Trees provide life to everything around us. Without them we simply wouldn’t exist. When thinking about it, almost every time we found ourselves out in the bush we in some ways are connected to the trees around us. Whether it be scanning the limbs of the large trees for a glimpse of a rosette coat draped over its branches or searching for the bird we haven’t yet seen or merely enjoying the sight of its textured bark or blossoming flowers, we are constantly given the opportunity to connect with a tree.
For animals, trees equal life. Whether it be their source of food, a safety net, a home or even a vantage point, so many of them rely on these pillars to survive. There are however a few trees that stand out, a few that are my favourites, and some that are iconic in the Lowveld, so today’s blog I would like to highlight a few of them and their most identifiable features. The next time you are on a drive, look out for these striking trees that shape our landscape.
Leadwood (Combretum Imberbe)
A tree that can grow up to 20m tall and live for ~1000 years. Its pale pencil-lead grey bark with cracked misformed rectangular blocks is almost similar to a crocodile’s back. These beautiful trees often decorate the fringes adjacent to a riverbed or drainage line. Growing incredibly slowly their very dense and heavy heartwood is the third densest wood we get here (behind #1 zebrawood Dalbergia melanoxylon and #2 Russet Bushwillow Combretum Hereroense).
Because of its density, the dead tree can be seen still standing for many years. It is believed that the wood actually erodes away as opposed to decaying. As a result of this, we often see very textured old dead leadwoods dotted around the reserve and dream to see a leopard resting in the branches. Leadwood trees are not adversely affected by many other plants or animals due to their strength and dense wood. They can be seen as a common support structure/host for the strangler fig trees. The strangler figs are unable to strangle and kill the leadwood and so the two grow together for many years, reaching enormous sizes.
Animals that eat the leaves of the leadwood are elephants, giraffes, kudus, impalas and grey duikers.
Sycamore Fig (Ficus Sycomorus)
For me, one of the more beautiful trees we see along the banks of the Sand River, as well as dry river beds here at Londolozi. This large tree often has an impressively buttressed base that supports the enormous growth of up to 30 meters tall. The trunk of the sycamore fig can grow up to three meters in diameter and is coated with a pale, smooth, powdery, yellow bark that begins to flake with age.
This tree fruits throughout the year and is relished by many fruit-eating birds, bats and different mammals including elephants, giraffes, kudu, nyala, bushbuck, impala, warthogs, baboons and monkeys. The fruit is edible for humans and very nutritious however it is not as sweet and tasty as other figs that we love to eat. And may also be occupied by an array of insects. More often than not, even for those with little interest in trees, when passing by a sycamore fig you’ll want to stop for at least a few seconds to admire it. Its almost like a tree you would expect to find in Rivendell from the Lord of the Rings!
Jackalberry (Diospyros Mespiliformis)
Whenever I’m asked by someone what my favourite tree is, the jackalberry has to be my answer. The jackalberry is the most beautiful of them all, they grow to be a huge tree with an imposing upright trunk that splits into a few thick branches that support a dense dark green spreading canopy which stands as tall as 25 meters. The trunk and limbs are covered in a dark black/brown fissured bark with a superficial whitewash splashed over it.
Like the two previously mentioned trees, the jackalberry is typically found along riverine areas where their tasty oval/round fruit draws in many animals. Often fruiting from April to October, these fruits provide a valuable source of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins with very high levels of Vitamin C (about 25mg per 100g) to all those that consume them, humans included. The leaves are eaten by elephants, giraffes, nyala and kudus. The fruit is eaten by kudus, klipspringers, baboons, vervet monkeys, parrots, hornbills, turacos and bulbuls just to name a few.
Jackalberry trees hold a close place to many people at Londolozi’s hearts, the main tree growing through the Varty Camp deck is a jackalberry and it was beneath this exact tree that the original camp was set when Charles Boyd Varty and Frank Unger arrived on Sparta farm in 1926. Many jackalberry trees found within the camp provide an abundance of shade, life and energy to keep the spirit of Londolozi going.
Next time whilst visiting Londolozi or anywhere in the Lowveld of South Africa, keep a lookout for either of these three trees. There are so many beautiful trees that if you just look a little closer you’ll find something that will grab hold of your curiosity. In the comments below Id be interested in hearing which is your favourite tree?