Although considered to be one of the main bush encroachers in the Kruger National Park, sickle bush has so many medicinal uses that it is quite difficult to determine whether it’s a pest or a resourceful plant species.
Sickle bush tends to grow very well on disturbed ground, which would usually be a sign of overgrazing of an area or frequent burning. This bush will also survive in extremely hot climates and even areas that have been affected by droughts.
It is a deciduous tree (meaning most of its leaves fall off during the winter months), but it surely has some of the most unique flowers in and around Kruger Park.
Guides on a Kruger safari will often give this tree the nickname “Acacia Flatyrii”. Why? Well because driving over a branch of this tree is almost guaranteed to give you a puncture or slash the side of your tyre, whether you’re driving a normal vehicle, 4x4 or even a tractor or truck! And while they are not part of the Acacia family, it is very easy to mistake it for a real thorn tree.
Unlike the Acacia species, which has thorns, sickle bush have spines. The sickle bush spines are actually a very hard, modified branches which makes it easy for them to penetrate an object like a tyre or shoe, as opposed to the Acacia’s thorns, that seem to be rather sharp and softer in their various forms, and can break off when under pressure.
With natural fires (or even controlled fires), sickle bush is one of those trees that doesn’t seem to be destroyed as quick as other plant species. They do take a lot of the resources available to plants out of the ground, and for that reason, a lot of plants like grasses and smaller shrubs don’t get the necessary sunlight and water they need to produce. This is also why plants around the sickle bush don’t grow well and, in turn, don’t further fuel a fire.
Basically everything on this tree can be utilised, medicinally, from the leaves and branches to the bark and roots.
Some of the uses of the plant include as an anti-inflammatory, or for diarrhea, coughs, wounds, bites and stings. This is only to name a few.
We have personally witnessed one of the uses - while on a bushwalk, one of our guests got stung by a bee. He was luckily not allergic to bee stings, but in knowing about the theorised uses for sickle bush, we put it to the test. Taking some fresh leaves, chewing it with the front teeth and mixing it with saliva, we applied it to the area and within a couple of minutes, the swelling and pain had subsided. This indicated that the tree also has an antihistaminic value to it.
It is also used as an anesthetic and is a sufficient painkiller, too.
Since the wood of a sickle bush is so hard, handles for tools can be made from it. Some areas also make use of it for fence poles as it’s long lasting. They would be erected either with strands of wire or it can be placed as a compact fence around a kraal (which is an area where livestock is kept at night). The wood colour has a beautiful pigment, and can be used in the carving of ornaments and even furniture.
Due to its hardness and the fact that it can be found almost anywhere, it is very useful in the controlling of erosion in the Kruger National Park. In some areas where the tree really gets to overgrow and form thickets, it is usually cut down and then packed in dongas where erosion has become bad, and together with other elements like rocks, will be filled up to restore the damage.
It is also believed that, to some extent, the hardness of the wood can make it termite resistant.
With all the potent spines, to aid with the control of this tree in areas where it grows into thickets, it is used for brush backing. Plus, animals and humans alike will think twice before stepping into areas where these branches are placed, in order to aid grass growth.
The inner bark of the branches are also used for making twine and rope due to their strong nature.
Sickle bush has a very high calorific value, meaning that the energy contained in the wood and the heat produced by the complete combustion of it, is very high, and makes it a very hard wood. It is perfect for a fire as the coals will last longer because of it.
The colourful, two-toned flowers are unique to the sickle bush and contribute to the colourful pallet of the bush during the rainy season.
Like most trees, it creates a whole ecosystem at each tree or shrub - the flowers attract insects, insects attract insectivorous birds like the fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis) and bee-eaters (family meropidae). They are also the hosts for two known butterfly species larvae - the satyr charaxes butterfly or satyr emperor butterfly (charaxes ethalion ethalion) and and the topaz blue or topaz-spotted blue (Azanus jesous).
Its seeds, as well as the leaves, are also utilised by numerous animal species like the baboon (Papio cynocephalus), nyala (Tragelaphus angasii) and impala (Aepyceros melampus).
When on a Kruger Park safari, whether it is on the dirt roads or gravel roads, be vigilant about branches on the roads and try to avoid them as much as possible - you never know, it might be part of the sickle bush. You don’t really want to be stuck with a flat tyre while you could be enjoying the beauty of the park.
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