Derivation of Name :
Acacia = from the Greek "akantha" = thorn
ataxacantha = from the Greek "taxis" = arrangement
and "akantha" = thorns, in reference to the many scattered
prickles on the stems and shoots.
The flame thorn is a common, widespread tree occurring in subtropical
Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the north-east, extending
southwards into Namibia and South Africa it may be found through
much of the former Transvaal province, KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland.
In drier areas it is usually confined to water courses and ravines,
but in higher rainfall areas it may be encountered as a normal bush
constituent or even forest margin situations. The flame thorn often
forms impenetrable thickets - particularly in disturbed areas.
It is a fairly untidy, many-stemmed shrub up to 3-5m in height,
often scrambling. It may on occasion form a small tree with a stem
diameter of up to 20-30cm in diameter. The bark is greyish, sometimes
with a brownish tinge, and is fissured longitudinally, often with
coarse flaking. Young stems are fairly smooth with longitudinal
striations on which numerous unpaired, hooked prickles up to 8mm
are borne. Small prickles are also found on the underside of the
leaf axis.The large, fairly droopy, compound leaves are comprised
of many tiny leaflets. The foliage is generally dark green and fairly
dense, with the new growth often purple-tinged. The leaf stalk is
hairy and bears a distinctive stalked gland.
The conspicuous creamy-yellow flowers are borne in clusters of
caterpillar-like spikes at the ends of the branches. They are scented
and make an attractive show anytime from mid summer to early autumn
the most striking feature of this plant are the deep red to purple-red
pods which are held in conspicuous bunches and account for the common
name "flame thorn". The pods are flat, semi-translucent,
up to 85mm in length, tapering sharply at both ends. They are at
their most attractive from April to July and dehiscent (splitting
to release the seeds) from June to October. The pods contain usually
6-8 seeds which are olive-green to brown and flattened.
Growing Acacia ataxacantha
The flame thorn is best grown from seed. The seeds should be soaked
in hot water. Viability is highly variable and unpredicable. Seedlings
should appear within 2 weeks of sowing. Growth rate after transplanting
is initially slow and then increases. In the garden, it favours
a well-watered position - however it does have fairly good drought-resisting
properties. It should be protected from frost when young. As a hedging
plant, it can form an impenetrable and attractive screen.
Although this tree usually has a rather untidy scrambling habit,
the bright-coloured pods make it an attractive garden feature. It
is, however, an excellent screening plant and is suitable for security
hedging because of its thorniness. Specimens are planted on the
lawns at the base of the waterfall in the Witwatersrand National
As the stems are generally quite thin, the wood is mostly used
for small implements and tools. The sapwood is wide and creamy while
the heartwood is deep red brown. It is said to be resistant to decay
owing to gum deposits. The wood can be split into paper-like strips
without cracking and these strips are commonly used as weaving material
for baskets. The roots are also used in basketry and have also been
traditionally used to make long-stem tobacco pipes.
In parts of northern Zimbabwe, it was planted as an effective barrier
along drainage lines during the liberation war, where it still persists.
It is used in traditional medicine to treat constipation and abdominal
pains, and also to protect infants from witchcraft.
The leaves are the larval food for a number of butterfly species
and birds such as Apalis, Crombecs and Woodhoopoes can often be
seen collecting insects off the flowers, leaves and tree trunk.
Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden