YOUR GUIDE TO AFRICA’S ICONIC TREES
“To be poor and be without trees, is to be the most starved human being in the world. To be poor and have trees, is to be completely rich in ways that money can never buy.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés.
In Africa, trees play a vital role in our everyday lives. They provide shade during the hot and dry summers; they lend us oxygen and shelter us through ever-changing climates. Trees are not only important to us, but they are a sanctuary for many animals in Africa.
Elephants and giraffes crane their trunks and necks to indulge in the produce of these incredible giants; while squirrels and birds use them as a haven for their young and leopards take refuge, as they leap and lounge between branches.
To celebrate trees and their importance, we have put together a guide to Africa’s most iconic trees.
1. Marula Tree
Scientific Name: Sclerocarya birrea
Location: Marula trees can be found throughout Southern Africa and in some parts of West Africa and Madagascar.
Loved and enjoyed by humans and elephants alike, the Marula tree has many uses in Africa; and in particular, the delicious yellow fruit that these giants produce. If you have visited Africa before, there is a good chance you would have had the signature creamy liqueur, Amarula. The liqueur is produced using the fruits of the Marula tree, along with a few other ingredients.
Elephants enjoy the juicy Marula fruits when ripe, but they prefer it directly from the tree and not in the creamy liquid form. Often enough, if you find a Marula tree in Africa, you will find an elephant or half-eaten fruit laying on the ground.
Marula trees can grow up to 20 meters (65 feet) tall and belong to the Anacardiaceae family; as do mango, pistachio and cashew trees. During the summer months (January to March), the Marula fruits ripen, and the bright yellow leathery fruits can be consumed. Blossoming between September to November, the tree blooms with lightly coloured rosy flowers.
Other names for the Marula tree include:
- The king of African trees: With its resistance to droughts and many uses by the indigenous people of Africa, the Marula tree has earned its name in the Kingdom.
- Tree of the Elephants: As we said, elephants love Marula trees!
- Tree of marriage: In many African cultures, the Marula tree is a symbol of fertility.
2. Quiver Tree
Scientific Name: Aloidendron dichotomum
Location: Quiver trees are mostly found in Namibia and South Africa’s Northern Cape.
Known as Choje to the indigenous San people, the Quiver tree gets its name from the San practice of hollowing out the tubular branches to form quivers for their arrows. This spectacular aloe species is indigenous to Southern Africa and can grow up to 6 meters tall to escape the worst of the dry heat in Namibia and the Northern Cape. As with many unusual species in the deserts, quiver trees thrive in the arid regions.
There are 3 quiver tree species in South Africa – the more widespread Aloe Dichotoma, the shrub-like Maiden Aloe (Aloe Ramosissima) and the critically endangered Aloe Pillansii, also called the giant quiver tree.
The quiver tree can be distinguished by its sharp leaves which point upwards toward the sky, sort of like a quiver holding arrows.
3. Sausage Tree
Scientific Name: Kigelia africana
Location: The tropical sausage tree can be found in Southern Africa as well as further afield on the African continent, including Chad and Senegal.
Sausage trees can reach a height of 20 meters (65 feet) and are often found along rivers and streams. Not only is the large bulb-shaped flower a beautiful sight as the deep scarlet colours extend through the branches, but the scent tingles the senses and can be smelt most powerfully at night.
These giants are popular in areas such as the Okavango Delta. Forming part of your Okavango Delta Experience, a Mokoro (dugout canoe) is made up from the trunk of the Sausage Tree.
Sausage trees are not only useful for us, but the tree is possibly a leopard’s favourite “hang out” spot. The hefty sausage-shaped fruit can be an irresistible treat to many of the local wildlife, including warthogs and baboons. As their prey is lured towards the delicious fruits, leopards use their ability to leap from one branch to another and onto the ground to their advantage as the perfect ‘element of surprise’.
Our advice: when you spot a sausage tree, admire them from a distance. Not only for your safety from a leopard pounce but the sausage-shaped fruits tend to fall to the ground and weighing at approximately 10 kgs (22 pounds), you may be even worse off than if the leopard had pounced!
Scientific Name: Adansonia
Location: These towering icons can be found throughout Southern, Western and Eastern Africa, including Madagascar.
The ‘upside-down tree’ is a well-known tree that is celebrated in Africa. Featured in many photographs, the Baobab tree can live up to hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And it is no surprise that this tree is often referred to as the ‘tree of life’ – fire-resistant bark, extraordinary drought resistance and record-breaking lifespans, the Baobab is one of the extraordinary species indigenous to Southern Africa, specifically Madagascar.
