If my memory is correct we stopped right by the ‘vavangue' bush which the most adventurous of you tasted; what are your feelings? Nothing stunning? Well of course this is nothing to compare with a juicy ripe mango or an amazing mangosteen but still a new taste to enrich your gustatory palette...Let us discover another plant, a botanical present to mankind alas not still put to full use. Known locally as ‘mourongue' this small tree which does not grow over 20 feet (6m) comes from Asia and was actually brought to Reunion by workers immigrating from India; Moringa oleifera
belongs to the Moringaceae
family which contains a single genus namely
Moringa oleifera ©
Forest & Kim Starr
Moringa with about 10 species. Called ‘drumstick tree' because of the shape of the fruits or ‘horseradish tree' as the roots happen to taste like horseradish this plant is rather interesting. It does well in subtropical to arid climates (zones 9-10) preferably in loose sandy soil; it will be deciduous in harsh areas but can be an evergreen under milder conditions, always in full sun. This tree is not only perfectly suited to places where little species would do well but it also provides food as most parts are edible; leaves, flowers, tender fruits, mature seeds, seeds oils and roots can be used for human consumption. The leaves are particularly nutritious, with a high level of several vitamins, proteins, potassium and so forth. Crushed seeds can also be used to treat unsafe water in order to make it drinkable. And if this was not enough this amazing plant can be propagated easily by sowing or cuttings. You can pick some dry fruits and take hold of a few seeds to try it home of course!
We are now reaching a turning point in the visit as we walk between two rows of sugarcane which lead to various historical plants; we of course refer here to the history of Reunion Island. As some of you may know, if you listened carefully to the guide, Reunion was a desert island until its discover in 1507 by Portugese sailors, but was not permanently occupied
Ripe cotton ready to pick!
1665 by French people. Edible fruit trees and vegetables from Africa, Asia and America were brought over and grown for the settlers then commercial crops started with coffee in 1715 as the demand for this new beverage suddenly exploded in Europe. In 1735 Reunion produced 287 tons of coffee; in 1800 it reached 4000 tons but very powerful cyclones in 1806 and 1807 resulted in general havoc within plantations.
Sun drying coffee
India, Ceylon and Indonesia started growing coffee on a very large scale which did put a halt to commercial coffee growing on Reunion. The ‘Compagnie des Indes Orientales' had this crop stopped and introduced instead cotton and tobacco; cotton was a good choice for a few years but it soon exhausted the lands as it is a very demanding plant and the American fields soon filled the market with cheaper product, so good-bye cotton. Nevertheless Gossypium speciosum can still be seen here and there in fallows and road borders on the West coast, its delicate yellow flowers becoming pink will later produce the well known white fibers surrounding the seeds but nowadays it is only used by birds to make very comfy nests! So local growers were then encouraged to turn to spices and clove became a precious harvest after some plants were daringly spirited away from the Dutch by French navigators... Syzygium aromaticum
is found in Creole gardens and sometimes has escaped in the wild in the South and East which climatic conditions fit well those trees. Myristica fragrans
, the nutmeg
Nutmeg in its shell with the aril
was also a great success as well as cinnamon and of course vanilla which still is a commercial crop here, the ‘vanille Bourbon' having a specific aroma probably because of the fertile volcanic soils. Pepper (Piper nigrum
) was another of those important spices. Most crops were to be replaced by Saccharum officinarum
(see this article
) which remains in 2012 the number one crop and exported product.
Other plants which at time were an important part of agriculture and induced deforestation even in mountainous areas are Vetyveria zizanoides (vetiver) and Pelargonium x asperum both used for perfume-based products. Those plants nowadays also suffer from concurrency by countries were labor is cheaper but are still grown at small scale and seem to be catching up again. As a matter of fact we now face a still which is the traditional tool used to distill plants, this one was hand-made in copper and steel and run by wood fire. The process is quite long and needs a specific knowledge such as when exactly to harvest the plants to be distilled, how to dispose them in the tank, how much water to add and what amount of heat to apply.
Still for essential oils distilling
We now get to the end of this visit and as the sun is already quite fierce we might as well pause in the shade and enter this traditional hut or cabin which was the common
housing place for centuries and still in use in parts of the island as recently as fifty years ago. The frame was of course made with local wood, trunks and timber of various length and width, the walls and roofs covered with palm leaves (here the endemic Latania lontaroides has been put to use and is quite effective). Vetiver straw can also make a good roof against both sun and rain, note the freshness compared to the outside, the sole result of natural ventilation.
I must thank Forest and Kim Starr from Hawaii for allowing me to use their picture of Moringa