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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Food and drink biodiversity:


The vegetables listed below are mainly ones that can be purchased in shops in southern Africa. See also Wild Vegetables.

Vegetables from leaves

Allium schoenoprasum (Chives)

Native to Europe and Asia and believed to have been domesticated within the Mediterranean region. The earliest records of cultivated chives go back to only the 16th century. The leaves of chives are have a mild flavour and are cut up and added to salads, egg dishes, meat dishes, sauces and cottage cheese.


Beta vulgaris var. cicla (Swiss chard, Leaf Beet, Spinach beet)

All the varieties of Beta vulgaris (Chard, Beetroot, Sugarbeet, Mangel-wurzel) ultimately originate from wild Sea Beet Beta maritima which is native to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. Swiss chard is a leafy variety, cooked like spinach and referred to, incorrectly, as spinach in South Africa. It was referred to by Aristotle in about 350 BC and was probably cultivated well before this. Rich in minerals (particularly magnesium but also calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium) and also vitamins (particularly Vitamin A).

Brassica oleracea (Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Kale, Kohlrabi)

Family: Brassicaceae

Brassica oleracea originates from the Atlantic seaboard of Europe and the Mediterranean. It has been used as a vegetable for more than 2500 years and through selective breeding for particular characteristics of the plant, six main vegetables have been produced from this one species. (See also under Vegetables from flowers).


Cichorium endivia (Endive)

Family: Asteraceae

Leaves have been used in salads since at least Greek and Roman times. Closely related to Chicory Cichorium intybus, but distinguished mainly by being annual rather than perennial.


Cichorium intybus (Belgium endive, Chicory)

Originates in Europe and western Asia. There are three main varieties: Wild chicory is a weed (including in southern Africa) and has medicinal properties, Belgium endive is eaten in a similar way to lettuce, and the roots of Coffee chicory are used as a coffee additive or substitute.


Cynara cardunculus (Cardoon)

Family: Asteraceae

The fleshy leaf bases are eaten as a vegetable and the dried flowers are used for curdling milk. Originates from southern Europe and Northwest Africa. In the same tribe of the daisy family as thistles.


Lactuca sativa (Lettuce)

Family: Asteraceae

Lettuce originates from the wild Lactuca serriola found in the Mediterranean and Near East and has been transformed from an erect plant with bitter leaves to various cultivars including ones with distinctive heads of chlorophyll deficient leaves. 

Rheum x cultorum (Rhubarb)

The maroon-coloured leaf-stalks are stewed and eaten as a pudding.

Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (Watercress)

Family: Brassicaceae

Watercress is native to Europe where it grows in streams, ditches, springs and fast-flowing waters. It has been used as a salad plant since at least Roman times and the first records of it being grown commercially date back to 1750 in Germany. Besides being used in salads, it is put in sandwiches and used in soups and oriental stir-fry dishes. It has a fresh, clean peppery taste.


Spinacea oleracea (Spinach)

Family: Amaranthaceae

Appears to have been selectively cultivated from Spinacea tetrandra which is native to the mountainous regions of southwestern Asia (the Himalayas and Afghanistan). The first known record of using Spinach as a vegetable dates back to China in the 7th to 8th centuries AD and the first record of its use in Europe dates to the 1200's


Rarely used leafy vegetables include Atriplex hortensis (Orache)Basella alba (Malabar spinach, Ceylon spinach)

Vegetables from shoots

Apium graveolens (Celery)

Family: Apiaceae

Native to Europe and Asia. Cultivation of celery was undertaken by the Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and three main varieties were developed: Chinese celery, stalk celery and celeriac. Stalk celery is the main variety used in southern Africa and typically is used in salads and in soups.

Asparagus officinalis (Asparagus)

Family: Asparagaceae

Originates from Europe. Served as a delicacy in Greek and Roman times. Young shoots are cooked and eaten. The smell in one’s urine after eating asparagus is caused by excretion of the substance methyl mercaptan.

