The Buffalo Thorn Tree

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The buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) known also as the blinkblaar-wag-'n-bietjie in Afrikaans, mokgalo in Tswana,


This hardy small to medium-sized tree flourishes in many soil types among a variety of habitats, and can even grow on top of a termite mound, although it thrives best in open woodlands. As a result it is common throughout the summer rainfall areas of sub-Saharan Africa, all the way up to Ethiopia and Arabia. As a result of this it has been used in a number of applications by a variety of cultures.

The signature zigzag pattern of the young branches and combination of hooked and straight thorns are responsible for the name, 'wag-'n-bietjie', which means 'wait a bit', referring to the tedious process of unhooking yourself from its clutches if you should snag yourself in passing.

These characteristics make its branches useful as a natural form of fencing or a temporary cattle kraal and are sometimes seen as a metaphor for the uncertain patterns of life, with the opposite-facing thorns representing the past and future. Others believe that sheltering under this tree during a cloudburst will protect you from lightning.

Other African nationalities attach spiritual significance to the tree and believe that a twig from the tree could sweep up and carry the spirit of the deceased from the place of death to its final resting place, or to ward off evil spirits. The Zulu people would plant a buffalo thorn at the burial place of a chief, hence the name umLahlankosi (resting place of the king).

The simple serrated, ovate leaves can be cooked into a tasty spinach-like meal and are also used as an aphrodisiac when chewed. The grape-sized reddish-brown fruit, although mediocre tasting, are highly nutritional, and the seeds were ground into 'coffee' during the lean times of the Anglo-Boer war in South Africa. The beer which the Ovambos make from the fruit, called Ombike, is far better received than either of the above.

When mixed with the reddish brown bark, the leaves can be decocted into a remedy for chest complaints, septic skin conditions and as a steam-therapy to improve the complexion. An extract of the roots is used as a painkiller and for treating snake bites. These healing powers are attributed to peptide alkaloids and antifungal properties present in the leaves and bark.

Nature too has its uses for the buffalo thorn and several species of birds find the leaves and fruit particularly appealing, while giraffe and impala feast on the leaves. The green to yellow flowers attract bees and produce a good quality, tasty honey.

See if you can spot one of these useful trees in your surroundings, just try to avoid getting caught...

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Thursday, 14 December 2017