On one of my first trips to Ethiopia, I met Professor Ermias Dagne from Addis Ababa University, and he showed me a small garden that he had established at the University almost 30 years ago. At that time it was just a wasteland at the back of the Chemistry compound in the University, filled with tangled piles of old metal chairs and wood and the ubiquitous yellow patterned mattresses discarded from student dormitories.
The garden took over a place in my mind, and the following year I returned to Addis Ababa to work. That was just before the rainy season had fully started in May, when the light was often too bright to see, and I would hide in the shadows beneath the huge scratching leaves of the indigenous Aloes, my legs and arms becoming covered with ant bites while I worked. I loved the sounds of this garden in the middle of the city – no human voices, just the snorting and mumbling vulture sitting above me, and the leaves rustling as the giant tortoise moved and chewed her way through the long grass. I remember the smell coming from the earth before the rain started, like the steam of boiling sweetcorn that you smell so often in the streets here.
This series is a collection of the plants gathered in November 2016. That is the month when the rain has finished it is replaced by boiling days and cold nights. The Aloes are all in flower, the first flowers of the tinjut plant have come out, and the Jacaranda trees are dropping their purple petals all over the city. They act as evidence of the passing days and seasons in the garden, with the simple act of making an image on a page becoming a game with the sun.
The only juniper tree to grow south of the Equator, it is often planted in areas of deforestation since it can grow in extreme conditions, aiding in for soil conservation and protecting against erosion. The wood is used for construction, and the oil can be distilled from sawdust to make cedarwood oil. Young branches are used medicinally in the treatment of intestinal worms, and leaves can be applied to wounds on humans and animals. The smoke from burnt branches and seeds is used to treat rheumatism and coughs. In Ethiopia it is burned during Meskel celebrations in September. There are many trees in the garden, forming a border wall on one side with branches that hang down close to the ground.
Several years ago I planted a garden of plastic bottles full of seedlings in the house in Kasanchis. Dagen, the landlord, would inspect my new bottles everyday and name all the plant. He laughed at me when he saw me planting the skinny sidisa stems though, “It’s a terrible weed!”. All of these were picked from Aloe pots in the greenhouses. And though some clover is here too, you can tell the difference by eating them, as the sidisa is delicious and sour tasting and the clover just tastes like a leaf. I have heard that the flowers and leaves can also be squeezed and applied to wounds as an antiseptic.
Indigenous to the south-west of Ethiopia, it was the first species of coffee to be cultivated. The legend is told that a goat herder called Kaldi watched his goats eat the leaves and fruits of the plant, and after seeing their sudden energy, he tried them himself. He was so excited by the results that he took the berries to an Islamic monk in a nearby monastery, but the monk disapproved and threw them into the fire, where they then began to roast and let off a beautiful aroma. A herbal tea made from coffee leaves is still consumed in Ethiopia, and it is used medicinally in many forms. For a bad stomach people suggest drinking black coffee with honey.
An indigenous species of moringa that grows well in high altitudes (Addis Ababa is the highest capital in Africa at 2355m). The leaves are edible and the plant is extremely drought resistant so it is an important and nutritious source of food for rural communities during the dry season. The seeds are also used for the clarification and purification of drinking water, which is extremely important in the many areas of the country without access to water treatment facilities. Medicinally, moringa is often called the “miracle tree” because it is said to cure so many diseases. The plant contains vitamins, amino acids, cardiac and circulatory stimulants as well as a host of other substances that show anti-tumor, antiepileptic, anti-inflammatory, antiulcer, antispasmodic, diuretic, anti-hypertensive, cholesterol lowering, anti-diabetic, hepato-protective, antibacterial and antifungal agents.
The wood is used for construction, particularly for houses and shipbuilding, as well as for furniture, toys, musical instruments, in railroads, and as firewood. The resinous seed is edible. It is intricately formed, carved with minute etched lines that you can scarcely believe are natural. The bark and seeds are used medicinally throughout Africa. In Ethiopia, the latex of the branches is mixed with fresh coffee to treat amoeba. The tree is cultivated ornamentally and as a windbreak to prevent erosion, as the roots run straight and very deep into the ground. The new growth is always pale green against the dark of the older leaves, and a friend commented how beautiful she found this bicoloured growth each season, and the strangely transparent leaves that glow with the dying light at the end of each day.
The soap berry plant. One of the gardeners showed me this plant first, as he was picking the orange-red berries and washing his clothes with them. It is a perennial plant that has been cultivated for centuries for its berries that are used as a detergent, especially in the cleaning of traditional Ethiopian white cotton textiles. It has also been found to be an effective preventative against bilharzia and schiotosomiasis (transmitted by fresh water snails), as it was discovered that in the areas of water where clothes were being washed, these diseases stopped existing. Schiotosomiasis is the second leading cause of illness in the developing world, after malaria, and where chemical mollusicides are prehibitably expensive, endod is extremely effective. It is also used medicinally in the treatment of ringworm, leeches, gonorrhea, for intestinal worms, rabies, anthrax poisoning and in abortions. It is also used as a hunting tool as it intoxicates fish. I picked some berries to try to use with the other plant dyes I have been using, and was surprised to find that they smell terrible when they are squashed, but do quickly bleach colours out of fabric and paper.
Native to China, it is an aromatic and medicinal herb that it yields a compound known as artemisinin, which has anti-malarial properties. Furthermore, the herbal tea prepared from the dried leaves of the plant is widely used for treatments of hemorrhoids, bronchitis and bilharzia. The garden is full of it, and I usually grab a handful of leaves as I leave, as the smell is so delicious. It can also be used as a natural dye.
Teff is the most important grain in Ethiopia and Eritrea, used to make injera, the national staple food. Until recently there has been a long-standing ban on its export, but this has been lifted as farming techniques have improved yields. The name comes from the root of a word meaning ‘lost’ because the grain is so small. The size of the grain also means it is suitable for semi nomadic farming methods, because such a small quantity is needed to sow a field.
Yadey Abeba, the Meskel daisy, blooms all over the Highlands of Ethiopia in September each year, and is the flower that represents the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Meskel, which commemorates the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena (St. Helena) in the fourth century. On the eve of the festival huge bonfires are built which are topped by a cross which bunches of Yadey Ababa are tied to. The petals also produce a beautiful yellow dye.
The leaves and stems are edible and medicinal. The roots are used in the preservation of animal hides before leather processing, to protect from microbial attacks. It also yields a dye, said to be used in the writing of ancient manuscripts. It’s extremely tempting to grab handfuls of the drying seeds and scatter them far, and I suppose for this reason it is growing everywhere, in between every other plant. The tallest one stands at more than 10 feet high.
Nech bahir zaf
Introduced to Ethiopia in the late 19th century and now one of the main trees in the Highlands of the country. They were also planted all around Addis Ababa to reforest areas which had been cut down for firewood, and you can often see women carrying enormous bundles on their backs. The oils of the plant can be used in the treatment of malaria, typhoid and intestinal worms. In the garden the Eucalyptus grows over a bed of Aloe and I spend several days working under its shade.
An antioxidant and used to treat liver disease.