Cinderella Species Find Their Glass Slipper in Domestication

I love old animated Disney movies, as well as the gruesome Brothers Grimm stories or Perrault fairy tales that most come from. One of the best has got to be "Cinderella," with its talking mice and bad cat in the 1950 film and the grisly, on-the-fly foot surgery in the Grimm's version.

So I was pleased to see the cachet of a nice fairy tale title extended to the world of agriculture. "Cinderella species," like their namesake heroine, are diamonds in the rough, underappreciated beauties still hidden in the obscurity of the wild. More specifically, they're the 3,000 species of wild fruit trees that grow in areas of west Africa, southern Africa and the Sahel, largely uncultivated.

But that's been changing since the mid-1990s, when researchers at the World Agroforestry Centre surveyed residents on which indigenous trees they found most valuable. Instead of putting timber species at the top of the list, most people chose fruit trees as valued delicacies, staples or even famine food. According to New Scientist, a survey in Malawi and Zambia found up to 40 percent of rural households relied on such species in the "hungry months." But while local people knew lots about these species, tree specialists had no idea how the off-the-map fruits matured and grew.

Soon after the survey, the Overseas Development Institute in London began to analyze the wild trees for their best traits. Some had long been selected for tastiness, but hadn't been domesticated seriously. For example, the seeds of the best-tasting marula fruit -- from a southern African tree with a "tart, turpentine" flavor -- would have been spread around the camps of hunter-gatherers in a preagricultural age.

The institute furthered such genetic selection by teaching farmers grafting or marcotting, manipulating a branch to produce its own roots. The new techniques helped orchard famers set up shop quickly: Marcotting can produce miniature fruit-bearing kola trees in as little as four years (as opposed to the 20 or so years it would take to start from seed).

Domesticating what was once a haphazard crop has added cash to the pockets of many small farmers, since fruit production often earns more than crops like cocoa or maize. And because the trees aren't annuals, they're less susceptible to the dangers of climate shifts and droughts.

The U.S. National Resource Council has also taken note of these newly cultivated "Cinderella species," marking some successful candidates for a worldwide market. So maybe in a few years, you'll fill your shopping cart with not only apples, grapes and pears, but also medlars, sweet detars and ebony fruit.

Thanks to How-to blogger Cristen for sharing this article with me.

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