Balanites maughamii

Sprague subsp. maughamii
Family : Balanitaceae
Common names : torchwood (Eng.); groendoring (Afr.); Umnunu (Sotho); Nulu (Tswana)
National tree list no. : 251

Butressed trunk and bark

The common name, torchwood, has been derived because the dry kernels have been burnt as torches.

Balanites maughamii is not well known in South Africa . The older trees have an amazing, upright, deeply folded or buttressed trunk, that visually singles them out from other trees (see photograph above taken in the Pretoria National Botanical Garden by Mrs L. Ferreira). This ensures that the tree can be identified from its trunk alone.

The torchwood is a medium to large upright tree, 10-20 m high. It is deciduous to semi-deciduous. It typically has a spreading crown and the older trunks are greyish. The branchlets are greyish green and hairy. Usually the zigzag branchlets are strongly armed with unequally forked spines forming a y-shape, sometimes simple; or they are unarmed, usually the fruit-bearing branches, sometimes with very small spines.

Leaves are leathery with velvety hairs when young, grey-green, alternatively arranged, compound, with two elliptic to ovate to round leaflets; the margin is entire, the apex is rounded and the base tapering. The central vein of the leaf is slightly off-centre and the base is unequal.


Flowers are borne in small clusters in leaf axils, are star-shaped, small, bisexual, scented, greenish yellow, hairy above and smooth below. The flowers have 5 sepals and petals, 10 stamens and the ovary is 5-chambered with one seed in each chamber. Flowering time: from July to November.


The brownish yellow fruit is a thin, fleshy oval drupe, 30-60 x 20-30 mm, usually distinctly grooved. The bitter flesh covers a large, hard, stone kernel. The fruit is ripens between May and July.


The plants can be found in small colonies in the bushveld, sand forest, on sandstone outcrops, along river banks, near springs and around pans.

Name derivation
The genus Balanites was derived from a Greek word meaning acorn-shaped. The species d maughamii was named in honour of R.C.F. Maugham, the British Consul at Lourenco Marques (now Maputu), who sent specimens of this tree to Kew in 1911.

 Ecological value
Elephants have been seen browsing the tips of the branches. The fleshy part of the fruit is eaten by humans and a variety of animals such as monkeys, baboons, warthogs and antelope. Mr Erich van Wyk of SANBI has reported that he found seed in cattle droppings and t this seed germinated very well in Millennium Seed Bank trials.

Uses and economic value
This plant has medicinal value as well as other uses. The roots are used as an enema. The green fruit yields a powerful poison lethal to some fish, tadpoles and snails when placed in the water. The poison may occur in the in the kernel and pulp. It is harmless to people. African people use the tree for magical purposes. Zulu witchdoctors use the roots and bark, together with other plants that have been soaked in water and beaten to a froth to ward off evil spirits (Palmer & Pittman 1972). Because of its excellent lubricative qualities, the Zulus soak the bark in the water for a refreshing bath.

The fruit also yields good colourless oil that burns well and gives a bright flame.

The hard timber has been used to make wooden bowls, panga handles and stocks for guns.

Growing Balanites maughamii

This tree can easily be cultivated from seed. According to Mr Willem Froneman from the Lowveld National Botanical Garden , the following method should be used: first remove the fleshy part before sowing. Cover the seed with the same amount of soil as the seed is thick. Seed must be sown fresh. It takes about 3-4 weeks to germinate. It grows very, very slowly. Torchwood is slightly frost tender.

References and further reading

  • Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town .
  • Jackson , W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town Ecolab, Rondebosch.
  • Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa , vol. 1. Balkema, Cape Town .
  • Schmidt, E., Lötter, M., & McCleiland, W. 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mphumalanga and the Kruger National Park. Jacana, Johannesburg .
  • Thomas, V. & Grant, R. 1998. SAPPI Tree spotting: KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. Jacana, Johannesburg .
  • Van Wyk, A.E. & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town .
  • Van Wyk, A.E.,Van Wyk, P. & Van Wyk, B-E. 2000. Photographic guide to the trees of southern Africa . Briza Publications, Pretoria .
  • Van Wyk, P. 1984. Veldgids tot die bome van die Nasionale Krugerwildtuin. Struik, Cape Town.


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Pretoria National Botanical Garden
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