Focus on Trees: The marvellous Mopane!

Posted on Fri April 10, 2020.

We continue our new "Focus" series with a plant that truly characterizes our area of the Klaserie: the Mopane tree!

One thing's for sure - if you have been on safari with Klaserie Sands, you will likely recognise this tree!

We asked guide Elly to give us her special insight into this life-giving tree...

The mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane) characterizes our landscape for much of the year with the vibrant, green leaves providing a lucious backdrop for wildlife in the summer and eventually turning from gold through to brown in a kaleidoscope of colours throughout autumn. The word 'mopane' comes from the Shona language meaning 'butterfly', a nod to the leaf shape that beautifully resembles butterfly wings!

The leaves of the mopane tree are also very nutritious - containing lots of protein, phosphorus, calcium and fibre - and are undoubtedly a favourite of our elephants! In winter, the dry leaves still retain about 40% of the nutrients of the fresh leaves, making them a valuable source of nutrition for animals when food is scarce. On safari, we have witnessed grazers such as buffalo and zebra feeding on the dry mopane leaves; an interesting behaviour considering they are usually grass-eaters. Surprisingly, these dry leaves are far tastier in the winter months as they contain less tannins, which are very bitter and distasteful chemicals that the tree produces in summer to protect the new leaves from hungry browsers.

If you ask me about this tree on safari, the first thing I will get you to do is scrunch the leaves in your hand and smell the scent that they produce. It has a turpentine-like quality, giving this tree its alternative name of the 'turpentine tree', but is also very reminiscent of the tropical smell of green mangoes or mango skins.

There are a number of other animals who also depend on this tree for its protein-rich leaves. Locally known by the Shangaan people as "matomani", mopane worms are the larvae of the Emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina). These colourful caterpillars are commonly found during summertime when heavy rainfall prompts their emergence en masse to feed on the lush, green mopane trees. They are so numerous at certain times that safari-goers can spot hundreds of them messily gorging themselves on a single tree, the collective chomping of their tiny mouths audible if you sit and listen quietly.

These hungry grubs will gorge themselves on the mopane leaves once they hatch, sheddng their skin four to five times during the process! But this is not necessarily bad news for the tree. In stripping off a lot of the thicker, more mature leaves that have been growing throughout the season, the mopane worms promote fresh, new growth. And, as we know, what goes in one end must come out the other! This constant chomping produces thousands of dung pellets which collect on the ground beneath the tree. When it rains or the first dew settles, these pellets become a natural fertiliser, returning vital nutrients back into the soil for the tree to harness.

The seed pod of the mopane tree is flat and kidney-shaped, containing one wrinkled seed which has very sticky resin glands. This is where the tree gets it Latin name, with Colophospermum meaning 'oily seed'. Some say that elephants and mopane trees are synonymous, with elephants perhaps facilitating the dispersal of this seed. It is believed that as the elephants feed on the mopane tree, wrapping their trunk around the base of a branch and stripping the leaves off in one swift motion, these seeds fall to the ground and get stuck to the base of the elephant's foot. As the elephants continue on their travels through the bush, they carry this seed to a new location in which to grow. Isn't nature amazing?


We would love to hear from you! Is there a particular plant, animal or bird you would like to know more about? Let us know by commenting on our Facebook post or sending us a message!

Article written by Elly Gearing with photos courtesy of Nerise Bekker and Elly Gearing.