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Promoting Nutritional Self-Sufficiency in Cuba

The Cuban National Botanic Gardens are trying to improve the diet of Cubans by demonstrating and teaching people how to grow a variety of (often indigenous) plants that have been used in the past but which may now have fallen out of use or interest.

They have interpretive materials explaining the history and cultivation of various food plants, and they are aim to encourage self-sufficiency and organic growing practices. Fruit trees, for example, are favoured to help people with small gardens or back yards. They also set an example: over 70% of the produce served in the gardens' restaurants is grown in the garden!

They also run a Fruit Tree Project which takes up several hectares of the Gardens in Havana. It experimentally grows species and varieties of tropical fruit trees, testing which perform best in the Havana climate and soils. These include over 35 varieties of mango, all the common citrus fruits and other less common species such as the fortunella (or kumquat), several species of custard apple (the genus Annona ), including chirimoya (A. cherimolia), guanábana ( A. muricta) and anón (A. squamosa), Diospyros kaki fruits and the star fruit Averrhoa carambola from south-east Asia. In total there are 110 species of fruit tree in the orchards that produce in one year:

• 27 different products for fruit preservation
• Over 2,000 conserves, sauces and vinegars
• 11 tons of 60 species of fruit mostly consumed in the Gardens restaurants
• 1,900 seedlings of 50 species of fruit tree for private, community and school planting (Vázquez Rodríguez 2003)

Nearly 20 bee hives ensure pollination of these fruits, and their honey is sold very cheaply to local people and employees. The other side-effect of fruit production, is a small workshop where over-ripe fruit is processed into alcohol, bottled and re-sold cheaply to employees.

Fruit are not the only productive trees grown, for example the garden also grows an oil palm Leycithis dubia that is supposed to produce oil of better quality than the commonly grown oil palms Elaeis spp.

Some of the plants grown have medicinal properties. For example, amongst the herbs grown is the oddly-named ‘Jamaica’ Hibiscus sabdarifa. This is the focus of attention for propagation in patio gardens as it has many medicinal properties, notably for stomach and blood pressure problems. Anis Helenium amarum is related to the sunflower, but is a very small and aromatic plant that is still being researched for its properties.

Source: Skeffington (2006).