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Mopane Tree, Zimbabwe Flora

Anyone who has walked in Mopane country will remember the heat, the dry watercourses, the mopane bees around eyes and go-away birds, the sameness of the trees and the lack of any distinguishing features for setting your direction.

Colophospermum mopane, (Latinised Greek for “oily seed”) is commonly called in English mopane, mopani, balsam tree, butterfly tree, or turpentine tree (because of the turps-smelling gummy resin the tree produces). Its nam in other languages include:

  • Shona – Mupane, mupani, musaro
  • Ndebele – Iphane, iphani
  • Tonga – Mwani
  • Ndau – Musara
  • Hlengwe – Shanatsi
  • Lozi – Mupani

Mopane woodland covers more than 100,000 square km in Zimbabwe, including the whole of the Zambezi Valley, the northeastern border, the Save-Limpopo lowveld, and much of the western border. Mopane is second in importance among the major vegetation types of Zimbabwe.

 (Msasa/munondo, now widely referred to by the East African term miombo, is the first.) Mopane also grows extensively in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia, and less extensively in Malawi, South Africa and Zambia.

Mopane scenery

Where it occurs, mopane is often the dominant tree species, frequently forming homogeneous stands. Typically mopane occurs low altitudes (200 to 1,150 metres in elevation), in conditions of high temperature and low rainfall.  It is often found on alluvial soils, but also tolerates alkaline (high lime content) and shallow, poorly drained and sodium-rich soils.

Mopane can occur as majestic ‘cathedral’ mopane in optimum conditions, reaching up to 30 metres in height. When conditions are less favourable or where it has been over-exploited by elephant during the dry season, small Mopane shrubs known as ‘Mopane scrub’ and locally referred to as ‘gumane’, dominate. Under these conditions the bark provides a major nutritional source for the animals and Mopane is an important fodder plant for many animals, particularly elephant. The tree is also used in soil stabilization projects.

Tree, mopane

Flora of Zimbabwe describes Mopane as a small to medium-sized deciduous tree. It is a tree in the legume family. It usually grows with a narrow V-shaped, relatively sparse crown, that grows up to 10 meters tall and about 30 cm in diameter. It is often multi-stemmed (and coppices easily).  Young bark is light grey, darkening with age and broken by deep, longitudinal fissures.

Bark of Mopane

 Mopane has butterfly-shaped leaves (two leaflets grow from a single petiole) which are a bright green when they emerge and turn to a golden brown in autumn before they are dropped. When conditions are hot the two leaves fold together to cut down on transpiration and as a consequence the tree gives very little shade.

Leaf of Mopane

The Mopane tree flowers from December to January.  The flowers of are yellow-green, small and inconspicuous, in pendant clusters near twig terminals.

Flowers, Mopane

Fruiting occurs from April to June.  The pods start out green in colour and dry to brown. They are kidney-shaped, flattened and leathery.

Pods of Mopane tree

 The pods split to release a single flat, wrinkled seed dotted with resin glands which secrete a sticky resin allowing the seed to adhere to the feet of passing animals, for effective seed dispersal.

Mopane seed in pod

Uses of Mopane products

Caterpillars, mopane
  • One of the best-known products of Mopane is the mopane worm, the edible larva of the moth Gonimbrasia belina. These larvae are widely eaten by people and are prepared by roasting or frying or dried for storage. The caterpillars are rich in protein and in crude fats and contain vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium and phosphorus. Selling Mopane worms creates employment and serves as a source of income for many rural women.
  • Twigs have been traditionally used as toothbrushes,
  • Bark is used to make twine and for tanning,
  • Leaves are traditionally used for healing wounds.
  • The wood is very hard to work but is widely used in furniture for its reddish colour and durability, and also because its hardness makes it termite resistant, making it ideal for fencing. The wood is also used to make charcoal and for firewood.
  • The wood is also increasingly being used in the construction of musical instruments, particularly woodwind. Suitable quality African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), traditionally used for clarinets, is becoming harder to find. Mopane is fairly oily, seasons very well with few splits or shakes, and produces instruments of a warm, rich tone.

Below – Fascinating overview of the mopane tree by the African Plant Hunter

Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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