It's all about trees in our South African home base this week as the country celebrates Arbor Week. To mark the occasion, we're dedicating this Top 10 to our favourite trees from across the African continent, from iconic baobabs to eerily beautiful fever trees.
This tall tree is one of our favourites! It's one of the few trees where photosynthesis takes place in the bark, giving it a stunning yellow-and-green colouration. The fever tree gets its name from its tendency to grow near swampy areas – early European settlers in the region noted that malarial fever was often contracted in areas where these trees grew (of course, we now know this was a mosquito-related mistake!). These beautiful trees are a favourite in gardens and their feathery foliage is a choice home for birds, but they're not revered everywhere. Fast-growing and short-lived, they can stage a quick takeover on other plant species – in Australia, a fever tree cousin (Acacia nilotica) costs the grazing industry over $3 million annually!
Upside-down giants with record-breaking lifespans, baobabs are the continent's (and possibly the planet's) most iconic and outlandish trees. Add to that their towering bulk, fire-resistant bark and extraordinary drought resistance, and you've got yourself one truly epic tree. Perhaps the best place to feast your eyes on them is on the island of Madagascar (home to six native species), along the famous Avenue des Baobabs (pictured), where the 30-metre giants stand sentry along a dusty track.
SAUGAGE TREE (KIGELIA AFRICANA)
It's not hard to figure out where the sausage tree gets its name. Weighing in at 5-10kgs, its hefty sausage-shaped fruit can make pretty dangerous projectiles for unwary passers-by or carelessly parked cars. That same fruit also makes the sausage tree a favourite with the local wildlife, from bush pigs and baboons to hippos and elephants (the animals kindly return the favour by dispersing the trees' seeds in their dung). Humans have also found uses for the fruit, from the medicinal to the intoxicating (the fermented fruit makes a great addition to traditional African brews).
QUIVER TREE (ALOE DICHOTOMA)
Because of its distinctive beauty, the quiver tree has been named one of Namibia's national plants. The thick tree is actually a giant aloe in disguise, and has soft pulpy tissue in the trunk and branches rather than actual wood. Its name comes from the indigenous San people’s tradition of hollowing out the tubular branches to make quivers for their arrows. But the tree allegedly has even more ingenious uses – dead quiver tree trunks are sometimes hollowed out and used as 'natural' refrigerators.
LEADWOOD (COMBRETUM IMBERBE)
As the name suggests, this is one strong and hardy species – in fact, its wood is so dense, it actually sinks in water. That density also makes the tree incredibly resistant to termites, which is why leadwood skeletons (like the one pictured) remain dotted across the African landscape long after the original trees have died. You can also identify this tree, one of the largest in Africa, by its distinctive rectangular bark pattern.
MARULA TREE (SCLEROCARYA BIRREA)
Indigenous to southern Africa (and parts of West Africa and Madagascar), the marula tree is known for its sweet, yellow fruit – and local lore says that same fruit becomes 'elephant alcohol' once it's fallen to the ground and fermented. Although scientists debunked the drunk elephant myth back in 2005, the alcohol association is not really surprising as the fruit is used to produce Amarula, the second-best-selling cream liqueur in the world. Traditionally the tree is used for everything from malaria cures to insecticide, not to mention as a food source – even more so in the summer months when the branches are often decorated with brightly coloured mopane worms, themselves an important source of protein for millions of people in southern Africa.
WHISTLING THORN (VACHELLIA DREPANOLOBIUM)
Ever heard a tree whistle? With the help of several ant species that bore holes into the thorns of Vachellia drepanolobius, these spiky appendages are transformed into natural whistles that come alive when the wind blows. And the ants aren't just useful for making music, they have a symbiotic relationship with the whistling thorn tree. In exchange for shelter and a bit of nectar, the ants are believed to defend the whistling thorn against hungry herbivores like elephants and giraffes.
MOPANE TREE (COLOPHOSPHERMUM MOPANE)
Here’s one with some serious African roots – you won't find the mopane or 'butterfly tree' anywhere else on the planet! To beat the heat in its hot, dry habitat, the tree has developed butterfly-shaped leaves that open and close to control moisture loss. These leaves also give the tree its name: 'mopane' is the Shona word for butterfly. Hardy and heavy, mopane wood is termite resistant, but not all bugs have abandoned this tree. Mopane worms (the larvae of the emperor moth) hatch on the mopane after the rainy season and these tasty grubs are a staple snack in many African culture.
SYCAMORE FIG (FICUS SYCOMORUS)
As far as trees go, the sycamore fig has a pretty impressive résumé. These lofty characters get several mentions in the Bible, and their timber, fruit and even twigs have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, where the sycamore fig is believed to have been a kind of Tree of Life. And that's a pretty fitting title. The sycamore fig provides food for a greater variety of animals than any other tree in Africa. Its marble-sized fruit is also a vital first home for a species of wasp that lays its eggs inside the figs, triggering the start of a pollination process that results from this fascinating symbiotic relationship.
DRAGON BLOOD TREE (DRACAENA CINNABARI)
Before we set off any geographic alarms, we're going to come right out and admit that, yes, the dragon blood tree falls outside the African realm. The slow-growing evergreens occur on the Indian Ocean island of Socotra, which is officially part of Yemen – but with just a handful of miles separating the island from the Horn of Africa, we're claiming it for this countdown anyway. Besides, who can resist a tree so strange-looking and so shrouded in myth ... and one that's named for its (highly prized) blood-like resin. Sadly, the species is now listed as 'Vulnerable' by the IUCN, and is facing threats linked to human development.
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