Buffalo thorn tree – an icon in Southern Africa
Buffalo thorn tree (Ziziphus mucronata) is called in Afrikaans “Blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie” for its shiny leaves and two thorns, which are holding people back when getting caught by them. The shrub or tree has got distinctive zigzag branchlets with pairs of two thorns: one hooked thorn pointing downwards and one straight thorn pointing upwards.
Mr. Mxolisi (‘Xia’) Mabilane, a VaTsonga from the Greater Letaba Local Municipality, commented on this tree as follows:
Uses of Buffalo thorn shrub and trees
Food from Buffalo thorn trees
Young leaves are soft and got low tannin content. They can be eaten raw and taste well. If cooked, bush spinach can be used as a side dish for protein- or starch-based food. It is always a positive surprise; how such soft and well-tasting leaves can survive in such a harsh environment. But they don’t need chemicals for protection – they got their nasty thorns for defense.
Fruits are leathery skinned with only a small layer of pulp, which is quite dry and tastes slightly sweetish. Ovambo are drying the fruits and are grinding off the dry pulp thereafter, using it as an addition to maize meal.
The reddish skin and pulp is more of a teaser to attract animals eating the fruit for dispersal of the seeds, because the plant put its main energy into the kernels of these seeds. These energy-rich kernels are protected by a hard shell, which has to be cracked open for extracting them.
According to information provided here, the protein content is about 19%, carbohydrate content abt. 18% and the energy of the kernel within the seed is abt. 2008 kcal/100 g of kernels.
The caloric value of Z. mucronata seed was 2008.58 kcal. This value is high and as such could be recommended as a dietary supplement for people who require a lot of energy, for example, the athletes.
Yerima, B. I. and Markus M.
During the Second Anglo-Boer war 1899-1902, these fruits and roots (besides of other plant parts) were roasted and used as substitute coffee by the Boers.
Buffalo thorn roots will be cut in pieces, pounded, and put in a bit of water to wash out the compounds. Drinking this water will act as a pain killer. There is a variety of other medical applications, which are based on the alkaloids and antifungal properties in roots and older leaves.
Cultural uses and believes
Buffalo thorn trees play an important part in cultural believes of isiZulu and VaTsonga cultures. If a Zulu chief dies, a Buffalo thorn tree will be planted on the grave, to mark it ‘forever’.
As Mxolisi Mabilane explains in the podcast above, that in his Tsonga (but also Zulu-) culture, the place where a person died will be brushed with a Buffalo thorn branch. And with this branch the soul of the departed will be caught and brought back either to his grave, hut, or another place where the spirit can rest in peace. When carrying the branch, the person is not allowed to look back, has to reserve two seats in a bus (one for him and one for the spirit) and has to explain to the Buffalo thorn branch with the spirit in it, what will be done next. This is a tradition which is observed even today (2022).
Zulus also firmly believe, that during thunderstorms, protection should be sought under a buffalo thorn tree, as it is immune against lightning strike. There may be an explanation to this belief, as Buffalo thorn trees nearly always grow smaller than surrounding trees are – and lightning will strike the higher ones.
And: cutting down a Buffalo thorn tree will bring bad luck to that person.
Uses of Buffalo thorn trees for protection
Buffalo thorn branches are well suited for protection of kraals (place at which cattle, sheep or goats are kept during nighttime). If travelers are sleeping out in the bush, a surrounding circle of Buffalo thorn branches will keep out any undesirable predators. Height of such a kraal should be about 1,5 meters high and it should be structurally strong. This means, branches must be interwoven and the whole thorn branch circle be wide enough.
If certain TV series (like ‘Naked Survival’) call such protective thorn rings ‘Boma. This expression may be correct in other parts of Africa, but not in Southern Africa. A Boma is a meeting place with a stockade around, and a Kraal is a protected place – which is what is required for the ‘Survivors’.
Lessons learned from Buffalo thorn uses:
- It’s leaves are very pleasant to eat, either raw or cooked as a kind of spinach
- Seed kernels are very high in calorific value
- Buffalo thorns branches are important in Zulu and Tsonga traditions for sweeping up and transporting souls of diseased persons
- Branches are used for building kraals for protection during nighttime