Focus on Flora

Focus on Flora

The impressive Impala lily.

When visiting our game reserves, much of our focus is on our fauna, as opposed to our flora. This limits our enjoyment, as there are many interesting snippets on the wonderful plants that are so abundant in this country. Occasionally though, a plant is just so splendid, that the vast majority of people simply cannot help but notice…

The unlikely vivid red, white and pink blooms.

There are rare beauties that decorate the drab Kruger National Park winter landscape with their sweetly scented, vivid red, white and pink blooms. Their colours can vary quite significantly, and even pure white flowers are occasionally found. The Impala lily (also known as the Sabie star or Kudu lily, and scientifically known as Adenium multiflorum) chooses to flower in the depths of winter (from around July onwards) through to early spring – providing a stark contrast to the dusty brown landscape. We visited in early September and were lucky enough to see them still flowering. 

The Impala lily, adding a beautiful splash of colour to the otherwise dry drab landscape.

Their decision to bloom when most other plants are dormant showcases a remarkable adaptation to survival. Winter is traditionally characterised by a scarcity of flowering plants, which means there is less competition for pollinators like bees, butterflies and many other insects. By flowering during this time, impala lilies have a higher chance of attracting these important pollinators, leading to successful reproduction and seed dispersal. During this period of scarcity, these plants are also providing a lifeline to pollinators seeking sustenance. 

There is much variation within the flowers. Compare these to the images above.

A ‘caudex’ is a swollen stem or root structure that allows the plant to store water during periods of drought. Their caudex allows these lilies to thrive in their arid environment, and also flower before the rains arrive. This deciduous tree or shrub can grow to a height of two to three meters, and its shape resembles a “bonsai version” of a Baobab tree. For the vast majority of the year, this plant has no leaves or flowers. Then the leaves grow in clusters at the tips of the branches but are shed when the plant starts flowering, creating an unusually attractive, visually striking feature in the dull winter bush.

These plants look like a miniature flowering Baobab!

Whilst the Impala lily is greatly appreciated for its beauty and the splash of colour the flowers provide, it does, however, contain a watery latex that is highly toxic. No wild animals seem to be affected by this toxin when eating the plant. Domestic animals, on the other hand, have been known to die after consuming this plant. The poisons/toxins are found in the bark and trunk of the plant and are said to contain over 30 types of chemicals that can affect the heart. Not all in a negative way though… If the correct dose is given, in conjunction with other ingredients, it could more than likely be used to treat cardiac arrest.

A lovely specimen in the gardens of Kubu Safari Lodge.

The Bushmen/San people of Namibia use the latex from the Impala lily (mixed with other ingredients) as a poison on the tips of their arrows. It is said that a large antelope, after being pierced by one of these poisoned arrows, will not run more than 100 meters before dropping down dead. This poison is also used to stun fish. The Bushmen/San people apparently use an Impala lily for the treatment of snake bites and scorpion stings as well. In some African cultures, this latex is used to make a “Magical Potion”. 

One of the very first trees to bloom in the spring.

When we were driving around the bush, as the day became warmer, so a gentle perfume became more pronounced. At this time of the year (early September), there was only one tree flowering prolifically. The sweet, floral aroma was coming from trees covered in delicate cream flowers. The Knob Thorn (previously known as the Acacia nigrescens) is often the first spring tree to come into bloom, heralding the onset of spring. This thorn tree’s name is derived from the Greek word “akakia”, meaning a point, spike or barb, and the Latin word “nigrescans” meaning ‘becoming black’ – which refers to the pods which turn very dark as they ripen. These days the correct name is Senegalia nigrescens, with “Senegalia” being derived from the name of the African country, Senegal. This tree, which reaches heights of up to 20 metres, is found growing from the wooded grasslands of our lowveld to as far north as Tanzania. 

These soft, powdery flowers are responsible for the beautiful, sweet smell on the spring breeze.

Their dark bark thickens, forming knobs equipped with small black hooked thorns. These thorny knobs are abundant on the newer branches of mature trees and on the trunks of young trees, offering protection against browsers. As a highly nutritious tree, the thorns are merely able to limit the amount of time animals feed on it. Kudu, elephant and giraffe browse the leaves, while baboons and vervet monkeys eat the flowers and pods. Besides the leaves, elephants also eat the roots and inner bark – sometimes even ring-barking the tree, which can cause the tree to die. 

The unique knobbly appearance on the branches and trunk that give the tree its name.

Giraffes have a very unique relationship with this acacia species, and it is believed that they pollinate these trees. When the trees first bloom in spring, food is scarce, and they are highly nutritious. Giraffes have a distinct preference for them, and with their long necks, they have the ability to eat high up into the canopy. In the process they rub against the flowers, collecting pollen which is then delivered from tree to flowering tree. The tree canopy eventually develops an umbrella-shaped browse line from the giraffes’ attention.

The bark of the adult tree is very distinctive – rough and deeply fissured.

Knob Thorn trees are the host of hole-nesting bird species such as woodpeckers and barbets, and the larvae of the Dusky Charaxes butterfly. As the wood is relatively termite-resistant and hard, 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. The knobs of the tree are reputed to have medicinal properties from pain relief (particularly for toothache) to healing eye-infections, as well as breast enhancement and aphrodisiac formulas.

The distinctive, cream-coloured flowers are hard to miss!

Historically, the tall, straight wood was a desirable material for railway sleepers, mine props and fence posts. Nowadays, in local communities, the trees are carved into “knobkerries” (traditional clubs) and walking sticks, and long poles of Knob thorn wood are also planted next to village homes as lighting conductors. This thorn tree provides good quality firewood that produces lasting coals with significant heat. It even makes a good bonsai subject! It is not regularly used for furniture because it is difficult to cut. The bark has a high level of tannin that is used for tanning leather, and the inner bark can be woven into strong twine.

Trees are often overlooked as important role players in the ecosystem. Whilst not all species are as important as others, most have really interesting facts pertaining to them. Always dig just that little deeper, and you will be rewarded with fascinating snippets!

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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