Cichorium intybus (Chicory)

Family: Asteraceae

Eaten raw (eg. in salads), or braised or fried. Root used as substitute for coffee. Originates from Europe and western Asia.


Vegetables from shoots that are rarely eaten in southern Africa include: palm hearts, which are young shoots harvested from Bactris gasipaes (Pejibaye, Peach palm).

Vegetables from flowers

Brassica oleracea (Brocolli, Cauliflower)

Family: Brassicaceae

Brassica oleracea has been bred into six main vegetables, four of them derived from the leaves (cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Kale and Kohlrabi) and two of them derived from the flowers (Brocolli, Cauliflower). 

Cynara scolymus (Globe artichoke)

Family: Asteraceae

The flowerhead is eaten as a vegetable. A cultigen species, probably derived from the Cynara carduncellus (Cardoon) which originates from southern Europe and North Africa.


Vegetables from fruit

Abelmoschus esculentus (Okra, Lady's fingers, Gumbo)

Believed to be native to tropical West Africa and is cultivated for the young fruit, which are eaten as a vegetable. It is cultivated on a small scale in southern Africa and is known to grow wild in this region.


Capsicum annuum (Sweet and Chili Pepper)

Family: Solaneae

Peppers orginate from Central America where most of the main varieties were developed by local Indians. Once peppers were discovered by the Spaniards and Portuguese they were rapidly introduced worldwide and eagerly incorporated into local cuisines. Sweet peppers can be eaten raw or cooked; chilli or hot pepper are used in seasoning. 

Cucumis anguria (Gherkin, West Indian gherkin)  

Family: Cucurbitaceae

The Gherkin originates from southwestern Africa and the wild form (bitter with spikey fruit, leaves and stems) is widely distributed in the northern parts of southern Africa. The Gherkin is thought to have been brought to the West Indies in the slave trade days (probably from Angola), where it became popular as a vegetable. The most common use of gherkins is to pickle them when young but they also boiled fresh and eaten as a vegetable. Most so-called pickled gherkins sold in shops in southern Africa are in fact baby cucumbers. Nutritionally gherkins have some minerals and vitamins but nothing in large amounts.

Cucumis sativus (Cucumber)

Family: Cucurbitaceae

Originates from a wild species growing in India that was domesticated more than 2000 years ago. Cucumbers today are mainly grown in hothouses. They are usually eaten sliced in salads or on sandwiches but are also blended up for cold sauces and soups. Less commonly, they are used in cooked dishes. Young cucumbers are pickled as gherkins (see true Gherkin).

Cucurbita moschata (Butternut)

Family: Cucurbitaceae

Cucurbita moschata was domesticated from a wild species in the region from southern Mexico to northern and western South America. Archaeological remains dating to about 2000 BC have been found in Peru. There are varieities other than Butternut but the latter is the most commonly encountered in southern Africa. Butternut is cooked and eaten as a vegetable and is commonly made into a tasty soup.

Cucurbita maxima (Hubbard Squash, Winter squash)

Family: Cucurbitaceae

Cucurbita maxima originates from temperate South America where it was domesticated from Cucurbita andreana which is native to Argentina and Uruguay. The earliest archaeological remains are from 1800 BC in Peru. There are a wide variety of cultivars with Hubbard being the most commonly encountered in southern Africa. Varieties of Cucurbita maxima can be distinguished from those of Cucurbita pepo by soft rounded stems, not angular and bristly. Fruit have high levels of minerals and Vitamin A.


Cucurbita pepo (Pumpkin, Gem Squash, Marrow, Courgette)

Family: Cucurbitaceae

Cucurbita pepo was domesticated in North America from wild Cucurbita texana, occurring in the south central USA, and Cucurbita fraterna, occurring in northeastern Mexico. It has angled stems with prickles whereas those of Cucurbita maxima (Pumpkin, Hubbard squash) are soft and rounded. From archeological excavations in Mexico, domestication can be dated back to about 8000 BC. Squashes were introduced to Europe by returning Spanish explorers in the 1500's. They are eaten cooked as a vegetable. The seeds are nutritious in that they are rich in zinc and omega 3 oils.

