In Africa there are truly indigenous (from the continent) Brassica crops, and long past introduced Brassica that together can be considered the “African kales and mustards”.

And when people grow crops to feed their families they seldom mind if the plant is indigenous or introduced. When an introduced crop has been planted for generations, and becomes distinct enough to be considered an heirloom crop, it can safely be said to belong to the people who grow it and the place where it is grown.

Indigenous kales

The vastness of Africa plays host to a myriad peoples and habitats. There are two indigenous kale type plants that were domesticated in Northern Africa thousands of years ago, and spread by trade throughout the continent.

Trade and settlement from outside Africa have introduced at least two, perhaps three, further species. These have become distinct cultivars that are recognisable African leafy vegetables. These vary from easily obtainable to rare, but all deserve a place in a food garden. At least two have huge potential as commercial crops.

M’shai leaf grown and displayed by Arne Verhoef.

The first of these is an heirloom cultivar of Brassica juncea or B rapa (there is some confusion in the literature but the author feels the former is more likely) grown for generations by the VhaVenda and VaTsonga people. It is commonly known under the name of Mutshaina, or M’shai for short, or Tsunga in Zimbabwe.

Large leafed mustard

This is a large leafed mustard with a delicious, almost meaty texture and a mild mustard taste without much of the bitterness of most cultivated mustard greens. This plant is eagerly consumed by South Africans in the know, and deserves to be grown much, much more widely as an heirloom crop. This plant grows in both summer and winter (winter crops produce larger plants).

Trying to substitute it for other mustard cultivars such as Florida broadleaf proves unsuccessful , as the imposter is quickly discovered by the people eating it.

The second featured plant is a very unusual perennial kale called Kovu or Covu by most of the people growing it. This plant is widely distributed in southern Africa and is a tall (to 2m on a long, spindly stem) cultivar of Brassica oleracea var acephala.

The plants seldom flower or set seed, although an almost identical cultivar in the same group called Chomolia grown in Zimbabwe does apparently set seed. Both are normally propagated from cuttings of the small branches the plants put out on the main stems, and suckers off the root system.

Leaf harvest

The plant’s leaves are harvested from below the crown, and form a useful supply of fresh greens year-round, although it can be a bit of an aphid magnet in summer. The source that these plants are derived from is probably introduction by the Portuguese through settlement and trade as it is similar to some heirloom European cultivars of kale, but it is distinct enough to be recognised as its own, African landrace or cultivar group.

New cultivar

A newly available (in South Africa) plant which seems to belong to the Northern African indigenous Brassica nigra (or black mustard) has been on sale for the last couple of years as seed under the name of “Malawi wild mustard/- Kamuganje”. It is a good grower in both early summer and winter, with a reasonably deep root system and thick textured, mildy mustard flavoured leaves.

Rare in South Africa

The last member of this quintet is still very difficult to find in South Africa although it is grown in Zimbabwe under the name of “Chembere Dzagumana”. It is better known as Ethiopian (or Garlic) Kale overseas, and Brassica carinata in Latin.

Brassica carinata mature leaf.

This ancient crop from Ethiopia which was first domesticated more than 6 000 years ago is widely grown throughout Africa.

Most drought tolerant kale

It has a deep taproot and is probably one of the most drought tolerant kales. It is pest resistant, can be grown in summer or winter, has thick textured, almost succulent leaves with a faint garlic flavour when raw.

It deserves to be grown much more widely, in the hope that it becomes more popular in future. This plant is also an industrial oilseed crop overseas, with the oil being considered ideal for processing into jet fuel, of all things. Fresh kale and mustard greens always have a good market potential. Mutshaina and Ethiopian Kale probably have the potentially highest interest in South African markets, and the latter has a huge potential as a fresh salad ingredient.

For more information contact Jason Sampson at

Main image: Young plants of Kovu showing the large, dinner plate sized leaves. 

All images: Arne Verhoef

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