Humboldtians in Focus

The Miracle Plant

By Georg Scholl

Nigeria it is supposed to prevent malnutrition, in Europe to help make indigenous fruit resistant to the consequences of climate change. Odunayo Adebooye is researching into the snake tomato.

The humidity in the hothouse hits you in the face, mingled with a strange aroma. The intensive smell exudes from the flowers, fruit and leaves of the Trichosanthes cucumerina L., the snake gourd. Where it hails from in south western Nigeria it is also known as the snake tomato because the ripe fruit is a rich red colour and supposedly tastes like tomatoes. At the moment, most of the fruit resembles pale cucumbers. But that could be due to the rainy summer we've had in Germany, because there are a hundred of them growing far from the African sun in the hothouse belonging to the Division of Horticultural Sciences at the Institute of Crop Science and Resource Conservation (INRES) at Bonn University. They were brought here and cultivated by the Nigerian horticultural scientist, Odunayo Adebooye. He wants to discover more about this little-researched plant which in his own country is dismissed as a kind of poor man's tomato.

The reason for this is that Trichosanthes cucumerina is really potent. It has far more vitamin C, vitamin A, raw proteins, essential amino acids and calcium than the more popular and more widespread tomato and various other vegetables. At the same time, it is less demanding as far as soil is concerned and thus ideal for ground lacking humus such as the sort on which the farmers in south western Nigeria are forced to try and cultivate their vegetables. As a basic foodstuff and vitamin provider it could prevent malnutrition and help fight the eye diseases which are particularly prevalent amongst children in the region. And the cultivation itself would be a further source of income for farmers.

Trichosanthes cucumerina L.
Trichosanthes cucumerina L.
Photo: Georg Scholl

However, first of all, more has to be known about the snake tomato, and more people have to be prepared to use it. If anyone is an ideal ambassador for this it is Adebooye. The plants filling half the hothouse here in Bonn and reaching right up under the roof are his babies. His fatherly pride is obvious when he presents his plants, his eyes shining, "Can you smell the aroma? Just look at this fruit. Here it only gets as big as a cucumber, but in Nigeria it can grow to a length of one metre!" As the lanky African in trainers bounces speedily through the institute and hothouses, meeting colleagues along the way, it becomes apparent that his enthusiasm is contagious. Everyone knows Adebooye and his plants. The snake tomato fan club is increasing in numbers.

Outwitting the Bonn Climate

Yet at the beginning it wasn't so easy. Even though Bonn, by contrast with Adebooye's institute at home, had all the necessary technical prerequisites for investigating the optimum crop and growing conditions for the miracle plant, the snake tomato missed its natural habitat. The seeds brought from Nigeria just didn't want to germinate. Even in the hothouse the soil was too cold. So German colleagues built some special apparatus, a kind of under-floor heating system, to increase the temperature of the cultivation soil to 25 to 30 degrees Celsius. In the well-tempered earth the plants germinated even quicker than they do at home, and with the aid of artificial, more intensive light irradiation grew faster, too. However, the next problem was lurking just around the corner. Native German insects couldn't pollinate the fl owers. In Nigeria this is the task of certain types of butterfly. Adebooye had to pollinate the flowers mechanically, transferring the pollen with a brush which wasn't easy. Probably only agricultural scientists or at best rose-growers can really imagine the utter happiness of seeing one's labour rewarded at last and the first fruit actually sprouting.

In Bonn, Adebooye has discovered a lot of things which are important for cultivating and popularising the plant and has supported them with scientifically-sound data. He knows which minerals the ideal soil has to contain; he knows the concentration of the various nutrients which make the fruit so attractive from a nutritional physiological point of view. He knows how much sunlight the plant needs for optimum growth and that it is not susceptible to pests and fungi. The snake tomato can also withstand strong UV exposure as Adebooye demonstrated by a simulation with artificial irradiation on some of the plants. European fruit and vegetable varieties react much more sensitively under the same conditions. They get sunburnt.

“At best rose-growers can really imagine the utter happiness of seeing the first fruit actually sprouting.”

What the protective mechanisms are that prevent this from happening to the snake tomato is something that doesn't only interest Adebooye but also his academic host and head of department, Georg Noga. How plants react to strain and produce a high yield nonetheless is one focus of his research. Investigating the snake tomato could enable him to gain insights which might be utilised in the cultivation of new agricultural crops that are less susceptible to sunburn. "I often hear people saying that scientists from developing countries only come here to learn something from us - classic one-way street development, so to speak. But in this project the give and take people are always talking about really is taking place. Cooperation is increasing knowledge on our side, too," Noga claims. He has been head of the Division of Horticultural Sciences at INRES for roughly the last ten years. With his grey hair, formal suit and tie he is the epitome of the serious German professor, and not just from a Nigerian perspective. Adebooye always addresses him as Prof, just as though he himself were still a student and as though respectful distance were what was expected from a 40-year-old scientist from a developing country towards a German professor. But when Adebooye says Prof it doesn't only seem to signal respect but intimacy, too. He and his host are a team.

The degree of respect he really has for his German colleague's experience and know-how is something Adebooye is quick to emphasise. He is thankful for what he can learn here and for the incomparably better conditions for his research work. The enthusiasm is mutual. "Ideally, I'd like him to stay here," Noga comments. "He's an outstanding scientist."  

Unfortunately, the collaboration will be curtailed in just a few weeks. Adebooye's own university has called him back because they are short of teaching staff . The joint experiments they had planned on the plant's UV resistance will have to be carried out just by Noga, together with his colleague Christa Lankes who has already been closely involved in the experiments so far. Adebooye, on the other hand, will take up where he left off in Nigeria after he had discovered the plant in a small village and started investigating its potential. At the time, he organised a scientific conference and launched his advertising campaign. Every participant was given a packet of seeds and started cultivating the snake tomato in his or her own region. Using the Bonn results Adebooye is now planning the next stage of plant dissemination.

But there is still a while to go before he has to say goodbye. Adebooye, Noga and Christa Lankes are sitting together in Noga's office celebrating a special moment. The fi rst snake tomato grown in Bonn is about to be served. Adebooye cuts it lengthwise with a razor blade and places the deep red, fleshy kernels on the plates usually used for biscuits. They taste exotically sweet and are reminiscent of kaki fruit. "Not bad. But the flavour certainly leaves room for development," Noga comments. Whether the snake tomato ends up on kitchen tables in Germany is something consumers will have to decide. Noga's institute works together with a partner who deals with the marketing of new and improved agricultural crops. So maybe Trichosanthes cucumerina L. will be found on the shelves of the supermarket round the corner at some stage. Perhaps instead of what is vastly over-rated in this country - the common vine tomato. Odunayo Adebooye would certainly be very proud of his baby.


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Odunayo Clement Adebooye Odunayo Clement Adebooye

Dr. Odunayo Clement Adebooye teaches plant physiology and agricultural science at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. In 2007, he was a Georg Forster Research Fellow at Bonn University and from November 2005 to June 2006 conducted research at the Central Food Technological Research Institute at the United Nations University in Mysore, India.

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