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At Home in Zimbabwe – 1: How do I learn about plants?

How Do I Learn About Plants - Thumbnail

I have a big garden in Greendale containing many plants. The garden had some fine, mature msasas when we bought the property over 35 years ago, and also some dusty bougainvilleas and some dying conifers, but very little else.  Since then we have allowed nature to return and of course some of it was already lying dormant in the soil.

We planted some indigenous trees bought from nurseries and scattered wild seeds collected on walks, but mostly we watch nature take its course. Bats bring figs, birds bring seeds in their droppings (Celtis africana, for example) and scatter palm seeds, mature trees have thrown their seeds to all parts of the garden. Ochna and other small trees and shrubs come up under the tall trees, and a diverse woodland floor of herbs, grasses, ferns, aloes and succulents take their places. More and more lichens appear on the tree trunks, and mushrooms come up through the leaf litter as the soil comes alive.

Growing naturally, the plants are soon found by their pollinators and associated insects, birds, reptiles and animals. We are fortunate to share every day with the nature around us and I am continually learning from looking at the plants by which I am surrounded.  

View of my garden returned to indigenous bush
View of my garden returned to indigenous bush

I am also learning from pictures, books, maps, and the extraordinary wealth of information offered by the internet.  I am excited on your behalf as you embark upon the journey of learning about plants with so many resources to learn from.  You may not have many trees near where you are living but do take every opportunity to get into nature, look at the details of trees and grasses, birds, insects, lizards. Notice the things that change with the seasons, including the small things like the lichens and mosses growing on rocks and tree trunks and the mushrooms pushing out of the ground.

Your noticing will cause you to wonder why and how, to ask yourself important questions.  Take those questions to books, WhatsApp groups, experts living in your community, the local library and above all to the internet.  Track down the answers to your questions– and you will be gaining knowledge day by day.

Books about Zimbabwean Vegetation

Books about trees

Below is a list of some of the books that you might find selling quite cheaply in second-hand book places like Avondale Fleamarket or the SPCA Second-hand shop.  Don’t be put off by how old many of these publications are.   The appearance and nature of trees has not changed in the meanwhile and they are still useful reference books.

  • Trees of Southern Africa, by Keith Coates Palgrave, published by Struik Publishers and most recently revised in 2002. This is widely understood to be the essential detailed source of information about vegetation in our part of the world. (Realistically you are unlikely to find a copy of this – people hang on to them and pass them on to their children.)
  • Common Trees of the Highveld is also by Keith Coates Palgrave, joined by R. B. Drummond and was first published by Longman in 1973.
  • Common Trees of the Central Watershed Woodlands of Zimbabwe produced by the Natural Resources Board in 1981.
  • The Bundu Book of Trees, Flowers and Grasses published by Longmans in 1972.
  • Historic Trees of Zimbabwe by L.J. Mullin is published by CBC Publishing and describes 75 individual famous trees around Zimbabwe such as Lobengula’s Indaba Tree, the Teak at Hwange Safari Lodge, the Flamboyants of Blakiston Street.  
  • Tabex Encyclopedia of Zimbabwe, published in 1987 by Quest Publishing (Pvt) Ltd.  It has valuable maps – Physical, Land Classification, Vegetation and Geological – and entries for animals, birds, insects, reptiles, plants that are hugely helpful to a Learner Hunter/Guide.
  • A Pocket Guide to Mushrooms in Zimbabwe by Cathy Sharp who is doing groundbreaking work on Zimbabwe’s mushrooms, and thinks that miombo woodland might be richer in the variety of mushrooms than Europe’s forests.  (Mushrooms and lichens are extraordinary things, and I will write a blog on them.)

Internet/Facebook/WhatApp sites about Zimbabwean Vegetation

Learning about plants on-line

For web sites I have gone to Flora of Zimbabwe, from which with kind permission I have reproduced photographs and some descriptions.  Visit their site regularly at,. The Flora of Zimbabwe team is Mark Hyde, Bart Wursten, Petra Ballings and Meg Coates Palgrave. The site provides information about the flowering plants and ferns of Zimbabwe and is a sister site to Flora of Botswana, Flora of Caprivi, Flora of Malawi, Flora of Mozambique and Flora of Zambia.  These sites together cover the Flora Zambesiaca (Plants of the Zambezi area) named after the Zambezi River, the major river draining southern African between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn.  The area covered by this river and its tributaries can be considered one very large ecosystem, sharing similar vegetation communities.

Other electronic sources of information are:

The Tree Society of Zimbabwe has also been very generous with its information and pictures for this site.  (

The Tree Society augments their website with a Facebook page bringing together people who are interested in trees.  ( › groups › ztreesociety)

Flora of Tropical Africa (

Tree Knowers and Growers, bringing together many individuals spreading knowledge of trees in rural and urban communities

Tree Knowers and Growers have a Facebook page.

Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Adaptation Initiative, a personal blog recording and sharing cultural knowledge about nature from different parts of Zimbabwe

Tree People is a WhatsApp group sharing information about propagating seeds and preparing to revegetate areas that have been deforested.


Rattray & Wild, 1961, Vegetation map, coloured

Maps tell us much about plants.  I have ZIMBABWE 1: 1 000 000 Land Classification, which shows Communal Land, Forest Land, National Parks, Safari Areas, as well as Recreational Parks, Botanical Reserves and Gardens, Sanctuaries, and Other Land.  I use that map in writing parts of these Plants blogs.

When we talk below about the vegetation patterns in the country (in the next article) you will see how interesting it is to study various types of map to understand how we end up with the vegetation we find in different parts of the country – determined by altitude, climate, geology, etc. 

When we talk in the next article,” At Home in Zimbabwe”  about the vegetation patterns in the country you will see how interesting it is to study various types of map to understand how we end up with the vegetation we find in different parts of the country – determined by altitude, climate, geology, etc.

But what I most want to do is encourage you to feel at home in whatever part of Zimbabwe you are living and working in. I want you to feel at home in nature, to know the names of the river near you, the name of the hill or mountain near you, to know the names of the trees and birds and their habits. I want us all, whatever else we are doing, to live in nature and to live with nature. If we work with nature instead of against it we can build a better future for us all.

Robin Wild

Robin Wild – Retired director of NGOs devoted to public good, but also a passionate amateur botanist and lover of the Zimbabwean bush, following in the footsteps of his famous botanist father, Hiram Wild.

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