without the knowledge of many Nigerians.
Despite its array of assets, Nigerian farmers have paid little or no attention to its cultivation or conservation, a development that has given rise to the fear of its near-extinction.
Velvet tamarind is a seasonal, tall, tropical, fruit-bearing tree in the flowering plant family. It has small, typically grape-sized, edible fruits with black, hard, inedible shells.
Even though some enjoy it, little is, however, known about its health benefits. Research shows that it is a rich source of magnesium. It also contains more calcium than many plants foods. The combination of the two minerals, plus weight-bearing exercise, could help prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures.
It has sweet edible pulp that can be eaten raw or soaked in clean water for the production of fresh local juices. The plant exhibits natural pharmacological response against infectious and noninfectious diseases.
Velvet tamarind is packed with Vitamin A and Vitamin C, which are integral in producing energy. It also has iron and calcium that help in immunity–boosting and maintaining strong bones.
Its leaf extract inhibits the growth of plasmodium falciparum, which causes malaria. Medical experts claim that consuming a concoction of the leaf could cure chronic malaria.
The plant can also treat ulcer and prevent hypertension; it has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties; improves oral hygiene and cures toothache; reliefs’ menstrual cramp and stops diarrhea, among other health benefits.
The Lead, Nutrition and Post Harvest Unit, HarvestPlus Nigeria, Olatundun Kalejaiye, who confirmed the health potential, said the plant is high in Vitamin C and contributes to building the immune system.
She said: “It has lots of antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help to mop up cancerous cells. It also helps to reduce the breakdown of carbs because it has alpha amylase.”
Kalejaiye, however, said that most of the health benefits might have been exaggerated because it will be difficult to give all the credits to the plant.
“Most of the health claims are overrated. This is because, one has to consume lots and lots of the fruit before it can serve all the purposes mentioned. Hence, the logic is correct, but in reality, it isn’t possible for us to give all the credit to velvet tamarind,” she said.
According to Mr. John Sunday, another nutritionist based in Kaduna State, who also confirmed the efficacy of the plant, the fruits are widely sold in local markets and are consumed fresh by people of all ages as a snack.
According to him, the flowers and leaves are eaten as vegetables and the gum obtained from the seed is added to many kinds of food. The bark is used as chewing stick among others. “Also, different parts of the tree have been used in folkloric medicine for the treatment of different diseases: the bark in cancer, headache, and pains, among other uses.”
Further investigations showed that despite the promises the plant holds, Nigerian farmers have failed to maximise its economic potentials. For instance, the seeds, which are readily seen in communities and nearby farms over the years, are hardly seen in recent time.
Even in markets, they are becoming costly, as the fruits currently sell as high as N1, 200 per a plastic module, which previously sold for as low as N150.00.
One of the traders in Oshodi, who simply gave her name as Iya Dotun, confirmed that the fruit is becoming scarce in the country. She added that the stock she just bought was brought in from Lome, Togo.
“We couldn’t get the fruits like before. We currently rely on farmers from neighbouring countries like Togo, Ghana and Benin Republic, as the fruits seem to have disappeared from our farms. The price increase is basically due to the cost of transportation to get here.”
A farmer in Ibogun, Ogun State, Mr. Abolore Oreofe, regretted that the plant is going into extinction because over the years it has been seen as inconsequential.
“Majority of farmers do not see it as a lucrative farming business. When we were small, we picked the fruits in the wild, as little or no attention was paid to its economic value.
“Most of them have been cut down for use as firewood due to the space that they occupy, while majority were felled to give way for building and other infrastructural projects.
“I heard recently that we are now importing the fruits, this is an opportunity for government to come in and educate farmers on what they stand to gain, especially with the array of health benefits the plant possesses.
“No doubt, it will turn out to be a money-spinning farming business, as entrepreneurs have started packaging it for sale in shopping malls,” he said.
Oreofe advised that government should revive the cultivation of the plant, in order to maximise its potentials.