The Jackalberry tree is of great significance to us at Londolozi. Beneath its shade on the banks of the Sand River was the beginnings of what has now become Londolozi as we know it today. In 1926 Frank Unger and Charles Boyd Varty stepped off a train and meandered their way to the very Jackalberry that still stands today on Varty Deck. The place where one would meet before a game drive, and still do, anticipating an exciting drive ahead. Not only is the Jackalberry significant in the beginnings of this lodge, but it also certainly holds and provides for a variety of wildlife that passes by.
Another name for a Jackalberry is an Ebony tree which stems from colonial times as ebony and ivory were of high value during these times. The value of the Ebony tree came from the termite-resistant large trunks which provided great timber for furniture, mokoros (type of boat carved out of wood), and flooring. Its fissured burnt-looking bark with patches of whitewash can be boiled down to make a black dye. Although this tree’s common name has changed to Jackalberry the value this tree adds to a safari experience cannot be underestimated.
The scientific name of a Jackalberry is Diospyros mespiliformis: dios meaning divine or godly and pyros meaning grain which relates to the edible fruits that could be eaten from this tree. Mespiliformis refers to the medlar-shaped fruit. Thus the scientific name of this tree can be interpreted as a tree that has ‘fruits of the gods’ referring to the high value of this tree. This still runs true today and is supported by the abundant wildlife that exists in and around this tree during the fruiting season. The traditional uses of this tree are mainly from the crushed root which can be used to treat wounds. The bark can be placed over coals to produce smoke that, when inhaled, is said to relieve sinus-related illness and coughing. The fruit can be eaten when ripe and are also used in fermentation to make a local beer.
One of my favourite parts of a game drive is approaching river beds where branches of these trees dangle overhead with their evergreen abundant canopy that overshadows you. The dark fissured bark complemented by the lush green leaves with flickers of the red hue of young leaves creates an impressive tree.
I have told guests about this particular tree and how certain branches meander horizontally and about my high hopes to one day see a leopard draped in those branches. The life that exists around this tree is captivating, as various bird species and monkeys forage in the branches indulging in its fleshy fruits.
However, one morning as we drove alongside the Sand River, I was elated at the sight of a fairly uncommon side-striped jackal feeding on something on the ground. I finally put all the pieces together and soon realised this was a moment I had been waiting to see! A jackal feeding on the fallen fruits, from not just any tree ,but from the Jackalberry tree. The African Green pigeons and Burchell’s starlings above and occasionally monkeys, dislodge a number of ripe fruit which fall to the ground. Right before my eyes lay a whole new aspect of a Jackalberry, an ironic sighting.
Jackals are interesting predators because they scavenge for any remains of a carcass’ and readily hunt birds and rodents. However, they are in fact not carnivores. The best description is that they are opportunistic omnivores and therefore are incredibly adaptable to the environmental pressures as they vary their diet based on what is available to them. Although the fruit of a Jackalberry is not the main part of their diet nor the only fruit they eat, it indicates their resourcefulness to adapt to their environment based on density and competition from other predators, as well as seasonal change in the ecosystem. The grape-sized fruit of a Jackalberry has a hard skin that protects the fleshy and juicy inside which is relished by animals and humans. The name then stemmed from not seeing the jackals physically eating the fruits, but rather the scat which contained the seeds of the Jackalberry during times of fruiting from February to October. Furthermore, the organic matter of the scat adds to the germination of the tree and thus the common name was given.
The story of Londolozi and Varty Camp begins and ends with a Jackalberry tree. The beginnings of the lodge dating back to almost 100 years ago, to present guests leaving the Varty Camp car park, all occur under the shade of the same Jackalberry. Moreover, for me, it’s the mark of the end of a day as I approach the golden hue of lanterns that surround and illumine the Jackalberry after an adventurous evening drive.