93. Corkwoods.

This is something that almost everyone reading this has heard of.

No, that is not Yuletide crack.

No, that is not Yuletide crack.

If you live in a westernised country, you’ve been talking about it since you were small. You’ve sung songs about it. You’ve watched people carry it about in little boxes or in bottles on stage. And if you’re anything like me, you have never really bothered to find out what it was. Maybe this will help.


Yes, good people, that funny yellow dried snot looking stuff is myrrh. As in “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It was of huge religious importance in biblical times. It was used by the Egyptians to embalm their dead and by other groups, including the Israelites, as incense in their temples. It was pretty hard to come by. So hard, in fact, that it could be mentioned in the same breath as gold as a nifty little present for a baby. And it was made by beating up a living creature and harvesting its blood.

Sort of. Myrrh is made by scarring a commiphora tree found in Arabia, and harvesting the resin that the tree exudes to protect itself. It formed one of the staples of a network of ancient trade routes which criss-crossed the Arabian Peninsula.  And it wasn’t alone.

The trade routes are still there, but now it's all fake Armani handbags and black-market iPads.

The trade routes are still there, but now it’s all fake Armani handbags and black-market iPads.

If you know the bible in slightly more detail than just the nativity scene, you might have heard of “Balm of Gilead” as well. That’s also from a commiphora, and was (and is) known for its healing properties.

So why am I telling you about ancient Hebrew air freshener? I’m padding. I’m going to segue untidily into a post about some more Lowveld trees. Commiphoras. As far as I’m aware, you don’t find many commiphoras in other parts of the world, but Africa is rotten with them. The Lowveld has four.

They are odd little trees. They are, on paper, humble and unassuming little trees, but they are all instantly identifiable as commiphoras. Which is strange, because they don’t really look an awful lot like each other. Even more curiously, they are all, like Tiger Woods is to many, many women, easier to identify without their clothes on.

Who the hell is that?

Who the hell is that?

What makes them identifiable is the shape of their trunks and branches. Leaves just get in the way, so commiphoras are easier to identify in winter, when they have shed them. They are short, stocky little trees, with trunks and branches fattened like succulents to store water in the hot, dry places where they tend to grow. But the coolest thing about them is their bark. Their bark is hugely varied between species, but is always distinctive. Here’s a selection.


Despite the economic importance of their Northern cousins, the commiphoras of the Lowveld are used for almost nothing. But they have other things going for them. Because they are immortal.

The Afrikaans name for the commiphoras is “Kanniedood”, which means, roughly, “Cannot die”. This is partly because they are almost impervious to drought, but mostly because, in order to grow one, all you need to do is snap a branch off an existing one and stick it in the ground. That’s all. No special treatment, no hormone powder, or protection from the sun, or watering, just stick it in the ground and you have a tree. This makes them pretty useful if you want to grow a living fence. They can even root and grow from branches that simply fall to the ground.

There’s a reason for this. Standing around being full of water in the middle of a drought tends to attract a bit of attention. From these.



They do this.



Which must be a little disheartening. But instead of just dying, the commiphoras can simply send out roots from their fallen branches and pick up where they left off.

All of this; the slightly swollen, succulent shape, the fact that they are hard to kill, and the fact that they can be grown from branches selected for their cool shapes, make commiphoras highly attractive to bonsai growers.

This was part of a full sized tree five days ago.

This was part of a full sized tree five days ago.

Here are the Lowveld ones;

The Zebra Tree, or Zebra-Bark Corkwood.

Yes, it has two English names. Settle down, we’re just getting started. This is what the Zebra tree looks like;

Stripes are a common form of natural camouflage. This man is completely unaware of the tree next to him.

Stripes are a common form of natural camouflage. This man is completely unaware of the tree next to him.

No, that isn’t a birch tree that has lost its way. It’s not exactly stripy, either, but I will concede that “Zebra Tree” is rather more poetic than “Scabby White-Bark.

The Paperbark Commiphora, or Paperbark Corkwood.

Still just the two names. And they’re pretty spot-on, too. The bark peels off in thin, papery sheets, and hangs down off the trunk and branches as if the tree had been toilet papered by naughty kids.


Although sometimes the name “Horrifying Eczema Corkwood would seem a little more apt.

I think a little ointment may be in order.

I think a little ointment may be in order.

The Bronze Commiphora, Or Red-Stem Corkwood, or Copper-Stemmed Corkwood, or Bronze Paper Commiphora.

And that, good people, is how you name a tree! Don’t let anyone pin you down. You get the idea, though. It’s reddish. Bronzy. Some might even describe it as coppery. And papery in texture. It’s actually quite striking, in a reddish, bronzy, coppery, papery sort of way.