Elephants and baboons love the popular African tree, for different reasons. Baboons enjoy the fruits, while elephants strip the bark for food and moisture. Smaller creatures use this giant as a secure place to nest and these include squirrels, bees and bush babies.
The Baobab plays an important role in the African Kingdom.
Did you know?
Baobab trees have large pale flowers that bloom in the evenings. We know, they keep surprising us too!
5. Leadwood Tree
Scientific Name: Combretum imberbe
Location: Leadwood trees can be found throughout Southern Africa, particularly in the Kruger region.
If you are a wildlife enthusiast, you would have certainly seen the iconic image of vultures huddled on branches of a leafless tree, along with a gloomy backdrop. The bare tree found in this image is one of the largest trees in Africa, the Leadwood. Leadwood trees have extremely dense and heavy wooden trunks and thrive along dry and active riverbeds. These giants flourish in alluvial soil – which is not only present along the riverbeds but also in the bushveld and mixed forest areas.
The trunk of a Leadwood tree is unique as it is not your typical hazel colour. The trunk is a greyish colour with horizontal and vertical “cracks” that form a rectangular shape.
The Leadwood tree offers great photographic opportunities, especially if you have a lazy leopard around.
6. Fever Tree
Scientific Name: Vachellia xanthophloea
Location: Fever trees grow in warmer climates and swampy regions. They can be found throughout Southern Africa, from South Africa to Malawi.
Once thought to have been the cause of malaria in the late 1800s, fever trees have always had an eerie ambience. Sailors and explorers travelling to Africa during this time had battled a malaria outbreak and they suspected the cause was a fever tree, as they had always been around these trees during their stays in Africa. Thankfully, as time went on, the reason for their illness was discovered and the mystical fever tree is no longer a suspect.
Fever trees can be identified through their powdery greenish-yellow trunks and small leaves that are twice compounded. A unique feature of the tree is that it does not photosynthesize through its leaves but through its bark. These mystical giants are often planted within close proximity to dams and streams to control soil erosion and are great for a shady spot during your African Journey.
Remember, these beautiful giants are harmless and should be celebrated as one of Africa’s iconic trees.
7. Acacia: Whistling Thorn, Flat-top/Umbrella thorn
Scientific Name: Vachellia drepanolobium, Vachellia abyssinica (Acacia tortillis)
Location: Whistling Thorn, Flat-top/Umbrella Thorn Acacias are seen throughout the African continent.
Although the Acacia species can be found in other parts of the world, the two species endemic to Africa are signature trees that will often be seen during your safari; and create the perfect sunset photograph.
Whistling Thorn is commonly seen in the savannas of East Africa, particularly the Serengeti plains. This Acacia can grow up to 5 meters (18 feet) in height, but often. Whistling Thorns have adapted to living in dry climates and during each season, the Acacia prepares itself for survival by releasing leaves during the summer months and blossoming beautiful flowers in the winter months.
Flat-top/Umbrella Thorn Acacias are dotted throughout Southern and Eastern Africa. These canopy trees can reach up to 16 meters tall (52 feet). When fully matured, the bark is usually a crimson hazel colour; while the younger trees display a pale amber hazel colour.
8. Mopane Tree
Scientific Name: Colophosphermum Mopane
Location: Mopane Trees have set roots within Southern Africa and you will not find this tree anywhere else in the world.
Known as the butterfly tree, Mopane trees can be found throughout Southern Africa from the Kruger Lowveld to the lush National Parks in Malawi. The name, butterfly tree, is derived from the winged appearance of the Mopane’s leaves. The trees are a favourite among grazers and Mopane moths. When travelling in the Northern Kruger, forests of Mopane trees can be seen and lurking in between the branches: zebras and other antelope species.
Some Mopane trees can reach a height of up to 25 meters (82 feet), especially on alluvial soils. When conditions are less favourable, smaller versions, known as a ‘Mopane scrub’ and locally referred to as ‘gumane’, are more evident.
9. Yellowwood Tree
Scientific Name: Podocarpus latifolius
Location: Mostly found in South Africa, with a few in Zimbabwe.
South Africa’s National Tree, the Yellowwood is a beautiful giant that can grow up to 30 meters in length. A trunk of the Yellowwood tree can reach up to 40 meters wide, making this one of South Africa’s most impressive trees. Driving along the Garden Route, you can find Yellowwood trees dating back 600 years.
It is difficult to miss a Yellowwood tree as its mighty presence can be felt at first glance. Another characteristic of this evergreen tree is the long and narrow shape of the glossy leaves. Yellowwood trees allow for a picture-perfect canopy when standing underneath and looking above.
Tree Tip: If you are travelling along the Garden Route and you see a tree that seems well-aged and full of character, there is a good chance that it may be a Yellowwood tree.