Hibiscus esculenta (Okra)

Family: Malvaceae

The young fruit are eaten as a vegetable. They are very mucilaginous which gives soups and caseroles a thick consistency. Okra is tropical in origin but there is uncertainty whether it was domesticated in Africa or India. 


Lycopersicon esculentum (Tomato)

Family: Solaneae

Tomatoes originate in South America and were domesticated in Mexico. They were introduced to Europe by the Spaniards in the 1500's and were initially regarded with grave suspicion because of the reputation of Solanum-like fruit as being poisonous. Even by 1800, people in northern Europe were anti-tomato whereas in Spain it had become the most commonly eaten vegetable.

Olea europaea (Olive)

Family: Oleaceae

Olives stones have been found in archaeological sites dating as far back as 9000 BC, although only from about 3500 BC is there clear evidence of domestication (in the Mediterranean region). In order to make olives palatible, they need to be soaked in alkali liquid to extract a bitter glucoside they contain.


Persea americana (Avocado)

Family: Lauraceae

Native to Central and South America. It was being eaten by people more than 9000 years ago but was domesticated only about 2500 years ago. The name 'Avocado' and comes from the Aztec name meaning 'testicle tree'. It is a nutritious fruit with high levels of mainly unsaturated oils, minerals, vitamins and reasonable levels of protein.

Solanum melongena (Aubergine / Egg plant / Brinjal)

Family: Solaneae

Origin India. Introduced into Spain and northern Africa by arab traders in the Middle Ages, by the 15th century was established in Italy and in France by the 18th century. Uses Cooked as a vegetable, eg. in ratatouille. Has a very spongy texture so that when you fry it, it soaks up vast quantities of oil. However, once the heat reaches a certain level, the spongy structure collapses and much of the oil is removed.

Zea mays (Maize, Mielie, Corn)

Corn eaten on the cob classifies as a vegetable but processed off the cob it can be regarded as a grain. Maize was domesticated in Mexico about 7000 years ago and by the time Columbus arrived in the New World, there were already many varieties. It was introduced to Africa in the 16th century and over time came to replace sorghum as the staple food in all but the drier areas.


Vegetables from bulbs

Allium cepa (Onion, Spring Onion, Shallot)

Family: Alliaceae

Domesticated as a vegetable that is eaten raw or cooked. Exact origins uncertain but thought to have been domesticated from one or more species in Central Asia. 

Allium porrum (Leek)

Family: Alliaceae

The swollen, overlapping leaf bases of the Leak are eaten cooked as a vegetable. The Leek originates from the wild species Allium ameloprasum which occurs from Portugal and North Africa eastwards to Turkey, Iran and about Tajikistan. 

Allium porrum (Leek)

Allium sativum (Garlic)

Family: Alliaceae

Garlic is grown as a vegetable and is also used for medicinal purposes because of its natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. Allium sativum is a domesticated species, thought to have originated from Allium longicuspis which is native to Central Asia. Evidence from Egyption tombs shows that domestication of garlic goes back to at least 3200 BC. 

Allium sativum (Garlic)

Vegetables from roots and tubers

Armoracia rusticana (Horseradish)

Family: Brassicaceae

Horseradish is a pungent herb, with leaves that are used in salads and sandwiches, and roots that are used for sauces that are added to meat. It is also used for various medical complaints. It is native to southern Russia and Eastern Ukraine. It has become naturalised in Europe, North America and New Zealand, where it can be found growing along roadsides. Cultivation dates back only to about Roman and Greek times, about 2000 years ago. 


Beta vulgaris var. esculenta (Beetroot)

Family: Amaranthaceae

All the varieties of Beta vulgaris (Chard, Beetroot, Sugarbeet, Mangel-wurzel) ultimately originate from wild Sea Beet Beta maritima which is native to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. Eaten in Roman times at which time it was a long, white root. The swollen red root originated in about the mid 1500's. Its colour is the result of high concentrations of red betalains (nitrogen-containing pigments). If a person is doubly recessive for a certain gene, s/he is unable to break down this pigment and it is passed in the urine. Beetroot contains high levels of magnesium and manganese.


