Where to find the top 5 unique trees in Botswana

By JAMES H 26 November 2018

Unique Trees of Botswana

Northern Botswana is home to some of the most striking and magnificent trees found in Africa! Our Botswana safari expert James H reveals the top 5 unique trees and where to find them.

Firstly I would like to say that this blog should turn out to be a bit more fun than the title sounds, even if some of my colleagues may beg to differ.

It is amazing how my interests on safari have changed and developed. I remember loving the mechanical aspects of the experience at first. The flights, the transfers, and the game drive vehicles. Then I started to really look out for the biggest animals and the predators. After this phase came rare animals, and subsequently I became a bit of a birder, which opens up a whole world of diversity of sightings on a bird watching safari. More recently I have developed a fascination with the all-encompassing environment and vegetation.

Trees really are fascinating, from the initial awe of seeing a towering monster-size tree, which dwarfs the largest of land mammals, to spotting firsthand the wildlife that these trees attract and learning what local peoples use the trees for, either practically or medicinally. There are also many superstitions! Northern Botswana is home to some of the most striking and magnificent trees found in Africa, and I believe that you don’t have to be a tree nerd like me to find them at least a little bit interesting. I briefly studied Latin at school, and tried to learn Setswana to a point. However, I’m not particularly good at remembering complicated plant names, so I have settled on using my favourite title for each tree, which happens to be the most common name.

I have to thank Veronica Roodt for putting together the excellent book Trees & Shrubs of the Okavango Delta. This is just one work among the great variety of books and maps she has compiled, and an easy-to-read source of information for this blog.

Jackalberry Tree

This is one of the most impressive trees that normally grow supremely straight and tall. The dark-green crown of leaves and uniform stem make for an imposing sight. The bark resembles the skin of a crocodile and the leaves are also leathery. Due to the straightness and height of this tree, it has been a favourite species to fell and craft into a mokoro. The mokoro is the famous vessel used to navigate the narrow, shallow floodplains and waterways of the Okavango. In an effort to conserve jackalberry trees (and other species), the camps in northern Botswana now use fibreglass replicas – these deliver a very similar experience without damaging the local ecosystem through human destruction of these marvellous, towering trees.

In the Okavango Delta and Linyanti areas with permanent water courses, jackalberries can grow in excess of 25 metres tall and they often grow on termite colonies. The name jackalberry is thought to have originated for two reasons. Firstly jackals, omnivores as they are, love the fruit. The seeds are regularly found in their droppings. And secondly the fruit is small and elusive, just like the diminutive jackal.

Common reaction: ‘That is a tall, dark, and handsome tree!’

Unique facts and superstitions:

  • The high sugar content of the fruit makes it a favourite with local peoples for brewing beer and making a highly potent brandy!
  • The plumbagol content within the tree means it has antibiotic properties

My favourite fact:

  • It is believed that, if a member of a Southern African tribe has eaten the fruit of the jackalberry and then leaves their country, they could become possessed by spirits.
 

Sausage tree

This has to be one of the most recognisable trees in northern Botswana. If it is not laden with huge sausage-shaped fruit then it is normally covered in large red cup-shaped flowers. Fruits can weigh a whopping 4 kilograms each, and therefore spending prolonged time underneath the canopy of this species is pretty risky!

Whenever I see these trees I feel transported back to almost Jurassic times. Especially when the tallest animal in the world comes along to snack on said sausages, as witnessed on my recent visit to Shinde Camp!

Common reaction: ‘Hahaha! Wow, look at the size of those sausages!’

Unique facts and superstitions:

  • An ointment made from the sausage tree seeds is commercially sold as a skin cancer cure.
  • Known symptoms of eating the fruit, especially when it’s green, include the swelling of the male organs!
  • The Peter’s epauletted fruit bat is the most likely pollinator.

James’ favourite superstition:

  • Hanging a sausage tree fruit in your hut will protect you from whirlwinds!
 

