The Merry Family

Merry Mission Journal

April 11, 2005

African Trees

As I have told you previously, everything here in Africa is very different from what we see in North America. That goes for trees as well. Instead of sugar maples, stately oaks, aspens, Douglas fir and tulip trees, we have a wide array of greenery that I had never seen before coming here.

When we first arrived, the Jacarandas were starting to bloom. These trees are not native to Africa, they were imported from Brazil years ago to line streets and add color to gardens. When I went to Sanjika Palace, the 2-mile driveway was lined with Jacarandas in full bloom. It was a breathtaking sight. The trumpet-like flowers are a brilliant shade of lavender. You can also see huge poinsettia trees and bushes with their scarlet blooms, imported from Mexico.

Another tree that I was surprised to see here was the eucalyptus or flooded gum tree. We have five of these towering giants, native to Australia, on the Eastern edge of our yard.

But the trees that are native to Africa are the ones that I find really fascinating. Elephants and giraffes both love to eat the small compound leaves of the Wild Acacia tree. Its lower branches are spiked with 3-inch long thorns. While these protect them from many predators, the elephants can eat the sharp thorns with no problem. The giraffes graze on the tender leaves that are higher up on the tree, where there are no thorns.

The small-fruited Ironwood tree grows to a height of over 30 feet on the banks of mountain streams. It has smooth brown bark and thick leathery leaves that are elliptically shaped. It sports fragrant cream colored flowers once a year.

The Lance Leaved Waxberry tree is smaller, reaching heights of 9 to 15 feet. It grows in forests and costal flats and has rough brown bark. Its leaves are tapered and yellow-green in color. The flowers are short, spiky and rusty red. These blooms turn into bluish-black small spheres that are edible. When boiled they produce a “waxy” substance that is really pure fat. Centuries of experience have taught people not to chew the leaves because they produce a burning sensation in the mouth and throat and cause severe headaches.

I have seen sausage trees in Florida, but the African sausage tree can grow to be about 50 feet tall and has a magnificent rounded crown of branches and leaves. It grows in open woodlands and the leaves are crowded near the ends of the branches. The sausage tree’s bark is smooth and grey. The tree is, of course, named for its oblong shaped fruit, which can weigh up to 20 pounds. The fruit has a fibrous pulp that is embedded with seeds. We have watched yellow baboons and monkeys munching on this delicacy. Traditional healers here say that the fruit can be used as a dressing for ulcers and sores, and suggest rubbing it on the bodies of babies to make them fat. The white wood of the tree is often used to make dugout canoes.

Our favorite tree here, though, is the unusual looking baobab tree. People say that its angular branches look like roots. There are many legends that explain this. One states that the baobab wanted to become the most beautiful tree of all. When it realized that this was not possible, it put its head into the ground, so only the roots pointed heavenward. Another legend holds that when the baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it from moving. There is no doubt that this is an oddly shaped tree. It is easy to spot on the flat plains around Lake Malawi or in the Shire Valley. Both regions are hot and have little rainfall. The extensive but shallow root system of the baobab makes it ideally suited for these conditions.

The tree’s trunk is covered with a thick layer of smooth grayish brown bark, but it can be folded and seamed from years of growth. Both humans and elephants use the bark. An elephant can kill a young baobab tree by eating its bark and porous pulp, and humans often use sections of the fibrous bark to make rope and fishing nets. When they do this, the tree stops growing up, but forms a scar on the trunk and continues to branch out.

The leaves are hand-sized and divided into 5-7 finger-like leaflets. Being deciduous, the leaves are dropped during the winter months. Right now, because of the drought, many of the baobab trees are confused, so about half of them have leaves and the rest don’t. The leaves are said to be rich in vitamin C, sugars, potassium tartrate, and calcium. They are cooked fresh as a vegetable or dried and crushed for later use. They are also fed to domestic animals. Wild animals eat the fallen leaves.

The large, pendulous flowers are white and sweetly scented. They emerge in the late afternoon from large round buds on long drooping stalks from October to December. Pollination by fruit bats takes place at night. The flowers fall within 24 hours, turning brown and smelling quite unpleasant. The fallen flowers are relished by wild animals and cattle alike. The fruit is a large, egg-shaped capsule, covered with yellowish brown hairs. The seeds are edible and can also be roasted for use as a coffee substitute. When the wood is chewed, it provides vital moisture to both people and animals in times of drought. Because of the softness of the wood, it can not be used as a building material or firewood, and therefore is not often cut down by humans.

African honey bees often utilize hollows in the baobab to make their hives. Sometimes you can see a 'ladder' of pegs hammered into the trunk which is used by honey harvesters to climb up to the hives. Some bush people believe that spirits inhabit the flowers of the baobab and that any person who picks a flower will be eaten by a lion. It is also believed that water in which the seeds have been soaked will offer protection against attack by crocodiles, but sucking or eating the seeds will do the opposite and attract crocodiles. Tea made from the bark of a baobab tree is supposed to make men strong, and parents sometimes bathe their baby boys in it.

As you can imagine, most people do not hold these things to be true, but one thing is for sure, the baobab is a distinctive plant that is incredibly interesting to look at.

Recently I was told that a picture was taken of some Missionaries under a baobab tree over a century ago, and then another was shot of today’s missionaries. The tree had hardly changed at all (although the missionaries had!). The baobab is very slow growing, but can live to be over 1000 years old. One Park Guide told us that every yard of girth around the trunk indicates 100 years of growth.

Well, I have gone on long enough about the beautiful flora here, but Jesus often took note of the plant life around him. He talked about fig trees, branches, vines and fruit quite often in scripture. He and the Gospel writers mentioned trees and seeds in their writings and parables.

I wonder what lessons Jesus would have taught us if he had seen a baobab tree.

Beth Merry

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