Beneath the surface of the Tamboti Tree
Spirostachys Africana grows naturally from KwaZulu-Natal all the way up to Tanzania, thriving in all soil types in close proximity to water. The only Southern African country without a population of Tamboti trees is Lesotho.
The wood of the tamboti tree is practically a household name in South Africa, and is also found in homes throughout the world, in the form of furniture, rafters, fencing and even clothes hangers and jewellery.
The timber which is harvested from this tree is particularly attractive, being reddish-brown in colour with darker streaks, a satiny smooth texture and a fragrant smell similar to sandalwood. In spite of a penchant for heart rot, the wood is durable and dense and never loses this lovely sweet scent.
Traditionally the wood is also used for the constructions of huts, fences, walking sticks and arrows. However, the beauty of the Tamboti tree is only skin deep. The sap from this tree is highly toxic, and one of our trackers ended up needing a cornea transplant after a close encounter with a Tamboti branch!
Even the sawdust from its timber can cause extreme eye and skin irritation and the smoke from burning wood leads to severe stomach cramps if ingested. This makes tamboti timber particularly unsuitable as firewood. On the other hand, when applied in moderation, the sap is used to tip arrows and spears, as a purgative, and to ease toothache.
Wild animals seem unperturbed by this and the fruits of the tamboti tree are enjoyed by doves, francolins and guinea fowl. Black rhino go straight for the young branches, while kudu, nyala, impala, elephants, vervet monkeys, giraffe and eland feast on the leaves.
The fruits are a breeding ground for the small grey snout moth Emporia melanobasis, and are used as a nursery for the developing larvae. When the fruits mature they split into three segments with an audible bang, and fall to the ground. As these larvae develop they jack knife inside the fallen segments, causing them to twitch about alarmingly, giving them the colloquial name, 'jumping beans'.
Tamboti trees can grow up to 18m in height and are distinguished by their thick, rough greyish-black bark which is split neatly into rectangles, and small elliptical leaves which start off red, turn green and then back to red during the autumn. The female flowers, which precede the leaves in the springtime, are also red while the male flowers appear more golden with their heavy burden of pollen.