Africa Geographic Travel

5 Amazing African Trees

When my mum and dad first began dating, my dad was stationed in the Kruger National Park, where he was working on vegetation maps for the army. My mum, desperate to impress her new wilderness man, decided to study the names of trees. It worked! And now, years later, she still surprises us by sprouting the occasional Latin name on game drives.

So whatever your reason for wanting to learn about trees, you’ll be surprised at how satisfying it can be, bringing a whole new dimension to your game viewing experience. Besides, you never know what wide-eyed creature could be peeping down at you from the leaves you are so carefully observing… So here are 5 common trees, all found in the Kruger National Park and throughout Africa, to get you started.

Why are trees are so important?

The Baobab: Adansonia digitata

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As one of the most iconic symbols of Africa, this majestic tree hardly needs an introduction.  As legend goes, the baobab was planted in the earth upside down by a disgruntled hyena who was angry because the gods had given each animal a seed to plant – in order to green the world – and he was left until last.

The baobab is easy to recognise with it’s large swollen trunk and branches, and shiny smooth grey bark, wrinkled in parts like an elephant’s skin. In summer, green finger-like leaves cover the baobab’s otherwise bare branches, responsible for the latin name digitata meaning like digits – a hand with five fingers. The fruit resembles a velvety brown mini-mango and is well-loved by human and animal alike.

The tree can reach a diameter of more than 20 metres, after about 3000 years.

Learn about the biggest baobab in Africa:

Marula: Sclerocarya birrea

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When I think marula, I usually think Amarula – the delicious creamy liquor that is proudly South African. The drink is made from the fruit of this tree, which is the size of a plum and changes from green to yellow as it ripens and falls to the ground. Although it has a large hard pip, bigger that the actual flesh of the fruit, it contains more vitamin C than an orange …  a good excuse to drink more Amarula perhaps? The tree grows to about 7 – 18 metres and is easily identified by the trunk, which has circular dents as if it’s had tennis balls flung at it. The truck is strait and upright and the tree has simple leaves. ‘Marula’ is Shangaan for ‘elephant tree’ and is loved by these beautiful giants to the point that they will actually shake the tree to release the unreachable fruit. The marula tree’s soft wood is used to make mokoros in Okavango delta.

Learn how to make marula jelly…

The Knobthorn: Acacia Nigrescens … the giraffe’s favourite tree!

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So what’s in a name? A whole lot when it comes to trees…

The common name knobthorn describes the most characteristic feature of this tree ­– the thorny knobs that protrude from its branches and trunk, especially evident in younger trees. This is a defence against herbivores. It doesn’t prevent them from eating it, but stops animals from eating on one tree for too long. The older it gets, the darker and rougher the bark becomes. The knobthorn is part of the ‘acacia’ family, named from the Greek word ‘akis’ meaning ‘a sharp point’, referring to the modified leaves or thorns present on all trees of this group. ‘Nigrescens’ comes from ‘negresso’ meaning ‘to become black’, characteristic of the tree’s seed-pods when they mature. If the knobs are not clearly noticeable, look out for pairs of hooked thorns on the branches and leaf pinnules (the smallest leaf unit) shaped like little butterflies. The knobthorn has the biggest leaves of all acacia trees. They are also the first to blossom at the end of winter and are then unmistakable with bright yellow flowers like mini pipe-cleaners. The tree often appears in an hourglass shape as a result of giraffe browsing.

The Mopane: Colophosphermum mopane

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‘Mopane’ is the Shona word for butterfly. This common tree has very distinctive  butterfly shaped leaves, which change from green to beautiful shades of orange and yellow in winter. Interestingly, the ‘wings’ of the butterflies open and close to control the loss of moisture via evaporation. Instead of thorns, these trees defend themselves using a chemical called tannin, which releases a bitter taste when an animal feeds on one tree for too long. The mopane tree is easy to recognize by its extremely rough, fissured bark. It provides nesting holes for squirrels and birds such as barbets and hornbills that live in natural cavities. The trees may often appear quite bush-like, especially if there are a lot of elephants in the area. At certain times of the year, big bright mopane worms – larvae of the Large Emperor moth ­– gorge themselves on the tree’s nutritious leaves. It has been reported by some that you can even hear them crunching, but I have yet to experience this. I have, however, eaten a dried out mopane worm. They are an excellent source of protein and prized by locals who usually eat them dried or roasted. Also look out for the tree’s kidney shaped seeds.

Keen to try a mopane worm? Learn more: 

Leadwood: Combretum imberbe

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The Leadwood’s grey, shiny rectangular bark pattern is unmistakable and by far the easiest way to recognise this tree. Its wood is extremely dense and actually sinks in water! It is also regarded as the best firewood, taking a long time to burn and leaving brilliant long-lasting ashes. The ashes can actually be used for toothpaste, something to remember if you forget to bring yours along on safari! The tree is termite resistant, which means that it can stand for hundreds of years after it has died. These tall, strong, dead trees make excellent look-out perches for vultures and other large birds of prey. You can also recognise the tree by observing its oblong-shaped leaves which have a wavy margin. The leadwood belongs to the combretum family, which can be recognised easily by the presence of a four-winged pod.

Happy tree-ing! 🙂

If you’re also a tree-hugger (and you really haven’t lived until you’ve hugged a baobab), get the August issue of Africa Geographic magazine, which features an interview with Meg Coates Palgrave, whose family produced the epic reference guide Trees of Southern Africa.

Rachel Lang

Hi, I’m Rach . If not adventuring in the African bush, the chances are I’m dreaming about it. My childhood played a big role in this passion as I was privileged to travel much of Southern Africa from an early age. Needless to say, I’m happiest barefoot with a sketchbook in hand – watching elephants at a water hole or listening to lions roaring around a campfire. Wildlife, children and storytelling are a big part of my life. Follow my adventures on my blog

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