It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. You’re sitting in the dappled shade of a bushveld tree on a hot summer’s day, contemplating the view, beetles and bees buzzing lazily through the canopy above you, when all of a sudden, you hear a loud pop.
You look up just in time to see a small seed pod drop into a patch of sun on the ground in front of you. It’s not a particularly inspiring seed, slightly smaller than a peanut. It’s not the only one. The ground is littered with them. You lean back against the trunk and return to your reverie as the seeds begin to spin themselves into position and hop energetically toward the nearest shady spot.
It is, good people, time to visit the Lowveld again. I am going to try and hold your attention while writing about a tree. Just one. And it’s not even a Magic Penis Tree. Just a boring old deadly mankiller with explosive seeds than can hop along the ground by themselves. Wish me luck.
It’s called a Tamboti. It’s not unattractive, with a scraggly mop of small green leaves and bark like crazy paving. It’s not a huge tree, but is fairly big by Lowveld standards. And it’s best to learn to identify it early on if you’re planning on spending any time in the bush. Because it’s pretty bloody dangerous.
It’s one of the Euphorbioideae, which sounds very smart, and just broke my spellcheck, but it just means that it is a first cousin of the euphorbias. Which look like this.
And like the Euphorbias, it is poisonous. Unpleasantly so. They all have a deadly white sap that can burn your skin and damage your eyes. My father once absent-mindedly rubbed his eyes after cutting down a euphorbia and couldn’t see properly for days. The thing with Euphorbias, though, is that they are easy to spot. And they just look poisonous, so it’s easy enough to leave them alone.
They are attractive in an otherworldly sort of way, and can bring lots of insects to your garden, but there’s very little reason to meddle with them. Unless you’re my father. They have no leaves to speak of, and the wood is soft and pulpy.
Not the Tamboti. It just looks like an ordinary tree. Which is a problem. If you happen to be the sort who likes to make fires by picking up deadwood lying around in the bush, you need to be careful. Making fires with Tamboti wood is a very bad idea. If one of the logs you pick up to make your braai (barbecue) with happens to be a Tamboti log, you’re in for a bit of a ride. If you eat anything cooked over Tamboti, you are likely to end up with severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and vomiting. And sometimes death.
You can’t even use it to warm your house, since you will get the same effects from inhaling the smoke. You would think that this would protect the Tamboti from interference by man. No such luck. We apparently enjoy a bit of a challenge. Traditionally, it was used as a fish poison. Throw a bit of the sap into a pool and you can collect the stoned fish at your leisure. And then make sure not to eat the gills, because they can kill you.
Like many poisonous plants, it is also used in traditional medicine. It’s used, bizarrely enough, to cure stomach ailments. Which is a bit silly, since if you get the dosage wrong, you can damage your internal organs. Or die. Which will, I suppose, relieve the pain. It’s also used for curing toothache. You dribble a little of the sap on the sore spot and pray that you’re not going to die. Which will, at the very least, take your mind off the pain from the tooth.
Using Tamboti for medicine is not really all that surprising. Almost all medicinal plants are poisonous. It’s just a matter of getting the dosage right. What is a little more surprising is that the Tamboti is highly sought after for its wood. So much so that in some countries it is a protected species. The rich, dark, sweetly scented wood is used to make walking sticks and luxury furniture.
Which sounds reasonable. It’s not. Working with Tamboti is no simple task. When you cut into the wood, you are turning a solid chunk of toxic material into fine, floating sawdust. You can breathe it in and get sick. It can get in your eyes and blind you. It can land on your skin and bring you up in a painful rash. To work with it you need to cover yourself up like Michael Jackson using a public toilet. I’m sure it’s all worth it, though. There’s nothing like a good walking stick, and you can even use it as a cane should you have gone blind.
There is one thing about Tamboti wood that makes it stand out. It’s an insect repellent. If you use it to build your house and make your furniture, your house will be free from flying pests. People make coat hangers from it to keep moths away from their clothes. Which is definitely something that I would risk blindness for.
Its poison doesn’t save the Tamboti from animals, either. Most of the trees down in the Lowveld have a mortal enemy. These;
And they really are a problem. They do this;
Luckily, the Tamboti is safe from the attention of the Elephants. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own problems. They, too, have a mortal enemy. These;
Porcupines are crazy about Tamboti bark, to the extent that you suspect it must have some sort of narcotic effect on them. You may think that a porcupine is too small to damage something as big as a tree, but their size is actually the problem. The only bark they can reach is the bottom few inches. And they do this;
The bark is the part of the tree that carries all its nutrients. Ringbark a tree and it will die. And ringbarking Tambotis is what porcupines do. A 10 kg rat with fancy hairdo can kill a 20m tall tree in a night. That’s one of the odd things about the Tamboti. Its poison doesn’t seem to be a particularly good defence. Birds eat the fruit. Kudus and other buck eat the leaves, and when people in Tamboti areas hunt them, they have to be very careful to keep the stomach contents away from the meat. Black rhinos actively seek them out, and eat the branches as well as the leaves.
So there you have it. There is a tree growing down in the Lowveld that is so poisonous that it was used to poison arrows, and almost everything around it, including us, has chosen to ignore its efforts and give it a hard time anyway.
Oh, I almost forgot those jumping seeds. They really do jump around, like popcorn. Look;
If you’ve ever been to Mexico, you probably already know why they do that, since the Tambotis have a cousin there that does the same thing. The Tamboti has small, hard, lobed fruits. As they dry out once they ripen, they set up an internal tension which breaks with an audible pop, scattering the seeds beneath the tree. Where some of the seeds proceed to hop around like fleas on a dirty dog blanket.
The Tamboti is the host plant of a small grey moth that lays its eggs in the fruits. The eggs hatch, and each larva sets up home in a parasitized seed. When they fall to the ground, they escape the heat of the sun by flicking their tails, causing the seeds to shoot up into the air, hopefully towards a shadier spot.
It’s a charming little trick, and children love it. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to keep them around. What does a bout or two of stomach wrenching nausea and possible death matter when you can sit in the shade and watch a carpet of seeds spring to life and dance into the shadows.