The rain-tree / apple-leaf tree (Philenoptera violacea)   

Pamushana | March 2020

This is one of my favourite trees, and I use the common name of rain-tree because of its relationship with spittle bugs (also known as frog hoppers). The tree is frequently attacked by spittle bugs that use their drilling mouthparts to feed on the tree’s cambium layer, and the bugs then excrete a foamy sap that insulates them from drying out. This ‘spit’ can accumulate in great quantities and ‘rain’ down on the ground below, hence the name rain-tree. In effect this relationship between tree and insect allows the tree to use its own moisture and ‘re-water’ itself in drought conditions. It’s a good indicator of underground water so is a real drought survivor!

The other common name of apple-leaf tree is from the sound the green-grey leathery leaves make when crushed – it sounds like somebody taking a bite out of an apple!

The tree used to have the genus of Lonchocarpus but that was changed a while ago to Philenoptera. You’ll notice in Shelley Warth’s beautiful poem that she nostalgically refers to it as the more lyrical Lonchocarpus.

In the rural communities the wood is used for the manufacture of household articles such as axes, hoe handles and makoros. There is a toxic glucoside in the bark and roots of this tree, and that’s the reason why it’s used as fish poison. After the bark or roots have been thrown into the water the fish float to the surface and nets are used to scoop them out. The fish remain edible, nevertheless.

A folklore belief is that the branches are cut and put east and west of a village to keep the witches away!


Breaking The Rain Tree by Shelley Warth


There was a snap and a crash as she fell to the dusty floor,

She had stood against the winds of time, but Lonchocarpus was no more.

Elephants had broken the rain tree, not because they didn’t care,

There’d been no thought for chameleon, scops owl nor scrub hare.


Elephants had been wandering through the bush for many days.

Waiting to be patient, much too hungry to give praise.

Expectant skies had promise, but the rains did not deliver

And the golden sands that glittered were but a thirsty river!


Elephants broke the rain tree when they saw her standing proud,

They were parched and needed water, so they trumpeted aloud!

In all her crowning glory, she rained on their parade

And they sent her falling swiftly, to the ground where she’d been made!


There was a scuttle and a squawk as a francolin took to flight,

Heralding the wilderness of this earth maneuvering fright!

The army ants ceased marching in their sandy little tracks

To confirm of these happenings under elephants’ attacks.


Her shiny leaves ashamed, were dappled grey with dirt

As the elephants stripped her clean, of her leafy apple skirt.

A yellow-bellied snake wriggled from her tumbled wooden core

In whispered utter disbelief that Lonchocarpus was no more!


A chirruping chide and twitching tail, as squirrel fled his nest!

Outraged by this inconvenience, turtle dove puffed out his chest!

How would the rains ever find them in this hot and dusty land,

Now that the rain tree’s broken and she’s lying in the sand?


Elephants kicked the dirt and turned their trunks against the raucous.

Fending off the other beasts, they warned them to be cautious!

But as they turned to leave, the blue skies turned to grey

And the clouds began to cry, for Lonchocarpus had died that day.


Image 1: The area below an apple tree is shady and often damp, making it the ideal place for rhinos to rest and graze, which is what the two white rhinos in this photo were enjoying. Photo by Jenny Hishin.

Image 2: The leaves of this tree are eaten by all browsers.

Image 3: Fruit follows flowering in the form of large, flat pods that hang on the tree well into winter. The pods normally contain between one and three kidney-shaped seeds.