Vatovaea pseudolablab (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
List of species

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Vatovaea pseudolablab (Harms) Gillett

Protologue: Kew Bull. 20(1): 104 (1966).
Family: Papilionaceae (Leguminosae - Papilionoideae, Fabaceae)

Origin and geographic distribution

Vatovaea pseudolablab is found wild in the drier parts of Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania; also in Yemen and Oman.


The seeds of Vatovaea pseudolablab are eaten either raw or after boiling or roasting. Immature pods, flowers and leaves are eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable. The tuberous and juicy roots are edible and are consumed raw or after boiling or roasting. They are sometimes eaten as a snack, especially after roasting; they are also used as emergency food and as a source of water. Flour made from the roots is mixed with sorghum flour to prepare a stiff porridge. It is normally stored and used in lean periods. Farmers grow and consume Vatovaea pseudolablab commonly, but during food shortages more people rely on it for their daily food. The plant is eaten by cattle, goats, sheep, camels and donkeys. The root fibres are made into rope, hats and fly whisks.


The tuberous roots of Vatovaea pseudolablab are fibrous and contain much juice; they have a pleasant, sweet taste even when eaten raw.


  • Liana or shrub up to 1.5(–3) m tall; stem branched, glabrous to sparsely pubescent; roots tuberous.
  • Leaves alternate, 3-foliolate; stipules oblong, c. 3.5 mm × 1.5 mm; petiole up to 6 cm long, ribbed, rachis up to 2 cm long; stipels small; petiolules 1–2 mm long; leaflets ovate to narrowly ovate-rhomboid, up to 8 cm × 6.5 cm, sometimes slightly 3-lobed, glabrous to sparsely pubescent. Inflorescence an axillary false raceme up to 50 cm long, pubescent, many-flowered; peduncle 6–21 cm long; bracts up to 2 mm long.
  • Flowers bisexual, papilionaceous; pedicel c. 3 mm long; calyx c. 5 mm long, 5-lobed, 2-lipped, the lower 3 lobes rounded-triangular, the upper 2 lobes united; corolla greenish purple, standard 1–2 cm × 1.5–2 cm, emarginate, with 2 appendages near the base, wings with a long narrow spur, keel incurved; stamens 10, 9 fused and 1 free; ovary superior, linear, 1-celled, style long, incurved, usually hairy inside towards the apex and with a reflexed appendage above the stigma.
  • Fruit a linear-oblong pod 4.5–6 cm × 0. 5–1 cm, curved, flattened, widening towards the apex, dehiscent, at first silky pubescent, later glabrescent, up to 8-seeded.
  • Seeds almost globose to irregularly ellipsoid or squarish, 4.5–7 mm × 4.5–6.5 mm × 2.5–3 mm, brown, sometimes speckled with black.

Other botanical information

Vatovaea comprises a single species. Although Vatovaea pseudolablab becomes woody, plants may already flower when still quite herbaceous; they are basically self-pollinating.


Vatovaea pseudolablab is found up to 1500 m altitude in dry grassland or bushland in regions with an annual rainfall of 250–600 mm, often along lava or drainage lines, occasionally in seasonally wet grassland on clay.


Vatovaea pseudolablab is commonly collected from the wild, but only occasionally sown, e.g. in Kenya. In Ethiopia it is semi-domesticated by Konso farmers, who keep it in their fields intercropped with other food plants. Vatovaea pseudolablab can be propagated by seed. The tuberous roots can be dug out any time of the year; they are best gathered when the foliage has died back. Flour is produced from the roots by peeling, chopping, drying and grinding.

Genetic resources

Vatovaea pseudolablab populations are dwindling in East Africa and in the Arabian Peninsula because it is a popular food and fodder. Its genetic pool is likely to shrink fast if no action is taken. Two accessions of Vatovaea pseudolablab are kept in Ethiopia at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Addis Ababa.


Vatovaea pseudolablab is a useful multipurpose plant for dry regions and its potential seems worthwhile exploiting. It is recommended to start collecting and evaluating germplasm and to test accessions for their performance in the field. Promising material should be multiplied further. Furthermore, investigations should be carried out on the agronomy of the plant and its nutritional properties.

Major references

  • Beentje, H.J., 1994. Kenya trees, shrubs and lianas. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya. 722 pp.
  • Gillett, J.B., Polhill, R.M., Verdcourt, B., Schubert, B.G., Milne-Redhead, E., & Brummitt, R.K., 1971. Leguminosae (Parts 3–4), subfamily Papilionoideae (1–2). In: Milne-Redhead, E. & Polhill, R.M. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 1108 pp.
  • Maundu, P.M., Ngugi, G.W. & Kabuye, C.H.S., 1999. Traditional food plants of Kenya. Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (KENRIK), Nairobi, Kenya. 270 pp.
  • Schippers, R.R., 2000. African indigenous vegetables. An overview of the cultivated species. Natural Resources Institute/ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, Chatham, United Kingdom. 214 pp.
  • Thulin, M., 1993. Fabaceae (Leguminosae). In: Thulin, M. (Editor). Flora of Somalia. Volume 1. Pteridophyta; Gymnospermae; Angiospermae (Annonaceae-Fabaceae). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 341–465.

Other references

  • Gillett, J.B., 1966. Notes on Leguminosae. Kew Bulletin 20: 103–111.
  • Huxham, S.K., Schrire, B.D., Davis, S.D, & Prendergast, H.D.V., 1998. Dryland legumes in Africa: food for thought. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 84 pp.
  • ILDIS, 2002. World database of Legumes, Version 6,05. International Legume Database & Information Service. [Internet] September 2004.
  • Maundu, P.M., 1997. The status of traditional vegetable utilization in Kenya. In: Guarino, L. (Editor). Traditional African vegetables. Proceedings of the IPGRI international workshop on genetic resources of traditional vegetables in Africa: conservation and use, 29–31 August 1995, ICRAF, Nairobi, Kenya. Promoting the conservation and use of underutilized and neglected crops 16. pp. 66–75.
  • Morgan, W.T.W., 1981. Ethnobotany of the Turkana: use of plants by a pastoral people and their livestock in Kenya. Economic Botany 35(1): 96–130.
  • Thulin, M., 1989. Fabaceae (Leguminosae). In: Hedberg, I. & Edwards, S. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia. Volume 3. Pittosporaceae to Araliaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 49–251.
  • Thulin, M., 1989. New or noteworthy species of Leguminosae in Northeast tropical Africa. Nordic Journal of Botany 8(5): 457–488.


  • M. Brink, PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Brink, M., 2006. Vatovaea pseudolablab (Harms) J.B.Gillett. In: Brink, M. & Belay, G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 30 November 2022.