Tree profile: Mopane

Lab Note #3
Mar 23, 2014

Mopane, the butterfly tree

Scientific name: Colophospermum mopane

Colophospermum: From Greek meaning either oily seed or seed end; mopane: derived from a local name for the tree
Family: Pod-bearing family (Fabaceae)

Indigenous names: Mopanie (afrikaans), Mohlanare (North Sotho), Nxanatsi (Tsonga), Mupani (Venda)


For the first tree profile I will be educating you on the iconic mopane tree, both because it has beautiful, butterfly-shaped leaves that turn incandescent red, orange and yellow in autumn and because it gives me an excuse to post the video of me eating a mopane worm. As soon as you cross the Oliphants river in Kruger National Park the mopane are there to welcome you to the north as early harbingers of the fascinating tree communities of the sandveld. The transition between the southern veld and the mopane woodlands is so sharp that you can trace it with a pencil, though that boundary is currently shifting further south as climate changes (In fact, one mopane was recently found as far south as Acornhoek, and I personally witnessed a busload of ecologists and botanists drive off to see it, presumably because they needed to witness it with their own eyes). The mopane is an indicator species of shallow, often alkaline soils, and when it grows in the sandveld it tells you that there is a shallow layer of sand overlaying poorly drained soil.
Cathedral Mopane Grove
Mopane is a semi-deciduous tree and a member of the pod-bearing Fabaceae family, with the added distinction of being the only species in its genus. The typical tree is 5-12m tall and occurs in vast woodlands that completely dominate the landscape and turn it to fire in the autumn with its fall foliage. Occasionally small populations can grow as tall as 22m, and are then known as cathedral mopanes. There is probably no greater sensory experience then standing in the middle of a cathedral mopane grove. The crushed leaves are highly aromatic, smelling of turpentine, and the dark grey wood is vertically fissured. Even in the summer months the young leaves are a reddish, coppery color, and were you to cut open the trunk you would see the light brown sapwood fade into the darker red of the heartwood. The seeds smell heavenly, like some combination of cloves and other spices. Mopane is an all around gorgeous tree.

As with most African trees, the mopane has a plethora of both fascinating and mundane uses. The wood is tough, one of South Africa's heaviest timbers, and termite resistant, but also difficult to work with and so historically has been used as poles for cattle fencing, props for mine shaft supports and railway sleepers. With the advent of more refined woodworking techniques, it's now used in high quality furniture and inlay work in more light-colored woods (the heartwood, as mentioned, being a striking rich reddish color). It's also becoming a popular flooring option, and even occasionally used to make instruments (mostly woodwinds). An extract from the bark is used to tan leather, turning it a light brown color, and the inner bark is used to make very strong rope. The leaves and pods are high in protein and highly nutritious and so provide excellent fodder for cattle (though you have to first accustom them to the aromatic smell, otherwise I imagine it'd be a good exercise in leading a horse to water). In the park the young green leaves are favored by elephants. Of course the elephants don't usually stop there and often eat the branches as well. The green and fallen leaves are eaten by giraffe, buffalo, eland, kudu, lichstenstein's hartebeest, nyala, impala, grey duiker, and steenbok. On the medicinal side of things, chewed leaves are often applied to heal wounds and stop bleeding. The bark is used to treat diarrhea and a decoction from the wood is used to treat inflamed eyes.

Lichstenstein's hartebeest, a strange animal

Flute made from mopane wood
Ecologically, the mopane is a good friend to bird watchers (and worm eaters, but we'll get to that). Aside from being an attractive option to cavity nesting birds, it hosts many rare and localized species, including white-headed black-chat and racket-tailed roller (ask your local birder whether these are exciting or not, I honestly have no idea... 'heeey, look at the seed pods on that baby!'). Because mopane bring in so many large browsers, it's also fairly common to see yellow-billed oxpecker in mopane woodlands. It also hosts a number of insect species, most notably the wild silk moth (which are gathered for their textile uses), the foxy emperor (indubitably the best named insect ever) and the mopane worm, which gets its name from the tree. The mopane worm is actually the larval form of the emperor moth (note: no relation to the foxy emperor) and is quite stunning. As with the mopane leaves, the worms are high in protein and highly nutritious. Not only are they an important source of protein for many southern African tribes, but an important source of income as well. The worms are fried or boiled with salt and often eaten with pap, the African homologue of bread or rice. I've heard the taste of the mopane worms be described as salty bark, but in my opinion it tastes just like...

Keala: Maria, if you could say one thing about mopane, what would it be?
Maria: Butterfly leaves. Makes it easy to identify. Without that, no idea.




Cultivation

Mopane is fairly intolerant to frost and cold, so it might serve best as an indoor plant unless grown in warmer climates. The seeds can be sown while still in the pod, but germinate faster if removed from it. My germination guide says to lay them flat on a tray of moist river sand, but honestly I had no problem planting them straight into potting soil. If you do use the river sand method, make sure to reduce the amount of water as soon as the seed germinates, or else it will damp-of. Seedlings are initially slow-growing but they shoot up quickly after they reach 2 cm. For potting, it's recommended to use a mix of compost, sand and loamy soil (1:2:7), and the roots are sensitive so take care when repotting. The root system is non-aggressive, and mopane looks especially impressive when grown in groups (for the fall foliage). It can be grown as a bonsai, but is probably not good for beginners of the art.

Want a mopane tree of your very own? A $25 donation will make you the proud owner of this beautiful indigenous tree!
This is my very first tree profile so feel free to give feedback. More ecology? Less? Something else you'd like to see included? Let me know!

Sources

  1. Making the most of Indigenous Trees, Fanie and Julye-Anne Venter
  2. Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park, Ernst Schmidt, Mervyn Lotter and Warren McClealand
  3. Mopane woodlands and the Mopane worms: rural livelihoods and resource sustainability
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