Nature & People: Vitex Doniana – Multipurpose Tree

Vitex doniana (Family Verbenaceae) is a useful, multi-purpose tree providing food, medicines and timber to a number of communities.

It is a medium-sized deciduous tree which is widespread in the savannah regions of Africa especially in Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

The plant grows to an average height of about 18m. Botanically, the tree bark is rough, pale brown or greyish-white. Leaves are opposite, glabrous, usually with 5 leaflets on the stalks. The leaflets are distinctly stalked, ovate, obovate-elliptic or oblong, entirely dark green on the above, and pale greyish-green below and a leathery texture, with a few scattered stellate hairs on the upper surface.

The flower petals are white, except on largest lobe, which is purple. The fruit is oblong and about 3cm long. It is green when young, turning purplish-black on ripening and with a starchy black pulp later on. Each fruit contains one hard, conical seed. The Vitex doniana species generally exhibit hermaphroditism, where both functional male and female organs are in the same flower.

Vitex doniana is known for its delicious black fruits which fall from the trees when ripe. The fruit has a sweet taste and is occasionally sold in the markets. Apart from the fruits eaten fresh, in some communities, the fruits are made into alcoholic liquor and wine. Dried and fresh fruits are eaten as a remedy for diarrhoea and to increase the level of vitamin A and B in the body. The fruits can also be made into jam. In addition, the young leaves can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable or in other sauces.

Traditionally, Vitex doniana has numerous applications in traditional medicine. The fruit is used to improve fertility and also known for treating many important health conditions including treating anemia, jaundice and leprosy. The root decoction is used for treating ankylostomiasis, rickets, gastro-intestinal disorders and jaundice. Women drink its decoction for backaches. The young, more tender leaves are pounded and the juice is squeezed into the eyes, to treat eye conjunctivitis and other eye complaints.

A leaf decoction of Vitex doniana is applied externally as a galactagogue, which increases the flow of a mother’s milk, and against headaches, stiffness, measles, rash, fever, chicken pox and hemiplegia and internally as a tonic, anodyne and febrifuge and to treat respiratory diseases. Additionally, a mixture of paste of pounded leaves and bark are applied to wounds and burns to accelerate the healing process.

Powdered stem bark decoction is taken to treat colic, stomach complaints and kidney troubles. The bark is also used against leprosy and liver diseases and in some communities to control bleeding after childbirth. In some communities, the decoction of chopped stem bark of Vitex doniana is taken orally to improve fertility. The twigs are used as chewing sticks for teeth cleaning.

In addition to the health benefits, Vitex doniana tree produces white-ish to light brown teak-like termite-resistant timber. It is quite hard and suitable for light building material, furniture, carvings and boats. The leaves, pods and seeds are a good fodder for domestic animals. The tannin chemical obtained from the plant bark is used as dye in domestic art and craft work.

– Richard Komakech

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