Boscia albitrunca

(Burch.) Gilg & Gilg-Ben.
Family : Capparaceae
Common names
: shepherd's tree (Eng.); witgat (Afr.); siPhiso (Sw), Mohlôpi (Northern Sotho); Xukutsi (Tswana); Muthobi (Venda)

Boscia albitrunca

The shepherd's tree is the most common of the eight species in its genus and is usually found in the drier parts of southern Africa. It is often called the Tree of Life as it offers sustenance to both humans and animals.


This is a small to medium-sized tree reaching heights of 7 m.It has an attractive dense, round to spreading crown. The trunk is distinctly smooth and white or whitish grey with bare stems.

Close up of trunk

The leathery, grey-green leaves are arranged in clusters, are oblanceolate, 20-50 x 6-25 mm, entire and have a round apex.


The flowers are yellowish green and heavily scented (July-Nov.) They are borne in clusters on short lateral shoots and are without petals. The flowers have 6-15 stamens; the filaments are glabrous. The gynophore (stalk of the gynoecium which consists of the ovary, style and stigma) is 3 mm long; the ovary is an ovoid and glabrous filament, with 10 ovules on 2 placentas. The style is 0.5 mm long and glabrous, with a subcapitate stigma. The fruit is 10 mm in diameter, globose, yellowish and smooth. The seed is usually single.

Flowers with fruits forming

The conservation status of this plant is currently unknown, but due to its rather large range of indigenous uses, studies are being done to evaluate its status.

Distribution and habitat
This species is found in the drier parts of southern Africa, in areas of low rainfall. The vast distribution range covers Botswana, Limpopo, Gauteng, North-West, Swaziland, the Free State, Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. It also extends into Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Boscia honours a French professor of agriculture, Louis A.G. Bosc (1777-1850). The species name is a combination of albi meaning white and trunca meaning trunk, and refers to the whitish trunk of the species.

The species has a number of pollinators and is a source of food for various mammals, birds and butterflies. Livestock as well as other herbivores in savanna areas such as giraffe, gemsbok and kudu browse the tree. The tree is often a food plant for the larvae of butterflies (the family Pteridae-whites).

Uses and cultural aspects
Fruits showing seed.The root is pounded to make porridge. It is commonly used as a substitute for coffee or chicory. The root is also used to make a beer and to treat haemorrhoids. The leaves are nutritious and are often browsed by cattle, although the milk is then said to be tainted. An infusion of the leaves is used to treat eye infections in cattle. The fruits are used in traditional dishes and the flower buds as caper substitutes in pickles. It is said that if the fruits wither before the millet crop is ripe, the harvest will be a failure. Household utensils are made from the wood. If the wood is burnt, it is believed that cows will produce only bull calves.

Growing Boscia albitrunca

Gardeners find this a worthwhile tree to plant, as it is hardy and drought-resistant. It is easily propagated and grows from shoot and root cuttings.

References and further reading

  • Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa : families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Lotter, M 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and the Kruger National Park : 118-132. Jacana, Johannesburg
  • Toelken, H.R. 1970. Boscia. Flora of southern Africa 13: 51-159.
  • Van Wyk, A.E. & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.


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National Herbarium, Pretoria
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