In case you were wondering, it doesn’t taste like bacon. Contrary to its colourful Afrikaans name, Spekboom (literally translated to ‘bacon tree’) is a lush, emerald succulent plant with juicy, round leaves and an unmistakable, lemony flavour. It grows naturally in the Western Cape and very prolifically in the Eastern Cape, where it earned its other name, ‘elephant bush’, due to its important place in the diet of elephants (the elephants of Addo Elephant Park have been known to eat up to 200kg of Spekboom per day!) (ref)
Many years ago (according to the Cape Almanac of 1843), Spekboom was described as “one of the most valuable shrubs” around, due to the excellent food it provided for large flocks of sheep and goats, particularly in times of drought (ref). Today, many go as far as labeling it a “miracle plant” and “superfood”. I decided to find out why:
4 qualities that make Spekboom a ‘superpower’ plant:
- It has enormous carbon-storing capabilities.
Simply put, Spekboom has the potential to mop up the excess CO2 responsible for climate change. Its immense carbon-storing capabilities and capacity to offset damaging carbon emissions are comparable to that of moist, subtropical forest. Scientists have deemed this ‘quite incredible’, and Spekboom vegetation is now being restored and farmed in the Eastern Cape, with one hectare of Spekboom sequestering up to 4.2 tons of carbon per year! (ref)
- It is fire-resistant and drought-resistant!
Spekboom doesn’t burn, making it a hardy plant to withstand veld fires and great material for firebreak hedges. What makes it even more exceptional is that it can withstand drought too – mainly due to its succulent nature, but also due to it’s unique ability to ‘shift gears’, which I’ve expanded upon in my next point (ref)
- It ‘changes gears’ to adapt to drier climates and wetter climates.
While most plants require their stomata to be open during the daytime to absorb carbon dioxide, in dry conditions, the Spekboom can open its stomata at night instead, and close them again in the day to avoid loss of water. This slows down evaporation, and enables the Spekboom to grow faster during the day. During the wetter months, the Spekboom absorbs carbon dioxide during the day as normal. There are very few plants around the world that have the ability to adapt in this way (ref)
- We can eat it!
Not only is Spekboom digestible by both domestic and wild herbivores – we can eat it too! Its little succulent leaves contain heaps of Vitamin C as well as a number of other minerals, and are best used in salads, my favourite of which is a spekboom, chickpea and tomato salad (see recipe below). Enjoy!
- NB: Remember that it is illegal to harvest indigenous plants such as Spekboom in the wild. Scroll to the bottom of this article for guidelines on how to forage sustainably: http://greenaudits.co.za/fynbos-for-foodies-at-good-hope-gardens/
- When I make this recipe, I add lettuce and swap the avocados and onions for feta and olives, which works just as well.
Spekboom, Chickpea and Tomato Salad
by Jacques Erasmus for Woolworths Taste
- 2 x 400 g cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 250 g baby tomatoes
- 2 avocados, peeled, pitted and sliced
- 1/2 onion, sliced and blanched
- two handfuls spekboom leaves, rinsed
- Maldon salt, to taste
- For the dressing, mix together
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 T white-wine vinegar
- 1 T honey
- 1 T smooth mustard
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Remove the chickpea shells and place in a salad bowl with the tomato, avocado, onion and Spekboom leaves and pour over the dressing. Lightly mix and allow to rest for 2 to 3 minutes before serving, sprinkled with salt, to taste.