Food for Thought
In his most recent blog entry, Bill Wallauer, JGI wildlife cameraman and research videographer, discusses lamb’s tail, one of his favorite plants found in Gombe National Park.
Favorite Chimp Food
Latin Name: Antidesma venosum
Local Name: Mnziganziga
Common Name: Lamb’s Tail, Tassleberry
Lamb’s tail (a name used by Dr. Jane Goodall for its long dangling clusters of berries) is a chimp and Bill favorite. Referred to as tassleberry across Africa, lamb’s tail grows in mixed woodland scrub and wooded grasslands on the drier low ridges at Gombe National Park in Tanzania.
Lamb’s tail is part of a large genus (Antidesma venosum) of 170 species that can be found in Old World tropical forests and woodlands (Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands). It is an important food source for birds and mammals, including people. Antidesma venosum grows throughout equatorial Africa and along the east coast of the continent all the way to South Africa. It is not only an important plant for wildlife, it has many useful traits for people as well. The fruit is more than edible and plant parts are used as building material, medicine to relieve pain and stomach ailments, fuel, and even fish poison. This is just another reason to protect and restore the native plants of Africa.
Lamb’s tail grows as a woody shrub, eventually reaching the size of a small 10- to 12-foot tree. The flowers grow in catkins, which are long-hanging clusters of flowers. Its leaves are evergreen. The leaves are about six inches long, simple and oval, and pointed at the tips. Like the blueberry family, male and female flowers grow on separate trees.
April is the peak season for lamb’s tail. In a good year, the fruit hangs off the vine. It is one of the most important chimp foods of the season. The long clusters of berries are three to 4.5 inches long and half an inch wide. When I eat lamb’s tail, I grab a whole bunch, hold it up high, and strip the berries into my mouth.
The fruit of lamb’s tail is delicious. It has a tart, raspberry or blackberry flavor, and is eaten by Gombe’s chimps and baboons. The fruit hangs down in long clusters of blueberry-sized berries. When unripe, the berries are white and when they ripen, they turn a deep purple. Though I never took the time, I have always longed to make mnziganziga jam (lamb’s tail jam). I have no doubt that it would rival the best blackberry or raspberry jam.
Chimps can spend hours on the grassy woodland ridges of Gombe eating lamb’s tail. I love this season in Gombe because it gets you out of the valley thickets and up onto the open areas, which offer beautiful views of the forest and lake. When I shot the images of Frodo below, he spent more than two hours perched on one small mnziganziga tree. That says a lot about the productivity of this plant. Frodo is a huge eater (a glutton really) and he is the biggest chimp in Gombe’s history. The way chimps use their dexterous lips to pick off the ripe berries is impressive. They can pick through the whole bunch, leaving the white, unripe berries untouched. When a baboon approached Frodo’s tree, he was quick to threaten the baboon away. In a tree this size, chimps are not very tolerant of food competition.
In Gombe, the lamb’s tail crop will last through the end of April and into the first weeks of May. I have been working elsewhere in Africa for the past few springs and have missed the April lamb’s tail season. Maybe next year I will be there to make the jam that I have always wanted to try!
Lamb’s tail fruit hangs in many long clusters.
A tall lamb’s tail tree in mixed wooded grassland.
Ripe, ripening, and unripe lamb’s tail fruit.
Frodo carefully chooses the ripe berries with his dexterous lips.
Jackpot! Frodo finds a cluster full of the ripe purple fruit.
Frodo spent two hours in one small tree.
Frodo makes short work of eating the newly discovered lamb’s tail!