The Big Five (No, not that Big Five) – #3: The Mopane Tree

With the gorgeous Lowveld heat settled over the Abelana Game Reserve, the bushveld replenished and rejuvenated by recent rainfalls, our reserve trees are dressed in greenery and summer glory. 

In this article, we pay homage to a tree that grows in prolific splendour at Abelana, the Mopane Tree – one of our Big Five Trees of Africa. (Baobab, Yellow Fever-Tree, Knobthorn, Marula and Mopane)

The Mopane Tree

The first thing that springs to mind for most, when introduced to the mopane tree, is the mopane worm – a charming, fat caterpillar that eats off, and lives and reproduces in the lush, African tree. We wouldn’t blame anyone for their interest and delight in the mopane caterpillar, but we have to draw attention to the other qualities of these wonderful trees. 

  • The mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane) grows well in shallow, alluvial soils – silty, clay-ish, or sandy soil deposited by surface water. 
  • Mopane trees stick together. They like to grow in groves, often creating mopane forests which, when reaching their full height of 25-30m, are called ‘cathedral mopane’. Now that’s a grand title!
  • When crushed, the butterfly-shaped mopane leaf emits a strong turpentine odour. It’s a marvel that so many mammals feast on the odorous leaves, actually forming a part of daily diets for kudu, eland, giraffe, nyala, buffalo, and other leaf-eating browsers. 
  • Much to the delight of Abelana’s elephant population, the mopane tree branches are nutritious and easy to access and eat. 
  • The mopane tree has its own bee species! The mopane bee, or mopane fly, is a tiny sting-less bee that harvests nectar exclusively from the mopane and produces small quantities of rare, edible mopane honey.
  • Mopane trees are water champions! They’re deciduous, which means they lose their leaves in winter, after a splendid Autumn show of green, red and gold. In summer, the mopane leaflets fold together to conserve water transpiration in the African heat. Nature is smart! 
  • Human uses of the mopane tree include chewing the twigs as toothbrushes, dressing wounds in leaves for faster healing, spinning mopane caterpillar silk into cloth, and tanning leather using substances extracted from the bark. Oh, and to the horror of some, the adorable mopane caterpillars are a nutrient-rich snack, whether cooked or dried. 

We’re excited by the mopane flowering season, which typically takes place from December to January. We’re filled with anticipation for the trees’ verdant beauty, their lively insect and birding activity, and a summer of colourful caterpillars plopping from the trees! 

Abelana safari tree mopane leaves
Mopane leaves on a branch

Another Abelana Favourite: The Weeping Boer-bean

How could we not love the weeping boer-bean tree (Schotia brachypetala), with its vibrant bursts of red flowers? These colossal African giants bring a cacophony of hungry birdlife and bees to our reserve, growing well on our rich soils and riverbanks. The flowers produce copious amounts of nectar, which spills out from the flowers – which is what gave this tree its name, the weeping boer-bean. 

  • Weeping boer-beans are rugged, handsome trees typically growing 15m tall, and sprawling outward with diameters as wide as they are tall. 
  • Weeping boer-beans flower in Spring, between September and October, but the exact flowering season actually differs from tree to tree. One tree might be in full, glorious display, while the one beside it might not. This irregular flowering activity is great news for birds and insects, who get to feast on the nectar, flowers and seeds for longer. 
  • Because of its beauty, and dark glossy leaves, the weeping boer-bean is a popular ornamental garden tree, and is even commonly grown and ‘trained’ as a bonsai. They attract wonderful birdlife to suburban areas, as well as bees and butterflies.
  • Other animals that enjoy the weeping boer-bean on the menu are monkeys and baboons, who feast on flowers and seeds, and general game and black rhino, who browse on nutritious leaves and bark. 

With trees like the mopane and weeping boer-bean gracing our reserve, it’s no wonder that Abelana’s summer months are a hive of activity and feasting. Birds, insects, primates and large mammals get to chow down on the delicious and nutrient-rich goodness provided by these generous giants, bulking up and building strength for drier months and herd growth. 

It gives us the greatest pleasure to share all this life with our guests, at such a special time of the year. To embark on your safari adventure at our piece of paradise, contact us on 061 952 4302, or by email at info@abelanagamereserve.com