Common Tree of the Year 2017

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Ziziphus mucronata Picture courtesy mucronata Picture courtesy  Buffalo-thorn, Blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie, Haakdoring, umPhafa, mokgalo, mphasamhala, mutshetshete, Umpafa, umLahlabantu (Ziziphus mucronata)

Ziziphus is a genus of about 40 species of spiny shrubs and small trees in the buckthorn and jubjube family (Rhamnaceae), which can be found growing wild in warm-temperate and subtropical regions throughout the world. The Buffalo Thorn occurs throughout the summer rainfall areas of sub-Saharan Africa, extending from South Africa to Ethiopia and Arabia.

It is not common in the Western Cape.  Although it is common in areas dominated by thorny vegetation, it can be found in a wide range of habitats like: valleys and woodlands, along forest margins and streams, as well as open grasslands, scrubland and on rocky koppies.

The buffalo thorn tree also has great cultural significance, and in Zulu and Swazi cultures it is used in burial rites. When a Zulu chief died, the tree was planted on his grave as a symbol of where the chief lies - hence the name “umLahlankosi” - that which buries the chief.  A twig from the tree is still used to attract and carry the spirit of the deceased from the place of death to its new resting place. When a stock owner died and was buried, Picture courtesy courtesy to custom, within the cattle or goat kraal, buffalo thorn branches were placed on the grave so that the animals who ate on the leaves and twigs, would understand that their master had died. A branch may even be dragged around the village to protect it from evil spirits, and the tree is believed to be immune to lightning, offering protection to any person sheltering under it during a storm. Interestingly, it is said that its presence indicates the presence of underground water, and if a buffalo thorn tree is felled after the first rains, it will be followed by drought.

The fruits are edible, and the settlers roasted the seeds are roasted as a coffee substitute, while the indigenous peoples fermented them to make beer and even porridge. The tree is also a well respected medicinal tree which is known for its antifungal properties, and is widely used for treating stomach ailments, skin ulcers, chest problems, glandular swellings and many types of pain.

The buffalo thorn is one of the most adaptable trees, thriving in all the summer rainfall regions of South Africa. It can vary greatly in height, from 3 to 10m, and its ultimate height will largely be determined by the climate in which it is grown, and especially rainfall. For example, in the moist, sub-tropical regions of the country it will grow much quicker and taller than specimens grown in hot regions with little rainfall.

This attractive, small to medium size tree is deciduous, and its leaves turn a golden yellow in autumn before dropping.  It is therefore ideal to plant in cold winter regions, where its shade is welcomed in summer, but its bare branches allow the sunlight through in winter. The upper branch-lets often droop down and tend to fall with the leaves in autumn and winter.

A great barrier plant. Picture great barrier plant. Picture good garden conditions, where it receives fairly regular watering in summer, the buffalo thorn should reach approximately 5 to 7m in height, and produce a fairly dense, spreading canopy.  The attractive, shiny, dark green leaves are a pale green below and up to 7cm long.  The leaves often have short, soft hair on the under surface, but may also be hairless. The bark is grey to dark grey and roughly fissured, and the thorns are paired along the stems, one being straight and the other hooked. Although small, these thorns are extremely vicious, and all those that have come into contact have had to learn to ‘wait-a-bit’ in order to free themselves – hence the common Afrikaans name “wag-n-bietjie”.

Although the tight clusters of small greenish-yellow flowers are inconspicuous, they produce a large quantity of nectar for animals and birds in summer. The flowers are followed in autumn and winter by round, yellowish to russet-red fruit, with a smooth, shiny, leather-like skin, encasing a dry pulp which contains a wood stone incorporating two seeds.

The flowers, nectar, fruits and even the leaves of this tree are sought out by birds, bees and all kinds of wild animals, even domestic livestock, making this indigenous tree perfect for villages, farms and large properties. If allowed to grow tall, the buffalo thorn provides good nesting positions for many birds, especially weavers. Because it responds well to pruning, the thorny branches also make it an excellent choice for hedges designed to keep intruders at bay, or simply to form a natural windbreak or screen. With regular pruning, this wonderful little tree can even be grown in suburban gardens, and is a “must-have” plant for all wildlife gardens.  It should also grow well in a large container.

TIP: Although the roots of the buffalo thorn are not aggressive, under ideal growing conditions, and if left un-pruned, the trees can eventually grow large and will require ample space to spread. Also, because they drop their thorny branches easily they should ideally be sited in a more remote part of the garden which is not often frequented by people, especially small children, and pets.

In the wild it is a great refuge for wildlife. Picture courtesy the wild it is a great refuge for wildlife. Picture courtesy could be easier than growing a buffalo thorn tree, and although it loves to bask in full sunshine, it will also live happily in semi-shade. It tolerates heat, cold and frost, and once established this water-wise tree can survive on summer rainfall and will require no watering in winter. In extremely cold regions, plant out in spring and protect young saplings for a couple of winters, until established.

Although the buffalo thorn is adaptable to all types of soil, It prefers alluvial soil - a fine-grained fertile soil deposited by water flowing over flood plains or in river beds , and it therefore copes well in sandy, clay, and loamy soil. A generous amount of compost and a dressing of bone meal will get your sapling off to a good start. The buffalo thorn can grow up to 1m in height per year, but to speed up the growing process, water regularly for the first couple of years, mulch the roots seasonally, and feed regularly in spring just before the first rains, with a balanced organic fertiliser.

Established trees often leave a carpet of the hard seeds below them on the ground, and this often results in new seedlings springing up near the mother tree.  A few truly magnificent specimens can be seen in Skukuza rest camp in the Kruger National Park, where the tall, spreading branches of buffalo thorn create an extensive ecosystem, supporting a myriad of creatures, large and small.

Do your bit for arbour day and find a place to plant a buffalo thorn, or two :)