Beware of the Horn-Pod Tree

“Every time I came across this tree as a child, my blood would run cold.”

It is a bright and cool morning and we’re glad to have stopped, a beautiful silence replacing the rumbling of the diesel engine and the sun warm on our skin. We’ve been driving through Welgevonden Game Reserve for what seems like hours, lumbering up steep hills and down into ravines again, not seeing much of anything other than the occasional zebra, which is why our guide Justinus has decided to give us a botany lesson.
I can’t wait to hear why this tree might turn the blood into ice in your veins. Justinus is a great storyteller, and this one promises to be another good one. Just yesterday he taught us how to tell a black rhino apart from a white rhino, in case they are mothers with their babies. One of them, you see, always keeps the baby in front, while the other keeps it in the back. I have heard this story before but for the life of me couldn’t remember which one is which. “It’s simple,” says Justinus. “It’s nature repeating itself. Just like a black mother always carries the baby on her back, the black rhino will keep its baby behind. And the white rhino always keeps its baby in front, just like white mothers always push their babies in front of them in their prams.”
I forgot to take a picture of the horn-pod tree but this picture
shows the typical African bushveld
“So why is the horn-pod tree so dangerous?” we all ask, hanging on Justinus’ lips. But he is not to be rushed. The horn-pod tree (also called “Rhodesian rubber tree” or “mulya” in Tswana), he tells us, has many uses. Its roots and leaves can be boiled for a tea or you can inhale the vapors, helping alleviate anything from asthma to an upset stomach. It also contains a milky latex, which in my understanding is simply an earlier form of duct tape, considering its manifold uses from strengthening drum hides to sticking feathers onto arrows and even for what to me sounds like a bikini wax.

I take a closer look at this tree. Honestly, it doesn’t look like much, other than its distinctive horn-shaped pods. Just like most trees in the African bushveld don’t look like much to me. They are almost always scraggly, often charred on one side by a fire, and grow in every conceivable direction. In fact, could it be that trees reflect their national psyche? (Here I go putting my whole leg in my mouth again). Where I grew up in Germany, forests were very orderly affairs. The trees were distinct-looking, tall, straight, organized, not veering from their allocated space so as not to crowd into other trees. And also a bit boring. No doubt this was helped by forest rangers tasked to keep national forests orderly. But here in Africa, the trees are a mess. Very rarely do you find an unblemished specimen, and they often grow right on top of each other on soil that doesn’t look like it could support a single one of them. And yet they radiate an incredible force of life, a certain cheerfulness in their disarray, which those somber forests of the North can’t replicate. 

There is one other use of the horn-pod tree, Justinus finally tells us, that he dreaded as a child. You see, as scraggly as these trees look, they have these shoots of new branches that are straight as a rod, long and bendable. The perfect switch to use for beating a child’s backside, particularly a child who was in charge of grazing the cattle and is bringing home less than he took out, because he might have dozed off instead of being watchful. That is why Justinus to this day can’t pass by a horn-pod tree without getting that sinking feeling of dread. He breaks off one such branch and we can all see what he means.

But the best part of this childhood memory he saves for last: On their days off, he and his friends would set out into the bush with their assegais and axes, and whenever they’d come across a horn-pod tree, they’d strip it of any branches that might qualify as beating material and hack it into little pieces, making sure it could never be used on anyone’s backside again.

For more on our safari through Welgevonden, visit my post about Jamila Lodge.