When we lived in Europe, our village was in the middle of the Sonian forest (Forest de Soignes). One of the first things I noticed was how different the “bush” there is to here. The forests in Europe are very beautiful, light green, soft and gentle, with bunnies and deer gently tiptoeing through the trees. In contrast, our bush here in South Africa, while just as beautiful, conveys more of a harshness. The greens are dark, with the grass often looking dry, the trees are thorny and tough and the animals, snakes and insects one encounters have a dangerous edge to them.
When I was completing my field guide training course at Antares, one of the first trees we learned about was the Buffalo Thorn tree (Ziziphus mucronata).
In Afrikaans, it’s called the Blinkblaar Wag-‘n-bietjie, the direct translation being “shiny leaf wait-a-bit tree”.
They are not joking when they say “wait-a-bit” because if this tree happens to snag you, you don’t get out of its clutches very easily. The reason for this is the position and shape of its thorns. The young branches are zig-zagged and at each bend there is a pair of thorns – one hooked and facing backwards and the other straight and facing forward.
One has to remove each thorn – one at a time, from your clothing or your skin and each little prick to your skin burns like fire. While trying to get out of the clutches of one branch, you often inadvertently touch another branch which just snags you up even more. There is a funny scene from the movie “The God’s Must Be Crazy” which depicts this quite well.
Looking at the video clip again, it really doesn’t look like the correct tree but I guess it would be rather silly to try to do this in a real buffalo thorn tree.
This tree holds a significant place in local tradition. The Zulu and Swazi people use the buffalo thorn in connection with burial rites. It was once customary that when a Zulu chief died, the tree was planted on his grave as a reminder or symbol of where the chief lies. A twig from the tree was and is still used to attract and carry the spirit of the deceased from the place of death to the new resting place. In fact, if someone gets into a taxi carrying one of these branches, they are charged a double rate – one for themselves and one for the spirit they are carrying on the branch.
The tree is also known as the tree of life in some African cultures – the zig-zag branches showing us that life is not always straight forward. At each intersection the thorns remind us that we need to look back at our past experiences (hooked thorn) and forward (straight forward pointing thorn) to where we want to be in order to make a decision and change direction.
Some tribes believe the buffalo thorn to be immune against lightning, anyone standing under one in a storm would be safe. It is also believed that if it is felled in summer, a drought, hail or lightning will certainly follow.
The fruit of Ziziphus mucronata is not very tasty.
The leaves and fruit are eaten by birds of many species, wild animals and domestic stock. Giraffes are known to be especially fond of the leaves of this tree. Impala often feed on the dead leaves lying under the tree. Its inconspicuous, green to yellow flowers produce abundant nectar and often yield a good honey.
A decoction of the roots is commonly administered as a painkiller for all sorts of pains as well as dysentery.
A concoction of the bark and the leaves is used for respiratory ailments and other septic swellings of the skin. Pastes of the root and leaves can be applied to treat boils, swollen glands, wounds and sores. Steam baths from the bark are used to purify and improve the complexion. In East Africa, roots are used for treating snake bites. All of the above can be attributed to the peptide alkaloids and antifungal properties isolated from the bark and leaves.
The berries are edible and can be used for making porridge or as a coffee substitute. The fruit can also make a beer if fermented properly. During the Anglo-Boer war, the seeds were ground and used as a coffee substitute.
Other interesting facts
Its presence of the Ziziphus mucronata is said to indicate the presence of underground water.
The genus of Ziziphus mucronata has historical and biblical importance, as Christ’s crown of thorns when he was crucified is said to have been made from Ziziphus spina-christi Willd. This is a species which closely resembles Ziziphus mucronata but which grows from central Africa northwards. Looking at the thorns it is easy to imagine this.
Are you snagged up on something at the moment? I have been so tied up in my property deal, and nothing seemed to be going right – but perseverance is the key. It took eight long months of negotiation, arguing, tears and frustration. Today I became the proud owner of this beautiful piece of land and everything on it.