Monday, June 23, 2008

The Big Five Trees

There are five trees in Zimbabwe, that are as significant as the big five beasts. These trees have legends, myths, and wealth surrounding them, as they have played a major role in the lives of the Zimbabwean for as long as the people have existed on this land.

The Baobab Tree: Strong as the Elephant
Baobab is the common name of a genus (Adansonia) containing eight species of trees, native to Madagascar (the centre of diversity, with six species), mainland Africa and Australia (one species in each). The mainland African species also occurs on Madagascar, but it is not a native of that country.

It can grow to enormous sizes and carbon dating indicates that they may live to be 3,000 years old. The baobab can store more than 120,000 litres of water, (32,000 US gallons), to endure the harsh drought conditions particular to each region. One ancient hollow Baobab tree in Zimbabwe is so large that up to 40 people can shelter inside its trunk. Various Baobabs have been used as a shop, a prison, a house, a storage barn and a bus shelter.

Baobabs are very difficult to kill, they can be burnt, or stripped of their bark, and they will just form new bark and carry on growing. When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibres, which makes many think that they don't die at all, but simply disappear.

The leaves are commonly used as a leaf vegetable throughout the area of mainland African distribution, including Malawi, Zimbabwe, and the Sahel. They are eaten both fresh and as a dry powder. The fruit is extremely nutritious and is known as sour gourd or monkey's bread. The dry pulp of the fruit, after separation from the seeds and fibres, is eaten directly or mixed into porridge or milk. The fruit was once used in the production of tartar sauce. The seeds are mostly used as a thickener for soups, but may also be fermented into a seasoning, roasted for direct consumption, or pounded to extract vegetable oil. The tree also provides a source of fibre, dye, and fuel.

Mopane Tree: The Buffalo of Trees
The mopane or mopani (Colophospermum mopane) tree grows in hot, dry, low-lying areas, 200-1,150 m, in the far northern parts of southern Africa, into South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Angola and Malawi. The species name mopane is taken from the local name for the tree.

It is found growing in alkaline (high lime content) soils which are shallow and not well drained. It also grows in alluvial soils (soil deposited by rivers). In South Africa and adjacent areas of Botswana and Zimbabwe, the trees tend to vary between 4 and 18 m, often called mopane scrub but also sometimes taller and forming woodland, where further north the trees are taller and form tall woodlands referred to as cathedral mopane. This tree does not grow well outside hot, frost-free areas with summer rainfall.

Its distinctive butterfly-shaped leaf and thin, flimsy seed pod make it easy to identify. To man it forms, together with camel thorn and leadwood, one of the triad of definitive firewood trees. Mopane wood is one of southern Africa's heaviest timbers and is difficult to work because of its hardness. However, this also makes it termite resistant. For this reason it has long been used for building houses and fences, as railway sleepers and as pit props. The termite-resistance and rich, reddish colouring also make it popular for flooring.

The tree is a major food source for the mopane worm (Amacimbi in Sindebele or Madora in Shona), the caterpillar of the moth Imbrasia belina. The caterpillars are rich in protein and are eaten by people, and the sale of roasted or dried mopane worms can contribute significantly to rural economies.

The Jacaranda Tree: Its leaves and flowers are like the Lion’s mane
The species are shrubs to large trees ranging in size from 2 to 30 m tall. The leaves are bipinnate in most species, pinnate or simple in a few species. The flowers are produced in conspicuous large panicles, each flower with a five-lobed blue to purple-blue corolla; a few species have white flowers. The fruit is an oblong to oval flattened capsule containing numerous slender seeds. The genus differs from other genera in the Bignoniaceae in having a staminode that is longer than the stamens, tricolpate pollen, and a chromosome number of 18.

In many parts of the world, such as Mexico and Zimbabwe, the blooming of this tree is welcomed as a sign of spring. The tree is known for its mane-like flowers and leaves that fill the city streets with their beautiful carpet of blue/purple in October.

The Musasa Tree: Leopard’s nap area
In the Shona language, Musasa is a tree and it also means a temporary place of residence. The tree, when green, gives very good shade and people can sit and rest, then continue to their destination. People build a “musasa” as a temporary shelter until their main shelter is built. The Musasa tree is well known for its lush green leaves that provide a very cooling shade and shelter from the blazing African sun. In areas where timber is scarce, this tree is used to make furniture, but the timber is not very durable. It is also used for charcoal and medicine. The inner bark from young tree is used for rope and cloth.

Like the people, the Zimbabwean leopard loves to take naps high up on the branches of the Musasa tree. The Musasa tree is also a good dining place for the leopard as he is known to pull up game as big as buffalo up the tree onto one of the branches and have a private feast, away from unwanted visitors like the lion or hyena.

The Marula Tree: Precious Fluid, just as the Rhino horn
The marula tree, a member of the same family as the mango, grows widely in Africa. Its sweet, yellow fruit is used for making jam, wine, beer, and a liqueur called Amarula. The Marula is a medium-sized dioecious tree, indigenous to the miombo woodlands of Southern Africa and the Sudano-Sahelian range of West Africa. The tree is a single stemmed tree with a wide spreading crown. It is characterised by a grey mottled bark.

The seed kernels are high in protein and fat with a subtle nutty flavour and constitute an important emergency food. Fruits are commonly eaten fresh or used to prepare juice, jelly and alcoholic drink. Marula oil, made from the seed kernel, is a delicious additive to meals in Africa, and can be used as a type of skin care oil. It contains antioxidants and oleic acid. The bark is used both as treatment and a prophylaxis for malaria. Gums exudates from the stem are mixed with water and soot to make ink by certain tribes in the region.

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