PS 42-20 - “Country Onion” (Afrostyrax lepidophyllus):  Spice and medicine of the cameroon rainforest

Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Exhibit Hall NE & SE, Albuquerque Convention Center
Rhiannon C. Thomas, Science, Washington State University, Vancouver, WA

Afrostyrax lepidophyllus, known as “country onion” in West African Pidgin, is a little-studied tree native to rainforests of West Central Africa.  A. lepidophyllus is currently listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as “Vulnerable,” giving the species high conservation value. While visiting two villages in the Rumpi Hills of southwest Cameroon, I walked forest transects and interviewed villagers to study A. lepidophyllus.

I found that use of its seeds as a spice is widespread throughout the region, and that the plant is important to villagers as food and for income.  Seeds, bark, and leaves are important as medicine.  Women, in particular, are the main collectors, processors, and sellers of A. lepidophyllus seeds.  Afrostyrax lepidophyllus is particularly interesting because it is a mast fruiter.  The unpredictable availability of seeds creates extreme price variations, which affect village economies and how villagers collect, store, sell, and use the plant.  I found that many villagers take advantage of price variation by selling seeds when they are scarce, but that strategies could probably be improved to increase village livelihood.  Current harvest of A. lepidophyllus appears to be sustainable, but any increase in harvest should be accompanied by a thorough assessment of the resource base.  Afrostyrax lepidophyllus could become an integral part of sustainable forestry in the area.

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