Brassica campestris (Turnip)

Family: Brassicaceae

Turnip is a variety of Brassica campestris with a swollen root that is eaten cooked at a vegetable. Brassica campestris is native to Europe and Asia and was grown from at least 3500 years ago as an oilseed crop in India. In Roman times, the Gauls and other European groups were growing turnips and this vegetable had probably been grown in this region much earlier than this. Turnips were also grown for feeding livestock.

Colocasia esculenta (Elephant's Ear, Taro Potato, Cocoyam)

Family: Araceae

This member of the Arum Lily family orginates from India and has tubers that are cooked and eaten in a similar manner to potatoes. It has been under cultivation in Southeast Asia for about 10 000 years and is now grown widely in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. It has been cultivated in suitable parts of southern Africa for centuries and was possibly first introduced here by Portuguese traders before 1500. It grows best in moist heavy soils and plants take 5-10 months to reach maturity. The tubers contain mainly starch but also have good levels of vitamin C, phosphorus and iron.


Daucus carota (Carrot)

Family: Apiaceae

Vegetable, eaten raw or cooked. Rich in carotene which is the precursor of vitamin A. First domesticated in Afganistan. Early varieties had anthocyanin pigments in them giving the carrot a red, purple or black colour. A yellow variety without anthocyanin arose in the 16th century and became popular. In the 17th century in Holland the familiar orange variety rich in carotene was produced.

Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke)

Family: Asteraceae

The tuber is eaten cooked in casseroles and sauces or eaten raw in salads. Originates from North America. Introduced to Europe in the 17th century.


Arctium lappa (Burdock, Gobo)

Native to Europe and introduced to Asia and North America. Young roots are eaten as a vegetable, like carrots, mainly in Japan (where it is called Gobo). They are also grated into stews and sliced into stir fries. In France and Italy, young shoots and leaves are added to soups. Cultivated mainly as a vegetable crop, particularly in Japan. Has been cultivated in southern Africa, but not well known here.


Ipomoea batatas (Sweet potato)

Family: Convolvulaceae

Sweet potatoes fall within the same genus as Morning Glory and originate from Central and South America where they were already being cultivated by 2500 BC. 


Manihot esculenta (Cassava)

Family: Euphorbiaceae

Originates from Central America. Tapioca is manufactured from the starchy tuber. It can also be used to produce an alcoholic drink and to make flour. The leaves can be eaten as a vegetable.


Pastinaca sativa (Parsnip)

Family: Apiaceae

The Parsnip is in the same family as the Carrot (Apiaceae) and like carrots it is biennial producing a long edible tapering root in its first year and then flowering the following year. Wild Parsnip is native to central and southern Europe. The origin and date of domestication of Parsnip is uncertain. 


Raphanus sativus (Radish) 

Family: Brassicaceae

Early cultivars of Radish were elongate and black rather than round and red. Radish is thought to have been domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean, prior to 2780 BC. Radish is normally eaten raw in salads, but in Asia it is also cooked and a special variety has been developed with long seed pods that are eaten.

Solanum tuberosum (Potato)

Family: Solanaceae

Potatoes originate from South America where people have been cultivating them for more than 4000 years. They consist mainly of starch but also have at least 3% protein and some vitamin C. The green tissues in green potatoes contain substances called alkaloids which when consumed in large quatities are poisonous.


  • Phillips, R. & Rix, M. 1993. Vegetables. Pan Books, London.
  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
  • van Wyk, B.-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World - Identification, Culinary Uses and Nutritional Value. Briza, Pretoria.
  • Kruger, M., Sayed, N., Langenhoven, M. and Holing, F. 1998. Composition of South African Foods: Vegetables and Fruit. Tygerberg, Medical Research Council.


  • NewCrop. A very useful site that provides abundant information on crop plants. Highly recommended.

Text by Hamish G. Robertson