Tree Profile: White Kirkia

Lab Note #5
Apr 12, 2014
  White kirkia, the mountain tree

Scientific name: Kirkia acuminata
Kirkia: Sir John Kirk (1832-1922), explorer and naturalist;   acuminate: referring to the acuminate leaflet apex
Family: Quassia family (Simaroubaceae)
Indigenous names: Witsering (Afrikaans), Modumela (North Sotho), Mvumayila (Tsonga)  

White kirkia was originally included in the tree list because it is severely elephant intolerant, and it’s hoped that its traits can tell us something about the effects of the extreme pressures of herbivory. Of course, there being quite a few elephants in Kruger, this intolerance limits its range and makes it that much more difficult to find. My first sighting of the tree was actually in the Punda Maria rest camp, complete with a helpful placard giving the scientific and common name. ‘We meet at last, herr Kirkia’ was my first thought. My second was, ‘nice tree.’  

It really is quite a nice tree. Tall (up to 20 m), well formed, with a beautiful white trunk unmarred by bark stripping or old wounds. When we finally found a population growing on some rocky outcrops (too steep for elephants), my continuous verbal admiration was enough to draw comment. “You like this tree?” Desmond, the game guard, asked. “Well sure, look at it, it’s so pretty.” Desmond laughed and related a story of a previous researcher whom had fallen in love with a particular rock. ‘If I die out here,’ the researcher said, ‘just bury me somewhere in the veld and put this rock over me for a tombstone, that’ll do me just fine.’ We joked that when I inevitably do one stupid thing too many, Desmond will make sure to plant a kirkia over me; assuming, of course, that there aren’t any elephants nearby. No sense in compounding the casualties.  

After a mountainous day of measuring kirkias

Beyond its pretty face, kirkia is fascinating both culturally and ecologically. Historically they were sought out in times of drought, their roots dug up and opened for the stored water found within. Even today, modern hunting lore recommends taking advantage of the kirkia as a cool, pure source of water. The wood carves easily and is often used for making household utensils, however the wood also contains silica crystals that quickly blunt the teeth of saw blades. If you want to cut down a kirkia you’ll have to do it the old fashion way. That, or call up an elephant. Strong rope can be made from the plaited inner bark, but loses much of its strength when dry (suggesting, therefore, suitability for only short to midterm rescue operations). It’s browsed by game (giraffe, eland, kudu, and impala); provides shade during the summer months, can be used as a live fence, and the powdered root is used as a remedy for toothache.  

Maria, if you could say one thing about kirkia, what would it be?
“The one afraid of elephants, like Maria.” cont. “You can get killed by a buffalo trying to measure it.”

Editors note: This is true of all our trees.  

Kirkia is a fine garden tree that can easily be grown from seed. Sow in seedling trays with sand and keep moist. The seeds germinate in 8-14 days. Once the seedlings reach the two-leaf stage they can be transplanted into black nursery bags. For best results, young trees should be bagged until they are a year old before planting in open ground (or conversely they make, and can stay, an attractive indoor potted plant). Once planted they grow fast; up to 1.5 m a year. Be warned, their root system is aggressive and they shouldn’t be planted near buildings or swimming pools. They are extremely drought tolerant and can tolerate light frost (in cold areas they must be protected for the first two seasons).

Want a white kirkia of your very own? A $25 donation will make you the proud owner of this beautiful indigenous tree!

  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. Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa, Braam van Wyk and Piet van Wyk
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