South Africa is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna all suited to its different climates and biomes. If you’re a fan of trees, it’s a bucket list country. Here are nine incredible trees native to South Africa from towering baobabs to butterfly trees.
Where Is South Africa?
The Republic of South Africa is a country on the southern tip of the African continent. It has a vast 1739 mile coastline on the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
It covers 471,445 square miles and has a population of over 60 million, most of whom live in large cities such as Johannesburg.
South Africa also contains eight different types of biomes including Nama-karoo, savannah, and forests. This, coupled with its wide range of climactic zones (desert to subtropical), creates numerous ecosystems with amazing flora.
Even though just 1% of South Africa is forest, it’s home to some stunning trees. Here are nine incredible trees native to South Africa.
1. Baobab Tree (Adansonia)
Let’s start with one of the most incredible trees native to South Africa, the giant baobab, or the upside-down tree as it’s often called.
These huge trees are ecosystems for a myriad of birds, insects, mammals, and fungi. They can reach 65 feet tall and store nearly 1,200 gallons of water in their trunks.
Baobab leaves are green and palmately compound with 5-11 leaflets. Leaves are deciduous and fall from the branches during the dry season. Large white-yellow flowers emerge during the evening, but they are spent within 15 hours. Baobab flowers are one of the few that we can see opening because they do it so quickly!
Once its flowers are pollinated by fruit bats, large oval fruits with kidney-shaped seeds mature.
South Africa is home to an ancient baobab tree called the Sunland Baobab of Limpopo. Some estimates put it at 6,000 years old, and carbon dating proves it’s at least 1,000 years old.
All baobabs hollow out over time, this is one’s hollow is so large its owners have installed a bar with a13 feet tall ceiling. It can easily fit 15 humans inside!
2. Spekboom (Portulacaria afra)
Spekboom is a succulent plant that often grows a chunky water-filled trunk and develops enough branches to turn into a small tree. It’s native to the Eastern Cape province in rocky areas that have well drained soil.
Its circular leaves are tiny, bright green, and sprawl across its glossy red-brown trunk. Elephants love to eat this red-stemmed water-filled plant with its thick leaves full of moisture.
After rainfall, masses of soft pink flowers bloom on branch tips. They mature into small three-winged fruits that disperse in the breeze.
South Africa is home to around a third of all succulent species, the spekboom is one of hundreds!
3. Marula (Sclerocarya birrea)
The marula tree is medium-sized at up to 59 feet tall and native to South Africa’s miombo woods. There are three subspecies spread across the African continent:
- birrea – found in northern Africa
- caffra – found in South Africa
- multifoliolate – only found in Tanzania
All subspecies have a grey mottled trunk with a wide spreading green crown. Flower racemes bloom in the warmer months and mature into very popular fruits.
These fruits ripen from December to March and have delicious juicy yellow flesh that birds, insects, and mammals eat. When they’re overripe, these fruits intoxicate wildlife with their high alcohol content.
The central pit contains up to four nutty-flavored seeds, and there’s some evidence that these native trees spread across South Africa with the Bantu tribes. Not only are fruits edible, but the wood is excellent for carving and dried fruit skins are a substitute for coffee.
4. Mopane (Colophospermum mopane)
Next up is the butterfly tree, so named for its butterfly-shaped leaves.
The evergreen butterfly tree is native to South Africa and it only grows on the African continent. It loves hot, arid areas in the far north of South Africa where it grows to 82 feet in height with a rounded green canopy of butterfly-shaped leaves.
New leaves appear in spring alongside tiny green flowers and they are eaten by grazing elephants. On the flip side, the leaves are also eaten by small caterpillars!
Mopane moths (Gonimbrasia belina) inhabit these trees and their caterpillars are eaten by rural folk. Silkworm moths also enjoy mopane tree foliage and they are harvested by people, providing an income for many local women.
Because its oily hardwood is so versatile, it’s increasingly popular for woodwind instruments. Mopane wood is hard and difficult to work, but it’s termite-proof.
5. Quiver Tree (Aloidendron dichotomum)
The quiver tree is called the kokerboom tree in South Africa. It’s a succulent plant and the largest aloe species in the world, capable of 22 feet. Although it grows across South Africa, it’s most prevalent in the northern cape province.
Quiver trees have wide gnarled gray trunks and many-branched crowns. On branch tips, long fleshy aloe leaves emerge in star shapes that make the tree look upside down.
They grow in rocky well-drained areas and need very little water, so their habitats are somewhat specialized.
If you want to see this incredible South African native tree then head to the quiver tree forest in southern Namibia. There are 250 individuals there that grew spontaneously. The oldest trees there are 300 years old!
The native Namib people used hollowed-out quiver tree wood to make arrow quivers, hence its name. In traditional medicine, its roots treat respiratory illness, and its leaves are made into a pulp to treat bites and burns.
6. Sausage Tree (Kigelia africana)
It’s not difficult to recognize this tree when it’s fruit appears because it resembles large hanging sausages!
This native tree can reach 66 feet tall. It has a gray, branched spreading crown of 20-inch long oval leaves that are evergreen but are shed when rain is scarce.
Once pollinated, its 7-20 feet long pendulous flowers mature into two feet long sausage-like berries that are loved by savannah elephants, monkeys, parrots, and hippies, but beware! Although they look tasty, sausage tree fruits are toxic to humans.
In traditional medicine, this incredible tree was used to treat skin conditions and fungal infections.
7. Yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius)
Yellowwood trees are South Africa’s national tree and a protected species because habitat destruction and logging have decimated their numbers.
This is one of South Africa’s tallest trees. It can reach 100 feet tall! One species in the Tsitsikamma Forest is over 118 feet in height and over 600 years old. It’s leaves are strappy and bright yellow-green when they first emerge, standing out against the darker green mature crown.
In the wild, yellow woods provide an ecosystem for birds and insects such as the cape parrot and the increasingly rare bush blackcap.
8. Fever Tree (Vachellia xanthophloea)
Check out the fever tree, one of the most incredible trees native to South Africa. It got the name from its preferred environment of marshy, moist lands where mosquitoes are prevalent. Conversely, its bark and leaves were traditionally used to treat malaria.
It has a smooth powdery lime green trunk, purple new twigs, and a crown of thorns. Its trunk is green because photosynthesis takes place in its bark, rather than its leaves.
A fever tree can reach 82 feet tall and after rain its scented creamy flowers entice insects to pollinate. However, insects might meet a sticky end, because birds impale them on fever tree’s thorns, collecting up a batch before eating them!
9. Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata)
Let’s finish up with a flowering tree bearing the most unflattering name. The stinkwood!
It gets this infamous name from its bark, which emits a strong unpleasant scent when it’s cut, but it’s also known as the cape walnut or cape laurel.
It’s a large 100 feet tall tree with green glossy leaves with bubbles on the upper surface. It grows in high forests from Table Mountain and Limpopo, but very few remain near Table Mountain these days. It’s so popular with furniture makers that it’s become a protected species, but locals strip its bark to treat bladder infections.
It’s pretty yellow and white cup shaped flowers are popular with insects such as honeybees and cape parrots enjoy its acorn-like fruits. Stinkwoods grow to hundreds of years old and create mini-ecosystems for South African wildlife.
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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/AOosthuizen
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