Choosing the right trees to describe in these articles is quite an interesting challenge, because I would like them to be sufficiently relevant to the season, so that the reader is at least able to notice and appreciate the trees mentioned, when out on a game drive or a walk. Not all trees are spectacular to look at, and not all are of major significance in terms of animal usage, cultural beliefs or medicinal value. I trust the articles are not too boring for most readers to enjoy. When on game drive, I also stop frequently to admire or appreciate a particular tree, and it has so often happened that while the vehicle engine has been switched off as we studied the tree, we heard a sound that helped us find a high profile mammal species.
Sjambok pod / Long-tailed Cassia (Cassia abbreviata)
I shall never forget the occasion a little while ago when, less than ten minutes into the early morning game drive, I had stopped to point out and talk about one of these trees. My tracker, ever alert, suddenly raised his hand and urged us all to stop talking and listen. We did, and we also heard what he had heard – a long, low growl of sorts, almost like a combination of a growl and a purr. It was some distance off the road, and not very loud at all. To cut a long story short, we followed up on this sound, believing it to be leopards or lions, possibly courting. Indeed, it turned out to be a pair of mating leopards, quite deep into a block of land between a couple of roads that cut through a fairly dense area of woodland, east of the Singita airstrip. We were able to enjoy some quality viewing of these two leopards, and a few other guides and their guests also viewed these animals during the course of the morning. Had we not stopped to look at the tree, I very much doubt whether that mating pair of leopards would have been found that morning, as there were no obvious tracks of them visible on the roads that were closest to where we found them.
So, getting back to the tree in question, the sjambok pod. It is a fairly attractive deciduous tree, which gets its new leaves and yellow flowers in spring.
Often it blooms just before it comes into leaf, but the flowers do not last long. Of course, flowers give rise to fruits, and in the case if the sjambok pod, the fruits are very long, slender pods, brownish with a hint of purple to them. My tracker loves to tell the story of how, many years ago, meat poachers used to call this tree “mlumanyama” or “biltong tree.” When game animals were poached for their flesh, the flesh was usually cut into long, thin strips, which would be salted and then hung up to air-dry. The poachers would often choose to hang these strips of drying flesh (biltong, rather like jerky) in the branches of fruit-bearing sjambok pod trees, where they would closely
resemble the long pods! Thus, police searching for evidence that might incriminate the poachers, could potentially overlook such evidence, mistaking the biltong strips for pods! I am sure this would be most likely to have fooled the police only in the right season, when the pods are still damp and purple-brown in colour, before they ripen and dehisce (burst along the seams to release their seeds).
Although moderately dense and reasonably hard, the timber of the sjambok pod is susceptible to wood-borer damage, even in living trees. It is thus not of much value to humans. Infusions of the bark and roots, however, have been used medicinally and with some success in the treatment of malaria and blackwater fever.
Matumi (Breonadia salicina)
Numerous specimens of these attractive trees are found growing along the edge of prominent watercourses such as the Sand River. They vary greatly in size, but can be enormous. Not tolerant of cold climates with frequent frost, they grow quite fast here in the Lowveld.
Matumi trees are evergreen, and their long, slender leaves, which appear in clusters of four, are always very glossy in appearance. The flowers and fruits are small and not spectacular, so the beauty of the tree lies in its shapely form and the permanently luxuriant appearance of its ample foliage. The timber is useful, being fairly dense, reasonably oily, very durable and not too difficult to work, and produces a really smooth finish. It has been used in the making of furniture, mine buttresses, parquet flooring and even boats.
Animals do not feed on the leaves of matumi trees, but the trees do provide good nesting sites for hamerkops, which are fish- and frog-eating birds famous for their extremely large nests. Whenever I drive the roads that run along the stretch of the Sand River a few kilometres downstream of Boulders Lodge, I always love looking at the matumi trees, and drawing my guests’ attention to their beauty.
Buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata)
Although not exactly spectacular in terms of size and appearance, the buffalo thorn is one of the most
important tree species in this area. Known in Afrikaans as “blinkblaar wag-‘n-bietjie”, which translates as
“shiny-leafed wait-a-bit”, this tree is way more likely than any animal to cause injury to humans! It is armed
with multiple paired thorns, each pair consisting of a longer straightish thorn, and a shorter, fiercely hooked
thorn. The thorns are seriously sharp, and every guide and tracker has at some stage lost a little blood when
not being sufficiently cautious in dealing with the branches of a buffalo thorn!
The branches have a zig-zag pattern at the nodes, a feature which for me makes it easy to remember the Latin name Ziziphus. The leaves, particularly the new ones, are shiny (hence the Afrikaans name), and are highly nutritious and palatable to browsing animals, particularly giraffe and kudu. Even for humans, the taste is pleasantly nutty and only slightly bitter. I have nibbled the tender new leaves on numerous occasions, and I find the flavour to be not dissimilar to that of rocket, and I would happily include them as an ingredient of a green salad.
The small, stellate flowers are yellow-green in colour, and give rise to round, reddish brown fruits (green at first), about 1 cm in diameter. The fruits are thin-skinned and there is very little pulp between the skin and the stone or pip, but they are edible. To humans, the flavour is not something to rave about, but they are reasonably pleasant to chew. They tend to leave the mouth feeling rather dry. Many mammals and birds enjoy the fruit, and it is common to find the seeds in the faeces of civets and baboons, among others. The timber is fairly dense, tough, durable and elastic, and has been used in making spoons and various other implements.
In traditional medicine, it is a very important tree, used in the treatment of stomach and chest complaints, as well as carbuncles or boils.
Culturally, it is also an extremely revered and important plant, used in burial ceremonies. The beliefs in this regard are quite fascinating. I would suggest you ask your tracker to tell you more about it. His story out in the field will be much more vivid and meaningful than my written attempt!
A gentle reminder about the buffalo thorn tree – be very careful of those thorns, or they WILL make you bleed!