Fever trees, Acacia xanthophloea, and waterbuck at Elmenteita, Kenya
For those of you who follow Frizztext’s alphabet prompts, the tail end is always a challenge. What the devil begins with ‘X’? So here, yet again, I am cheating a bit, but at the same time introducing you to a tree I fell in love with while we lived in Kenya. It is well worth getting to know. It has a velvety golden bark, and feathery foliage, and it smells of…I don’t know what it smells of…perhaps something warm and faintly spicy, and a bit like gorse.
It acquired its English name ‘fever tree’ from early explorers who thought it actually caused malaria, rather than the mosquitos that infested the water sources near which it was often found growing. It is also known as the Naivasha Thorn because the shores of this Kenyan lake (still much occupied by the descendants of white settler families) are characteristically populated by these graceful trees.
Its botanical name comes from xanthos meaning yellow, and phloios meaning bark or skin. A golden skinned acacia: I think that sums it up. I read somewhere, too, that it is one of the few trees where photosynthesis takes place in the bark as well as in the leaves.
One New Year we had a hangi pit roast party in our front garden in Nairobi. This involved heating up rocks in a big hole in the lawn, and then wrapping food in banana leaves and burying it until it was cooked. It was a good party, and later we filled in the hole and planted a fever tree sapling. It grew wonderfully in the ashy soil. We called it the Party Tree.
Looking back, it seems like a good name. The fever trees in these photos do look as if they might break into a dance given half a chance; a waltz perhaps; something gently wafting anyway.
Nakuru National Park, Kenya. Giraffes like fever tree browse too. They steer their tongues around the thorns.
Traditionally, the timber is used for charcoal making, firewood and building poles. The foliage and the pods make good animal fodder. The trees can also be cultivated as a living fence, thus providing for many household needs all in one go. The roots are also nitrogen fixing, and the delicately scented pompom flowers are good bee forage. They are also elephants’ food of choice when they are not eating grass, although a Zambian zoologist once told me that they target fever trees for destruction because they are trying to stop them encroaching on their grassland reserves. In Australia, where it is an introduced species, the fever tree is regarded as a major and costly pest of pasture, so the elephants clearly have the measure of their tree.
In South Africa the tree is called Mukanya Kude by the Zulu people who revere it for its medicinal properties. They also use the bark to promote lucid dreaming and provide spiritual insight. Scientific analysis has shown that the tree’s parts comprise many active ingredients, and it is used throughout Africa to treat both physical and mental illness. Paul Kabochi, the ethno-botanist whom I used to meet at Delamere Camp at Elmenteita, told me he had once successfully treated a local typhoid epidemic with decoctions of the bark.
Personally, I always find it heartening to remember that there is something bigger than Big Pharma – the still surviving natural world that harbours all manner of life-enhancing creation. We might also remember not to destroy it before we have learned of its many useful properties, or indeed learned to value other living things simply because they are there, and are in every sense magnificent.
Meeting elephants in a fever tree thicket at Lewa Downs, Kenya
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell