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  • Jamie Thom

5 Iconic Trees to find on Safari

Most of our clients come to Africa to see the big and dangerous game, but there is a lot more to enjoying this wonderful continent and the amazing habitats - here are 5 iconic trees to look out for while in Southern and East Africa!

The Baobab

Probably the most iconic tree in Africa, this majestic tree grows huge and distinctive. 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 spread through much of sub-saharan Africa in dry savannah habitats and 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.

Visit the 'Post Office' tree in Kasane, Baines Baobabs while in Nxai Pan Botswana, Kubu Island in Makgadikgadi has amazing stands, Tarangire NP and Selous in Tanzania have epic examples.

The Leadwood

I am still debating whether a Leadwood is more beautiful once it has died and its dry branches form intricate patterns against the sky or whether it is handsome in it's coat of green while alive!

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 and as a result is 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.

The Umbrella Thorn

Acacia tortilis Subspecies heteracantha. The species name, tortilis, refers to the contorted and twisted pods and heteracantha means “different thorns” due to the umbrella thorn possessing both straight and hooked thorns. It is one of the most distinctive trees in Africa with its wide canopy of branches and leaves - often standing out alone on a grassy plain - with good reason. Like other acacia trees the umbrella thorn practices allelopathy, a process where the tree releases a chemical into the soil which prevents even its own saplings from growing and therefore reduces competition for resources.

The gum of the umbrella thorn which is rich in carbohydrate is eaten by lesser bushbabies, vervet monkeys and baboons. The roots of the umbrella thorn are used to make spear shafts, fishing spears and frameworks for temporary shelters.

The tree is native primarily to the savanna and Sahel of Africa (especially Sudan), but also occurring in the Middle East.

The Mopane Tree

‘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 10 cm long mopane worm which cover mopane trees in summer offer a great revenue source to the rural economy, this large caterpillar of the emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina) is either roasted or dried before being eaten along with maize as a high protein meal.

The Mopane is widely spread in parts of the Kruger National Park and also through much of Botswana in sandy, well-drained soils. In some areas it remains shrubby and short while in others it grows in beautiful tall forests - the Khwai and Xakanaka regions of Botswana come to mind.

The Sausage Tree

The sausage tree of sub-Saharan Africa is beautiful in flower. The blood-red to maroon flowers hang in long panicles. The fragrance of the flower is not pleasing to humans but attracts the Dwarf Epauletted Fruitbat (Micropteropus pusillus), its pollinator. As the flowers drop from the tree, animals come to feed on the nectar-rich blooms. Impala, duiker, baboons, bush pigs, and lovebirds all feed on the flowers of the Sausage tree. Grey fruits grow out of these flowers. These grey fruits resemble sausages and can grow for months to become over a foot long and weigh over 10 pounds.

The blood-red flowers of the South African sausage tree bloom at night on long, ropelike stalks that hang down from the limbs of this tropical tree. The fragrant, nectar-rich blossoms are pollinated by bats, insects and sunbirds in their native habitat. The mature fruits dangle from the long stalks like giant sausages. They may be up to two feet (0.6 m) long and weigh up to 15 pounds (6.8 kg).

The rind of the fruit is used to aid the fermentation of the local brews. The pods are kept as religious charms and fetishes, and produce a red dye when boiled. Ointment is made from the fruit and is used to treat skin conditions. And Meyer's parrots are fond of the seeds. Mekoro are dug-outs made of the trunks and large roots of the sausage trees. These canoes have been used for thousands of years as transportation in the Okavango River delta in Botswana. The 'sausages' cannot be eaten but the skin is ground to a pulp and used externally for medicine. Its most important use is for the cure of skin ailments especially skin cancers. The fruit is burnt to ashes and pounded by a mortar with oil and water to make a paste to apply to the skin.

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