The Ancient Giants of MalaMala, by ranger Johannes D. Welman

The pale grey bark with its longitudinal and irregular transverse cracks is characteristic of the tree.

The vegetation of MalaMala Game Reserve is classified as primarily Combretum and Acacia bushveld. It therefore goes without saying that trees belonging to the Acacia and Combretum genera are abundant within its boundaries. One species within these two genera that really stands out in my mind is the Leadwood Tree (Combretum imberbe). The reason for this is not its mammoth size, nor its characteristic grey-white bark. What I cannot get enough of is the sight of the sinister looking dead Leadwoods that stand tall – punctuating the landscape.

The Leadwood Tree gets its name from the density of its heartwood (air-dry 1200kg/m3 – that’s 1200 kilos per cubic metre. Think about it. That’s pretty dense!) Because of this, the Leadwood makes for superb firewood, as the coals have three times the ambience of any other wood. Neither termites nor dry-rot fungi can break it down, and it is for this reason that these trees will remain standing for many years beyond the end of their lifespan – like bushveld gargoyles. They are usually only brought down by fire.

Even after death, Leadwood Trees still play a fundamental role in the environment. Owl species as well as Rollers will use a branch from a dead Leadwood as a perch from which to hunt. And the really lucky on safari will find themselves beneath a leopard resting on such a branch. Hollows occur naturally in their trunks, so Leadwoods serve as great breeding grounds for yellow-billed hornbills, brown-headed parrots, and squirrels – to name a few.

Quick facts:

– The Leadwood is a semi-deciduous tree that can grow to heights of 20m.

-The tree has a wide distribution range, ranging from Tanzania in the North to Kwazulu-Natal in the South. They also occur as far West as Namibia.

-Young leaves are eaten by giraffe, kudu, impala and occasionally elephant.

– Some specimens are estimated to be over a thousand years old.

– A dead tree can remain upright for up to 80 years!

Uses and beliefs:

– When mixed with water, the ash forms a whitewash which is used by the Shangaan people to stain the walls of their homes.

– The ash can also be used as a substitute for toothpaste, although this is not recommended due to the high fluorite content.

– When inhaled, the smoke from the leaves acts as a traditional remedy that cures coughs and flu.

– To the Vambo people of Namibia, the Leadwood tree represents human as well as animal ancestors, and they therefore believe that this tree species is sacred.

References:

Vogel, J.C. and Fuls, A. 2005. The lifespan of Leadwood trees. South African Journal of Science, January/February 2005.

Venter, F. and Venter, J.  2002. Making the most of indigenous trees. Second edition, Briza publications; Pretoria, South Africa.

An ancient Leadwood stretches out toward the skyline.

A Leadwood forest to the West of West street bridge during summer.

One of the larger Leadwood trees on the property stands proud in the Picadilly triangle.

The four-winged fruit that is unique to the Combretum genus (depicted here is the fruit of Combretum hereroense).

The wood of the Leadwood tree is often used for the manufacturing of furniture and also makes for exceptional firewood.

Dead Leadwood trees close to our Eastern boundary at the end of another beautiful day in South-Africa’s Lowveld region.

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