© Geoff Nichols
Renowned for its beautiful wood, Spirostachys africana is
a medium-sized, semi-deciduous tree with a round crown which occurs
in low altitude bushveld, often in woodland, on watercourses and
africana can grow up to 18 m in height. The tree is commonly
known for its toxic milky latex that exudes from all parts of it.
Its characteristic bark is dark brown to black, thick, rough and
neatly cracked into regular rectangular blocks that are arranged
in longitudinal rows. Leaves are alternate, simple and are up to
70 x 35 mm and the margins are finely toothed. The young, red leaves
are often visible among the older, green leaves in spring. The flowerheads
are 15-30 mm long, bearing mostly male and a few female flowers.
The female flowers are attached at the base of each spike. Flowering
takes place in August to September before the new leaves appear.
The flowering spikes of this plant are unusual in appearance as
the male flowers appear gold-coloured because of the pollen whereas
female flowers are blood red. The fruit is a capsule that is three-lobed
and opens with an exploding sound that can be heard on hot summer
days when ripe (from October to February). The tamboti is one of
the 'jumping bean' trees because the seeds become infested with
the larvae of a small grey moth, which then causes the seed to jump
centimetres into the air.
Spirostachys africana occurs naturally from KwaZulu-Natal
in the South to Tanzania in the North. It is common in the Lowveld
and occurs in all soil types. It is most often seen in groups of
a few big trees along the rivers or streambanks, but may also grow
in large groups of small trees. This tree can also be found growing
in all southern African countries except Lesotho.
The generic name, Spirostachys refers to the spiral arrangement
of the flowers on the spike, and africana means from Africa.
Spirostachys africana is a popular food source for wild animals.
Francolins, guineafowl and doves eat the fruits. Kudu, nyala, impala
and vervet monkeys, elephants, bushbuck, giraffe and eland feed
on fresh leaves of this tree and the black rhino eat the young branches.
Duiker, impala and nyala also feed on the dry fallen leaves of this
Uses and cultural aspects
The wood is used to manufacture good furniture and the poisonous
latex is traditionally used to stupefy fish, making them easier
to catch. The sawdust from the wood is harmful to the eyes and can
even cause blindness. The wood is so strong that you can also make
gun-stocks or arrows from it. It is not suitable as firewood because
the smoke is toxic and will cause diarrhoea if meat roasted on the
coals is eaten. The tree is classified as a precious timber in Mozambique.
The wood is still used traditionally for fencing, hut rafters,
walking sticks and necklaces. The scented wood is beautifully figured
with creamy white sapwood and dark brown heartwood. Although the
latex is very toxic to humans it does have traditional medicinal
uses, for example, a drop of the fresh latex is applied to a painful
tooth as painkiller. The bark is used to treat stomach pains but
large dosages will cause damage to the internal organs.
Growing Spirostachys africana
This tree is very attractive in larger gardens, especially with
the red colouring of the leaves in spring and autumn. The tree is
fairly drought and frost resistant, but grows very slowly. It grows
well from seeds but they must be collected before they fall because
they can be easily parasitized. The seeds should then be sown in
containers filled with river sand without covering them, but should
just be pushed into the sand until level with the surface and be
kept moist. The tamboti is a protected tree in South Africa.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of
southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
- Grant, R. & Thomas, V. 1997. Sappi tree spotting.
Lowveld. Jacana Education, Houghton.
- Van Wyk, B., Van Wyk, P. & Van Wyk, B-E. 2000. Photographic
guide to trees of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. A
guide to useful plants of South Africa. Briza Publications,
- Van Wyk, B-E., Van Heerden, F., & Van Oudtshoorn, B. 2002.
Poisonous plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Venter, F. & Venter, J.A, 1996. Making the most of indigenous
trees. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Ndou Avhurengwi Phillemon
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden