15 August 2019
By: Eben van Tonder
An installment in the series, The Salt Bridge
I have been searching for salt in Southern Africa as I have done around the world. Ancient people knew salt very well! They knew that high salt concentrations occur naturally in certain plants. The ash from these plants was used to “salt” meat before they were hung out to dry and used extensively in cooking. I realised that one can get a glimpse of ancient technology by seeing what Western scientists learned from the indigenous peoples they encountered. Salt that is extracted from vegetation is an excellent case in point. Shrubs and trees that contain large concentrations of salt were of interest to Western Scientists, not for cooking purposes, but for animal feed. I imagine how Westerners pulled up their noses for meat that was salted with ash, and how botanical scientists reveled in the knowledge of the saltbush for the purpose of feeding sheep, as if they discovered it.
South African Karoo
Any farmer will tell you that livestock needs salt to be healthy. In South Africa, from very early days of colonisation, farmers in the Karoo region learned the secret and value of the salt-bush. The Afrikaner boer gained knowledge of brak-plants or brakveld and knew that livestock will do well to feed on it due to its high salt content. The fact of its abundance in semi-arid regions like the Karoo and its scarcity in grassland regions explains why semi-desert regions are often preferred for livestock farming with small stock like sheep. (Beinart, 2003)
Farmers found that saline bushes kept parasites in check and is, therefore, the first to be overgrazed. Fortunately, these bush have the ability to recover quickly. Ganna (salsola species) is found in the Karoo region of South Africa. Salsola is from the Latin salsus, meaning “salty”. In Australia, the saltbush is the atriplex species and, as in South Africa, it is closely associated with the control of sheep parasites. (Beinart, 2003) The name saltbush is derived from the fact that the plants retain salt in their leaves and they are able to grow in areas affected by soil salination.
From South Africa to Australia
The honour of alerting the British colonies of its value goes as far back as 1869 to Kew. There are many plants that are classified as salt-bush or a sheep bush. Another excellent example is Penzia virgata. It is closely related to the common Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and Wormwood (Artemisia) (Kew, 1896) Penzia virgata, the “Goed-Karroo Bosje”, covers large areas of the Karroo Veldt. In 1873 a report appeared in the Report of the Royal Gardens about the sheep-bush of the Cape of Good Hope that was successfully introduced to South Australia by seeds supplied by Kew in 1969. Dr. Schomburghk, director of the Botanical Garden, Adelaide, commented on the bush, how suited it is for the Australian climate. He mentions that it has an “aromatic bitterness” which the sheep likes and which gives the mutton a distinct flavour, very familiar to South Africans. (Kew, 1969)
Ther are many different plants that fit the characteristic as salt bush. It is especially found in parts of the world where alkaline salts occur as part of the soil, sodium salts in particular. Goosefoots (Chenopodiaceae) is another excellent example. These salt-bushes occur naturally in Australia and has been an ally of the sheep farmer for many years. It is a large family with 302 species in Australia, found especially in arid and saline areas. Atriplex nummularia Lindl. is, of all the Australian salt-bushes, the most famous. (Alson, 1893)
From Australia, back to South Africa
Not only was the South African salt-bush exported to Australia, but two Australian varieties were successfully introduced to South Africa. Mr. E Garwood Alston, of the Van Wyk’s Vley Estate, reports that in April 1886 Professor MacOwan sent them six seeds of Atriplex halimoides, Lindl.. Only two of these came up. One died making the one survivor the mother plant of all subsequent plants in South Africa. Later, Professor MacOwan sent them seeds from Atriplex nummularia. (Alson, 1893)
The Australian species are better fodder plants on account that they are less salty than the South African ones. This means that animals can eat more of it. It is known in South Africa and Namibia that eating too much of it is detrimental to the health of the animals as can be expected due to the high concentration of salt. (Alson, 1893)
The saltbush family (Salsola species) is large and confusing and includes vegetables such as beetroot (Beta vulgaris) and spinach (Spinacia spp.). These species not only occur in South Africa in the Karoo, but throughout the drier parts of Namibia. They are centered around the Luderitz area where over 20 species are endemic to the region and the southern Namib Desert. (namibian.org)
In 1889, Alston traveled from Parys in the Free State, through Hope Town, Kimberley, Boshof, Bultfontein, Kroonstad, Vredefort and he distributed seeds to the local farmers. My family hail from these areas and I am intrigued if my Oom Jan Kok has any memory of saltbush on any of their farms. Kew also sent seeds to the Government Secretaries of the Free State and the Transvaal and various editors of newspapers. President Reitz of the Free State took a personal interest in the distribution of the seeds to farmers.
India, Algiers, and Namibia
There was an attempt to establish the salt bush in northern parts of India which failed due to high rainfall in certain time of the year. Seeds were also sent to Algiers and Namibia (German South West Africa) where the country was being stocked by Merino sheep. (Alson, 1893)
Another saltbush is Salvadora persica Garc.. “It is a multi-purpose shrub (Ecocrop, 2011). Saltbush fruits can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and stored, sometimes as a famine food (Ecocrop, 2011; Freedman, 2009; Orwa et al., 2009). Saltbush leaves and young shoots may also be used as vegetables. Roots and small branches are used to make toothbrushes in India, Arabia, and Africa. Saltbush yields a soft, termite-resistant wood used for construction and furniture as well as for firewood and charcoal. The seeds contain 30-40% of non-edible oil that has over 50% lauric and myristic acids and few C8 and C10 fatty acids, which makes saltbush an alternative source of oil for the soap and detergent industries. Saltbush also has a wide range of uses in ethno-medicine and ethno-veterinary medicine (Orwa et al., 2009). In veterinary medicine it is mainly used against helminthiasis, brucellosis, retention of the foetal membrane and anthrax (Reuben et al., 2011; Toyang et al., 2007; Gezahegn, 2006; Ole-Miaron, 2003, Macharia et al., 2001).
Saltbush is readily browsed by all classes of ruminants. Its leaves make good evergreen fodder, available when other species have disappeared. They are a valuable source of water during droughts, due to their high water content (Shamat et al., 2010; Orwa et al., 2009).” (feedipedia.org) Many references state that Salvadora persica is not used to cook meat in due to a bad taste of its leaves, while at least one mentions its use with stew meat.
The concept of the saltbush was well established across many regions in the world. Its knowledge is ancient. African tradition is replete in reference to its ash being used as a meat preservative and as a condiment. The source of salt used in cooking and preserving meat. It was undoubtedly used for millennia as animal feed which is what Western plant scientists picked up on in the 1800s. The saltbush is an example of ancient technology which had many different applications. It controlled parasites in animals, served as a source of salt for humans and livestock alike and was and still is used today to treat a variety of ailments depending on the specific variant and species. It takes us back to unlock one aspect of what made the ancient societies who occupied the stone ruins across Southern Africa work, especially for cattle and sheep farmers. The evidence is stacking up that salt was an integral part of the lives of the people of Southern Africa.
Alson, G. E.. 1893. “Sheep-Bushes and Salt-Bushes.” Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), vol. 1896, no. 115/116, 1896, pp. 129–140. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4118365
Beinart, W. 2003. The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the environment 1770 – 1950. Oxford University Press.