July 2021

Leadwood (Combretum imberbe)


Leadwood (Combretum imberbe)

Leadwoods are one of my favourite trees, and I feel blessed working in the area where I see a lot of them every time, I go on game drive. I fell in love with these trees while I was still a young boy looking after my grandfather's cattle. As a young boy, the elders teach you how to survive in the bush, which trees to use and which to avoid. There is a lot I learnt from the leadwood. Leadwood is considered an indicator of sweetveld and good grazing.

Leadwood is one of the heaviest woods found in the lowveld. As a result, this wood sinks in water. Due to the density of leadwood, the tree is termite and borer resistant. A leadwood will remain standing for hundreds of years after it has died. Their sturdy anatomy provides ideal perches for large birds of prey and vultures. Vultures especially require strong perches to support their weight. Also, a dead leadwood is free of the leafy branches likely to interfere with their huge wingspan when they take off from a living tree. Where side branches have fallen off, cavities remain which maybe colonized by hole-nesting bird species.

Leadwood is by no means an easy wood to work and is ill-suited for furniture making. It is, however, well suited for heavyweight traditional use like grain mortars. In the past it was also used for mine props and railway sleepers. Before the advent of steel hoes, the leadwood was used to hoe fields. Obtaining the wood for all these purposes is hard work. Cutting a leadwood with a handsaw produces sparks.

Because of the great density of the wood, it burns slowly and for a very long time, producing long-lasting coals (sometimes lasting up to 12 hours). The ash produced is high in lime and abrasive, hence it is used by local people as a substitute for toothpaste. When mixed with milk, leadwood ash also makes an effective whitewash. After a veld fire it is easy to spot where a leadwood used to grow from the white ash lying on the ground.

Leadwood (Combretum imberbe)

The leaves are small to medium-sized with a typically wavy margin. It helps to relieve coughs and colds if you inhale the smoke of the burning leaves.

Leadwood bark is very easy to recognize. It is a pale grey colour, which often makes the tree stand out amidst its surroundings. The bark is also very blocky and the texture resembles the scale pattern on a reptile's back.

The young trees have small side branches modified as defensive spines. This is because the younger leaves in particular are browsed by animals like kudu, giraffes and elephants.

By Evidence Nkuna
Field Guide