Nara Plant [Acanthosicyos horridus]
Acanthosicyos horrida forms clumps of vegetation in the dunes of the Sossuvlei region near Walvis Bay. Acanthosicyos horrida is a dioecious perennial cucurbit attaining a height of about 1.5 m. It forms plants of one sex in single clumps which may touch plants of the same or other sex nearby. It bears deep water table seeking roots.
The plants are totally leafless and have a fruiting habit of oblong spherical fruits reaching up to 25 cm average diameter. The plants are able to build up sand deposits around themselves and continuously grow to be above these sand deposits. New plants establish only when rain falls and quickly form deeply growing roots that seek the water table.
Fruits of the Nara Plant
The fruit may not be spaced apart and may occur in clusters of several touching each other. The fruits are spiny. Maturation of the fruits occurs between February and April. The fruits do not change color and remain green on the outside but the flesh surrounding the seeds dissociates from the skin, turns orange in color, extremely sweet in taste and strongly aromatic. Maturational changes are easily detected by the bushmen living in the area without breaking the fruit in any way. The fruits are used by the bushmen for two main purposes.
Purposes of Fruits
The first is for the extraction of the seed which are consumed as pips by splitting in the mouth and the second is for pulp processing where the flesh is boiled and poured to form a fruit leather. This fruit leather is eaten throughout the year and is considerably less flavorful than the pulp. The plant thus forms an important food resource because of the easy storage of both the seeds and the dried pulp (leather). The fruits are eaten also when immature by animals including jackals and rodents who do not seem to be bothered by the bitter taste of the fruits caused by cucurbitacins.
The mature pulp has a flavor which is aromatic and maybe due in part to sulphur components as in some types of Cucumis melo L. No trace can be tasted of cucurbitacins in the mature pulp. The pulp could be commercialized and used to make ice-cream, and could be freeze dried and chocolate coated. The seeds which are already sold to an European population in Walvis Bay can have their market expanded by selling the seeds either whole or dehusked in packaging developed for nuts.
Their rarity should provide a premium price and help the economic existence of the bushmen in this area. Ice-cream manufacture and freeze drying facilities are only within 30 km of the bushmen. Partnerships with firms interested in commericalizing the unique, aromatic pulp of Acanthosicyos horridus could be fostered to further improve the economic existence of the native people in the area.
The Nara plant's spiky green (and hence photosynthesising) stems have allowed them to dispense with leaves completely. This is an advantage given the propensity of leaves to lose water. Naras are perhaps not truly desert plants for their roots go down many metres to reach underground water, which they need in order to survive. From February to April and August to September the local Topnaar people harvest nara melons here.