We find ourselves midway through August. Leaves have fallen and the grass is straw yellow. The bush is covered in colours from chocolate brown to pale cream and the trees look stark, except for one.
We embark on drive at day break, the ever-comforting winter sun begins to warm the land. As this warm air rises, a pleasantly sweet, floral smell drifts across the landscape and everyone sighs with satisfaction. A thorn tree with its unique knobbly trunk and branches breaks the horizon. The canopy is filled with soft yellows and creams; the tree and others like it are in full flowering bloom and their scent permeates through the surrounds. It’s commonly known as the Knob Thorn.
Knob Thorns flower between the months of August and November; often being the first Spring tree to come into bloom at Londolozi, a sure sign that the season is changing. Giraffe shape the beautiful crown as they feed. Vervet monkeys often descend from the tree tops with a face covered in yellow pollen. Elephants favour the bark of the tree, which is easily stripped and is reported to have properties that help fight tooth decay. Mixed bird parties are heard and seen fluttering in and out of the canopy, with white-bellied sunbirds in particular flocking in to take advantage of the nectar-laden flowers. The Knob Thorn can be seen as a tree of life.
Knob thorn trees play host to hole-nesting bird species such as woodpeckers and barbets and they attract the larvae of the Dusky Charaxes (a species of butterfly). With the wood being relatively termite-resistant, the dead trees are likely to remain upright for longer than others, allowing a more permanent home for these birds. White backed vultures are also known to make regular use of knob thorn trees as nest sites.
It is not only birds however that have a special relationship with the tree: up to 45% of their pollination is done by giraffes! As the giraffes feed, their long, slender faces pick up pollen off the flowers, which is then deposited on neighbouring trees growing nearby as well as trees many kilometres away.
Commercially, knob thorns have a very hard wood and so have been used as fence posts and mine props. The iconic scene of an African camp fire is often stoked with the wood from this tree as it provides hot and slow-burning endless coals. Traditional fighting sticks and carvings are often whittled out of knob thorn wood
As trees form such a sedentary part of the bush landscape, they are often overlooked as important role players in the ecosystem, whereas in fact they are some of the crucial components of a healthy and productive habitat. Whereas not all species are as important as others, some have such a wide variety of uses – both for humans and animals alike – that they are almost indispensable.
The knob thorn, whilst rarely featuring on regular bush-goers’ ‘favourite trees’ list, should certainly rank up there as one of the most interesting and widely used. One just needs to look a little deeper to see what an amazing and valuable part of the bushveld it forms.