Had these people never heard the word "russet".

Had these people never heard the word “russet”.

The White-Stemmed Corkwood, or Blue Commiphora.

And now they’re just messing with us. Lots of names is one thing, but mutually exclusive names is another. But it does actually all make sense. The tree is covered in loose, peeling flakes of papery white bark, which peel away to reveal a bluish green layer underneath.





Well, that’s me for today. I would go on, but I’m off to beat up a commiphora. If I start drying its blood now I should have a brand new product to test the burgeoning nativity market with at Christmas time.

25 thoughts on “93. Corkwoods.

  1. narf77 says:

    Bugger. I was SURE that was yuletide crack. Santalum album is the closest sniffy thing that we Aussies get to yuletide crack but I am afraid you beat with your Commiphora Mr23 Thorns…game set and match! I am twitching with horticultural excitement about your Commiphora’s Mr23 Thorns, indeed I might go as far to say I am actually jealous of your close proximity to them. They are everything that I love in a plant/tree. They look exotic, they are easily cultivated and they are resilient. I feel a trip to Africa coming on where narf7 needs to wear a particularly HUGE hat to stick some cuttings into. I am going to make Mrs23 Thorns and her earing smuggling ring look tame! I am NOT going to show this post to Steve. Steve is one of those bonsai men. He likes to chop trees to within an inch of their lives and mould them to do his bidding. If Steve even gets a hint that there might be another tree out there that is impervious to drought and that loves to grow back from splintered stumps (our duck is vicious) he is going to insist that we head to the Lowveld immediately. After 9 days of liver damage I fear we aren’t quite up to travelling yet and so I am going to save this post for sometime next year when we have recovered.

    • 23thorns says:

      I wish it was that easy. they can survive drought, fire, and pachyderms. But most of them cannot survive too much water.

      • narf77 says:

        That’s something that we have had plenty of here on Serendipity Farm of late. Our driveway has almost completely been deposited on the road in front of the house. Luckily, council hasn’t asked us to remove it quite yet (too busy removing trees that have fallen over the roads with recent strong winds) but we are going to have to do a few hard yards to shovel it back into the small canyon rivulets that we used to call driveway. Perhaps they would like to be potted specimens or live on our top block where nothing keeps wet feet for long? But as they say…”first, you must take possession of your specimen” and that sir, is the hardest part of the equation. I am quite certain that your own customs men are almost as formidable as our Aussie customs men and getting some plant material through customs in Africa is just the first bit… I might have to try and find a source a bit closer to home but no doubt there are expats harbouring prized specimens that would be amenable and open to offers…

      • 23thorns says:

        I wouldn’t worry about the guys on our side. If you wrap up your contraband in money, you might find that they suddenly need to focus on the guy behind you.

      • narf77 says:

        I have heard that wearing a money necklace goes a long way towards having your hat uninspected… 😉

  2. Spy Garden says:

    Love this of course because I love plants (and definitely think we need a commiphora bonzai)! The bronze one reminds me (in appearance) a lot of Melaleuca, a tree that is very invasive (damaging to swampland) in south Florida. Also like the “Kannidood” which reminds me of “Kalanchoe” which means “it falls and it grows” (it is a class of succulent). And yuletide crack ahhahahah

  3. ashokbhatia says:

    Well researched, well put across.

  4. albertine says:

    Nice post 23! Go go go for that finish line!!!

    PS The Queensland Gum (or River Red Gum) also has lots of names, some of them featuring ‘blue gum’ – I think it’s all just people who are jealous of Queensland!

  5. mariekeates says:

    You made me laugh out loud which was unfortunate because I was on the bus at the time. I must stop reading your blog on the bus before I get locked up!

  6. The “POT” of knowledge. Dang fingers. Sheesh!

  7. Your writing style is what I like. Flippant and funny bits tossed around in the pit of knowledge. I look forward to seeing one of your posts. I get to learn about your world. Normal to you, fascinating to me.


  8. sheenmeem says:

    Interesting. Thanks.

  9. You had me at: “Even more curiously, they are all, like Tiger Woods is to many, many women, easier to identify without their clothes on.” Really entertaining and interesting post. You should be writing for nature documentaries – nothing like a good “laugh and learn.” Can’t wait for the next one!

  10. johnjroberts says:

    “Not on morality, but on cookery, let us build our stronghold: there brandishing our frying-pan, as censer, let us offer sweet incense to the Devil, and live at ease on the fat things he has provided for his elect!”

    Thomas Carlyle

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