Today’s photo makes Cadaba farinosa appear delicate and dainty, but do not be fooled. This is one practical species! Cadaba farinosa can be found in most warm arid parts of the world, where it stabilizes sand dunes, provides medicine for local people, and serves as fodder for livestock.
Cadaba farinosa is a perennial shrub species with yellowish-grey bark. On young shoots, it has alternate leaves, while on older wood, leaves are in clusters. The leaves are small, simple, silvery-grey and farinose (covered with a white powder) on both sides. Today’s photo displays the parts of the yellowish-green flowers very well. Each flower has four ovate-elliptic sepals and four clawed petals measuring 8-9mm long (I’m not sure what happened to the fourth petal in this photo). Arising from the centre of the flower is the gynophore, a long stalk that holds the gynoecium (ovule-bearing part of the flower) above the rest of the flower. Four to five stamens attach halfway up the gynophore. The fruits of Cadaba farinosa are oblong, densely farinose, and orange-red centred (when mature). The millet-sized seeds are arranged in a single layer within the fruit.
The fruit can be eaten. According to Plant Resources of Tropical Africa, most parts of the Cadaba farinosa plant have importance as famine foods. The young twigs and leaves are pounded with other grains and formed into dried patties, while the flowers are macerated and used as a sweetener. This widespread and valuable species has many common names, and one of my favorites is herd’s boy fruit, a name that originated among herders in Ethiopia. Cadaba farinosa‘s medicinal value is also seemingly significant. In the article, Phyto-Pharmacological Perspective of Cadaba farinosa Forssk., Telrandhe and Uplanchiwar discuss the medicinal uses of this species. These include the traditional use of the leaves to treat coughs, rheumatism, and parasites. The authors conclude that this species is worthy of further medicinal study due to its many pharmacologically-active compounds.
Herd’s boy fruit commonly grows in large depressions or on stabilized sand dunes, with a preference for rich, fine subsoils. It is particularly associated with termite mounds, In fact, termites may be the real heroes in this story. In Uganda, termite mounds harboured four times more Cadaba farinosa seedlings than the surrounding savannah. The same numbers were true for other species of trees and shrubs studied by Støen et. al. (2012) (PDF). Large herbivores were shown to reduce the numbers of Cadaba farinosa. This is not surprising considering the species is a prized forage crop that has levels of protein ranging from 15-18%. It is the preferred forage plant of Egyptian camels, and I imagine that wild herbivores find it just as tasty.