Sycamore fig

This is one of the most impressive trees found in Botswana, and with its deeply fluted trunk, bright orange bark, and dense fruit clusters, it is one of the more recognisable species. If you are ever in Maun, there is a beautiful specimen alongside the Thamalakane river next to a famous riverside hangout.

This really is an amazing tree because of its huge nutritional value. Therefore I urge you to spend some time close to a sycamore fig. Hundreds of creatures feed upon and live in the tree.

Common reaction: ‘Oooh, it’s orange!’

Unique facts and superstitions:

  • The stem is formed of flattened buttresses that reinforce the tree, making it impossible for elephants to uproot.
  • The latex exuded by the tree is so sticky that it is used to trap small birds. The latex can be smeared onto a small twig to set a trap.

James’ favourite fact:

  • Figs are pollinated by parasitic wasps. Not only that, a specific species of wasp will pollinate only a specific species of fig.
 

Real fan palm

No list of trees of northern Botswana would be complete without the real fan palm, one of the most distinctive sights during the day and at sunset a striking silhouette within the Delta landscape. The real fan palm is the kind of tree that you might expect rather to find on the coast. And that is because this palm thrives in areas with a shallow brackish water table, which is why they occur at the edges of sand islands and around pans.

There are many of this species to be seen in the Makgadikgadi pans surrounding Jack’s Camp, San Camp, and Camp Kalahari. This is suspected to be due to elephants propagating the seeds when visiting the area en route from the Okavango. The Linyanti also has huge numbers of palm trees. In this area, they enhance many of the views at camps such as DumaTau, Zarafa, Selinda, and Kings Pool.

Common reaction: ‘What…? A palm tree in the middle of a landlocked country?!’

Unique facts and superstitions:

  • The famous Botswana basket-ware is made from the leaves of this tree.
  • Using traditional techniques, it is possible to tap the sap, and an average-sized tree produces as much as 60 litres of refreshing and only slightly intoxicating ginger beer. If it is left to ferment, it becomes potent! Sadly, as you can imagine, the tree doesn’t last too long after using this technique.

James’ favourite fact:

  • Wild fire is a real fan palm’s best friend, as it stimulates germination and does no lasting damage to mature trees!

Baobab Trees

Lastly we have the baobab, undoubtedly one of Earth’s most impressive trees. Composed of 40–75 per cent water, it behaves like a succulent. There are some magnificent specimens and baobab groups in Botswana that have stood the test of time. Some trees are predicted to have lived for several thousands of years. Known as ‘the tree of life’, the baobab is of huge nutritional importance and helps to support a large variety of animals. The heartwood of the baobab commonly dies off, after which the inner surface heals, creating a hollow trunk that can collect and store water. This storage of water has obvious benefits for animals during the dry season.

Bee swarms establish hives in the trunk’s crevices, and the tree also attracts leopard, genet, and nesting birds including rollers, hornbills, parrots, and barn owls.

Sadly the largest and oldest baobabs are disappearing at an alarming rate. It was recently reported that 9 out of 13 of Africa’s oldest specimens (1,100–2,500 years old) have died in the last decade, attributed either directly or indirectly to climate change. Through conservation of their ecosystems and close monitoring of their health, we have the best chance of preserving one of nature’s most impressive sights!

Common reaction: ‘Oh look, it’s an upside-down tree!’

James’ favourite fact:

  • Baobab fruit pulp yields six times more vitamin C than an orange, 50 per cent more calcium than spinach, and plenty of flavour to liven up any dish!

Unique facts and superstitions:

  • Some of these hollow trunks are so large that they have been used by man as storage facilities, dwellings, a bar, and a fully fitted western-style toilet. And in Kasane, north-eastern Botswana, one found within the police station’s grounds was used as a jail!
  • The honeyguide bird, the only known bird that is able to digest beeswax, has evolved a unique symbiotic relationship with man, which often plays out around the baobab. Honeyguides chirp and dive-bomb bees’ nests with the aim of leading us to their food source. Since they are not physically equipped to open the hive, they rely upon humans to do this for them.

To find out more on where you can spot these unique trees on your Botswana safari, just get in touch with a member of the YZ team.