They might not all be indigenous, but these veggies are true local stars
Along with marmite, biltong and Mrs Ball’s chutney, South Africans abroad miss gem squash as this particular variety of the Cucurbita family is seldom grown elsewhere.
Growing: In spring, sow seeds directly in soil enriched with compost and well-rotted manure. The resulting plants will quickly ramble across a large area. If you have a small garden, provide a tall tripod or similar support for them, and with a little encouragement, they’ll happily climb up it. This will also reduce insect attacks and encourage all-round ripening.
Don’t overcrowd them as they’re prone to fungal diseases. Pumpkin fly can lay eggs in the young fruit; remove the stung ones to prevent breeding and use neem oil if necessary. Use Biogrow’s Bioneem or buy neem oil at selected health shops and dilute one teaspoon in a litre of water, add a teaspoon of dishwashing liquid and use as a spray.
Harvesting: Harvest gems from early summer to mid autumn; regular picking encourages more fruit. They can be picked while still small and their skins thin. If you plan to store them, leave them to grow bigger and develop thicker skins.
In the kitchen: Simply steam or bake them and serve with butter, salt and pepper. Baby gems can be eaten whole – skin, pips and all. With mature gems it’s better to scoop out the pips and remove the flesh from the skins.
AFRICAN HORNED CUCUMBER
It might look exotic but this member of the Cucurbita family is indigenous to southern Africa. Also known as jelly melon, horned melon and wild cucumber, it is a prolific bearer with a single plant producing up to 100 fruit.
Growing: Originally from the Kalahari, this plant is less fussy than normal cucumbers. It’s a summer vegetable and won’t survive frost. Sow seeds in a mound of soil, enriched with compost and well-rotted manure. They are rampant spreaders and should be supported by a trellis, which saves space, improves all-round ripening and reduces insect attacks.
Harvesting: They can be picked at any stage of development. While still young and green, the pips and skin won’t be as tough. When fully ripe they turn bright yellow-orange and the flesh can be scooped out with a spoon. The spines are sharp
so wear gloves. Harvest immature cucumbers from early to midsummer, and the fully ripe fruit from late summer
In the kitchen: With a fresh lemony-cucumber flavour, young fruit are delicious peeled and sliced with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. They can be pickled (keeping the skins on) or made into jelly, sorbet and ice cream. Flesh of the older ones can be mixed with vodka for a fresh tasting cocktail.
This nutritious, leafy plant is a traditional South African staple, often cooked like spinach. Although the green variety is most common, it also comes in various shades of red.
Growing: A member of the amaranth family, marog is adaptable and grows well under a variety of weather and soil conditions. An annual, it’s easily grown from seed sown in situ in early spring to late summer. It likes full sun and tolerates low soil fertility. It prefers warm weather and will self-seed if left to flower, but is easily controlled. Other than the occasional stink bug, it’s not bothered by diseases or pests.
Harvesting: Harvest the leaves from spring to early winter; the young leaves can be used for salads and the older ones for cooking. Harvest the seeds as they ripen by shaking the heads over a container.
In the kitchen: Young leaves taste similar to spinach. The larger leaves are delicious steamed, stir-fried or in soups. The seeds can be sprouted or used in baking.