The Mopane tree is certainly one of the most utilised trees found in the Kruger National Park. It is considered an encroacher species and grows quite aggressively in certain areas of the Kruger. Yet, they can turn those aggressive woodlands into a magical sight during the drier season… just imagine a woodland with trees growing close to each other and all these trees producing the most beautiful shades of green, brown, yellow and red.
The leaves have one of the highest percentages of proteins found in wild trees. About 12 to 15% of proteins are found in these leaves and, due to this, it is a very sought-after tree among herbivores and insects as well. Even the dry leaves that fall to the ground still contain about 40% of their proteins, which is a good source for wildlife like impala (aepyceros melampus) during the drier season.
Elephants (loxodonta africana) seem to favor mopane leaves during the wet seasons. Take note of this when on your next Kruger safari.
In hot and dry weather, mopane leaves tend to fold into each other in order to reduce transpiration.
Mopane trees are perhaps best known for being hosts to the mopane worm. These caterpillars are the larvae of the Mopane Moth (Gonimbrasia belina).
This worm is utilised by most humans in rural areas but are also considered a delicacy in African cuisine at big restaurants and lodges. The worms occur in big amounts on the mopane trees from December to April, and can sometimes cause some serious damage to the trees.
These worms are collected by the locals, the insides of the worm are squeezed out and then they are allowed to dry in the sun.
They are then packaged and sold in various shops and transported to restaurants where they are prepared in more specialised manners as part of a unique dining experience. Since the tree itself is already so rich in proteins, the worms are extremely rich too. They can be consumed as a snack or, in order to add more flavoring to it, they can be roasted and also used in a stew.
Most rural areas in Southern Africa don’t have the privilege of having access to dental care. And thus, people have adapted to using natural ways of dental care but also most medical conditions.
Mopani tree sticks, similar to the Magic guarri (euclea divinorum), can be used as a toothbrush stick. The sticks are chewed in such a way that the ends produce a fibrous texture and the majority of these sticks have an antibacterial and anti-plaque function in them. They also don’t have that bad a taste.
With a lot of cultures, especially the Herero tribe in Namibia, it is custom to pull out the four incisors of children when they are young, and mopane leaves are then applied to help with the healing process. There are also reports to prove that mopane leaves can assist with bleeding on wounds, giving it a possible antiseptic value.
Since mopane is more abundant than Leadwood (Combretum imberbe), it is considered favourite and up to 90% of huts, fence poles and other building structures will be made from this tree. It is a very heavy wood and is termite resistant. Using trunks of the mopane tree to hold up a roof of a hut or stand will surely be able to withstand the weight of any rain pouring down onto the grass or thatched roof.
Most wood collected for firewood needs to be dried completely in order to burn successfully, but this wood can be burned even when it is still wet. It produces very slow burning coals with a very hot heat and the coals can last up to a couple of hours.
The inner bark of this tree is also believed to make an excellent twine to use when tying poles and fences together.
Not only is the mopane tree home to mopane worms and the Emperor butterfly, as mentioned earlier, there are plenty other species that thrive from calling this tree their “home”.
Tree squirrels (paraxerus cepapi) are found to be more active in mopane veld than any other habitat – these trees are known to have plenty of natural cavities for nesting sites for smaller animals like squirrels, and they are sometimes even called or known in some areas as mopane squirrels.
Plenty of bird species also make use of these cavities like the hornbill species.
Another famous species found especially in mopane veld, is the mopane bee. It is a very small, stingless bee (an average of 4mm) that can produce honey, but not the amounts produced by honeybees.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to identify these little bees? When you are on a Kruger Park safari, in an area where mopane trees are present, the chances are very good that you might experience a little irritating insect buzzing near your eyes or nose. That is the mopane bee, also called a Mopane fly in some areas. It can be extremely annoying as they try to get close to a point of moisture on a human or animal and, in return, a lot of them unfortunately get killed because of this habit.
A long time ago, when all the trees were born, a lot of them looked the same. You might get one here or there that grew bigger than the other or had different colored flowers than the other. But in general, all of them had them the same shape bark and the same shaped leaves.
A lot of trees were happy with this and glad to be living and helping the animals, humans and birds have a happy life.
But some trees wanted to be different and went to Mother Nature to ask for help.
Mother Nature agreed that it would look pretty in the bush, if there were different shapes and sizes.
She took the majestic Baobab tree and pulled it out of the ground and placed it upside down. She took the Acacia trees and started pulling on their branches to create long white thorns. She took the Marula tree and pressed on the bark with her fingers causing indents on the bark. And so every tree got something different.
The Mopane tree though, wanted to be completely different. It noticed how much the humans loved butterflies and was always in admiration of these beautifully-coloured insects, and so, asked Mother Nature if its leaves can be in the shape of butterflies so people will always remember it.
Nature agreed, and to this day, mopane has leaves that are shaped like butterflies and even the name “Mopane” means butterfly in the Shona language, spoken mainly in the areas where the tree is found!
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