A few of my favourite trees

Sabi Sand | January 2016

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens;
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens;
Brown paper packages tied up with strings;
These are a few of my favourite things!”

Who would not want to sing or hum along to this catchy tune from that grand old classic “The Sound of Music”? Well, strange as it sounds, it is the title of that song that has inspired me to write this little article on a few of my favourite trees. I have always been fond of trees, and some of my favourites in this area will feature in the text and images above.

Leadwood (Combretum imberbe)
Believed to live for several hundred years, leadwoods are extremely slow growing, dense-wooded trees, whose timber is so hard that even termites have no impact on it. Once a leadwood has died, it will continue to stand for many decades, and to me, the sight of a really old, dead leadwood is one of indescribable beauty. Like a silver sculpture against a dazzling blue sky, a dead leadwood just oozes so much character in its gnarled trunk, and has an aura of permanence and stability about it, which (for me) links it in a strange way to a large old elephant bull. There are numerous dozens of magnificent living leadwoods on this property too, and many of them grow in groves fairly close to each other, particularly in areas of dark, heavy clay soil. Because there are frequently mud wallows very close to these leadwoods, a number of them appear to have the bottom few metres of their trunks painted with a thick layer of a very dark brown plaster. This, of course, is from the wallowing or mud-bathing animals (specifically elephant, rhino, buffalo and warthog) which, after covering their hides with liquid mud from the wallowing pits, go and have a good rub against the invitingly rough bark on the sturdy trunks of the leadwood trees that are so conveniently positioned nearby!

At this time of the year, the living leadwoods are also very attractive, because they are flowering. Now I must hasten to add that the individual flowers are by no means spectacular, but when viewed from some distance, a leadwood laden with thousands of these little flowers takes on a gorgeous golden hue, particularly when the light is just right. Being a Combretum, the fruit that develops from the flowers of a leadwood is a characteristic 4-winged seed pod.

Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformes)

Also known as a Lowveld ebony, Transvaal ebony or African ebony, the jackalberry is a magnificent, very darktrunked tree that is found in abundance in the Sabi Sand, particularly along the banks of some of the prominent watercourses, such as the Sand River. Jackalberry trees are very popular with leopards, as they are comfortable, easy to climb, offer a good amount of shade and numerous limbs that are often at very convenient angles on which to lie, or over which to drape carcasses of prey animals that they have killed. Jackalberries are almost evergreen, each tree losing its leaves for just a few weeks, usually in middle or late spring. Before the leaves fall off the tree, they turn yellow. The new leaves that replace them in two or three weeks are reddish brown. Because the trees do not all lose their leaves at exactly the same time, one can encounter 3 jackalberries in close proximity, with spectacularly different coloured foliage – one, a rich green, one yellow and one reddish-brown.

In late spring and early summer, the jackalberries bear their fruit. These are in the form of small, olive to khaki coloured berries, with a thin husky shell, palatable pulp and a few pea-sized (but kidney-shaped) dark seeds. Tasty enough for humans to enjoy, the fruits are a great food source to birds such as green pigeons, purple-crested turacos, brown-headed parrots, starlings and several more, as well as mammals, particularly monkeys, baboons, jackals and a few different antelope. Civets also enjoy them, which is clearly evident when
one inspects the contents of civet dung middens (known as civetries!)

Marula (Sclerocarya birrea)

It is probably very appropriate to include the marula tree in this month’s journal, because now is the time that these attractive trees bear their highly sought-after fruits (pictured here) in great quantities.┬áMale and female marula flowers are borne on separate trees, and it is only the female trees that bear fruit. The trees themselves are quite easy to recognise, as they have grey, blotchy bark, each tree giving the appearance that it has been struck by a thousand golf balls. The limbs of these rather smooth trees end in blunt-tipped or stubby branches, and the colour of the leaves is almost a greyish-green. The fruits themselves can be likened to miniature green mangos, as they also have a smooth green skin, with a sticky sap that oozes from any damaged surface. The large, hard stone is covered by a disappointingly thin layer of the most delicious, juicy, greyish-white “flesh”, which has such a wide combination of fruity flavours, being both sour and sweet, and reminiscent sometimes of litchis, apricots, mangos and even oranges.

They really are wonderful to eat, although perhaps “eat” is not the right word to describe how humans consume them. One doesn’t really take a bite out of the fruit and chew it…it is more a case of popping the fruit out of its skin, and sucking the flavoursome juices off the stone. Elephants are famous for their love of the marula fruits, which ripen on the ground after they have fallen off the trees. It is not unusual to see an elephant spend over an hour underneath a marula tree in February, picking up fruits, sometimes singly, sometimes in twos and threes, and toss them into its mouth.

They often pass through the elephant almost intact, with the skins just slightly ruptured. Squirrels frequently scratch around in piles of elephant dung to feed on the “second-hand” marula fruits, which they pick up and deftly manipulate between their hand-like front paws.

Many other mammal species relish the marula fruits, among them being baboons, monkeys, kudu, impala, zebra and warthog. It is this last-named creature, the warthog, which gives me great pleasure when I watch them eating the marulas, because they do it with such obvious and great enjoyment, delight and gusto! Like the leadwood and the jackalberry, the marula tree is also a very popular one with leopards, and it is not unusual to find a leopard resting in a marula tree, with or without a kill hoisted up the same tree. Marula trees are also frequently found in groves, rather than just singly, and they favour the sandy crests, rather than the clay soils and lower-lying areas. Many marula trees have had big chunks of bark and cambium removed from them by elephants, as it is not only the fruit that they elephants enjoy. They love the cambium, they also feed heavily on the roots, young branches and leaves of the marula tree. Elephants have a huge impact on the vegetation in any area which they inhabit, but, although I am a great lover of trees, I do not
view this impact in a negative light. Certainly, individual trees will be severely damaged and even destroyed by elephants, but fortunately three are many thousands of marula trees, and in some ways the thinning out of woody vegetation by elephants does have an overall positive impact on the biotic community. So the three tree species that I have mentioned in this article are just some of my favourites of the area. Over the next few months, we will have a look at a few more. I hope and believe that most readers will find the
articles interesting, and will continue to appreciate trees for what they are, for their great beauty, for their value as food and fuel, and for the shelter and security that they offer.