The safou (scientific name Dacryodes edulis) is an evergreen fruit tree native to the African continent. Its branches tend to spread out, with the smaller ones hanging towards the ground.
The safou is a dioecious species but trees can be not only male or female but also hermaphrodites. Some male specimens can produce fruits because they grow a small number of female flowers. The flowers are pollinated by local bees, but the time and duration of the bloom can vary according to the location. Normally, the bloom happens at the start of the year, between January and April, while the fruits become ripe starting in May until the end of October. There can also be a second fruiting period, with lesser production, between the months of November and March. This is possible because some flowers can develop very early, very late, or in a permanent bloom that lasts a few months in a row.
The safou is evergreen and can be considered of medium size. It doesn't grow higher than 12 m tall when cultivated but can reach between 18 and 40 m in the wild. It has a rich and very dense crown, which starts from branches at a lower level. The section of the trunk before branching starts is short and not very straight, with a diameter between 50 and 170 cm. The bark has a rough surface, is grey in color and produces a white scented resin that gives the Latin name of the plant. Leaves are compound and pubescent when young, which goes away at maturity, with a glossy top and between 5 and 8 leaflet pairs. The flowers are about 5 mm long, with three lobes and a nice fragrance. They can be found on star-shaped inflorescences with a high density. Each flower consists of 3 brown sepals, 3 yellow petals, 6 white stamens and a strongly grooved ovary. Inflorescence axis is between 10 and 42 cm long.
The safou fruits are of the stone type, with an ellipsoidal shape and various sizes. They can have a length between 4 and 12 cm, with a width of 3 to 6 cm. They look similar to an olive and have a thin pink skin that becomes dark blue or violet when ripe, with a thin layer of flesh. Based on the characteristics of the fruit and field research, two varieties of the plant have been identified in Nigeria: D. e. var. edulis and D. e. var. parvicarpa. The fruit of the first variety tends to be large and long, with a thick layer of pulp between 3.5 and 9 mm. It also looks different, with the branches wrapping up around the trunk and branchlets growing upwards. The second variety (D. e. var. parvicarpa) has a smaller round or conical fruit, with a thin layer of flesh of no more than 2-3.5 mm.
In its native range, the safou tree has numerous uses in traditional and modern herbal medicine and is considered effective against a wide range of problems. Nigerians apply the resin as a cure for skin diseases, especially those caused by parasites, and use a pulp prepared from the bark to speed up the healing of wounds. A bark decoction is used in oral hygiene in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as both a mouthwash and a gargle. Crushed as a powder and mixed with maleguetta pepper, the bark is used as an emmenagogue and also against dysentery, anemia and oral bleeding. The same powder can be mixed with palm oil and applied externally against skin conditions and in order to relieve pain and stiffness in general. The root can be made as a decoction and ingested against leprosy. For anti-emetic purposes, the Congolese often eat raw safou leaves with kola nuts. Leaf decoctions can be used against fever or headaches as a vapour bath and there is also possible to insert leaf sap into the ears in order to treat ear problems.
African natives have been using the plant for a very long time in their traditional practices, especially against infectious problems like skin issues, fevers, open wounds or even dysentery. This has prompted modern researchers to investigate the safou, which was found to have significant antiseptic and antioxidant properties, also being effective against the sickle-cell disease. Among the organic compounds found in the safou plant are saponins, terpenes, flavonoids, tannins, and alkaloids.
The safou tree is also widely used by modern herbal medical practitioners and serves as an ingredient in numerous healing formulas. These are effective against the same problems treated by traditional medicine: skin issues, fever, sores, dysentery and wounds. The fruit is known to be diuretic, antioxidant, anti sickle-cell and anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertensive.
The fruit, also nicknamed the African pear, is a major source of calcium. This makes it an excellent food choice for the maintenance and development of all the bones, as well as human teeth.
The African pear has also been found to be very rich in oils and fats. The high amount of fatty acids of the safou fruit, as well as its general chemical composition, suggests it could be very useful for industrial purposes. By extracting the oil from the African pear, the locals could replace in both home and industrial use some other products like groundnut oil, coconut oil, palm oil or other types of vegetal oil in general.
The main component of the fruit is an essential polyunsaturated fatty acid named linoleic acid. It has a very useful property of decreasing the risk of vascular accidents. Compared to other types of unsaturated acids, the oil of the safou fruit has a stronger oxidative stability.
This stability is believed to be the main reason why the oil is so beneficial when applied on the skin against irritation. It also makes it usable as a cream on the body, without any addition. It penetrates the skin very fast and keeps it well hydrated. However, extracts from the D. edulis fruit can also be added to other creams as a stabilizer providing in addition a very useful antiseptic action.
Both the tree resin and exudates from the fruit have a very nice smell when burned. This pleasant fragrance is why they have been traditionally used in the manufacturing of incense. The locals believe that the smoke can protect from malicious spirits.
The African pear is very rich in nutrients. It is a great source of antioxidants, like the vitamins C and E. By neutralizing free radicals, these can counter the effects of aging and keep the skin healthy, with a youthful look. The fruits are also a source of other bioactive compounds like vitamin B6, potassium, amino acids, fibers, phosphorus, riboflavin, carbohydrates, niacin, thiamine, magnesium and pantothenate folate.
The tree also has a number of industrial uses. Its resin is flammable with a nice smell and can be used as fuel for lighting. Leaves are good as manure in farming, while the wood can be burned. The large dimensions of the tree makes it useful to stop soil erosion and to improve its stability and quality.
Besides being burned to produce light, the resin is also useful as a makeshift glue. Since the tree produces a large quantity of leaves, these serve as biomass and improve the soil around it. It is also a beautiful tree than can be planted for ornamental purposes. The wood is good in carpentry and is normally used in the crafting of axe shafts and various other tool handles. It is not easy to differentiate the sapwood from the heartwood, since both share the same color, between white and light pink, with a flexible structure.
It is extremely easy to prepare safou. They can be eaten raw, by keeping the fruit inside the mouth until the flesh becomes like soft butter and can be consumed. Usually, they are boiled briefly in hot water or roasted on a grill or in charcoal.
The buttery texture of the pulp makes the fruit similar to an avocado. Just like the avocado, it can be spread on bread, replacing actual butter or margarine. It is definitely a delicious combination.
The tree thrives in tropical forests that provide shade, with plenty of moisture. It can also grow in numerous other habitats and tolerates other conditions of humidity and heat. It is native to an area of Western and Central Africa from Uganda in the East to Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the West, all the way to Angola in the extreme South. It has been naturalized in plantations in Malaysia.
The safou enjoys shady tropical forests with very humid conditions, but doesn't tolerate flooding. However, it grows in swamps, as well as the so-called gallery forests in areas with multiple seasons. Because of the plant's remarkable ability to adapt to various other conditions, it is very easy to cultivate.