Determining cardinal points by trees

Determining cardinal points by trees in Southern African savannas (Southern Hemisphere) is a common method. It is useful in case of being lost and the sun cannot be seen. So, at least it can be determined where the cardinal points are. Cardinal points are the main directions on a compass.

Possibilities of finding cardinal points by trees

There are five possibilities for finding direction by trees in Southern African savanna areas:

  1. Trees are more foliated on the northern side and less so on the southern side.
  • On flat ground and when trees stand singly and apart from others (which is typical for savannas), most of the trees lean slightly towards the direction North. These first two possibilities are due to the fact, that on the northern side is a higher exposure to sun. And more photosynthesis means that more nutrients are produced in the leaves on the northern side.
  • If on an otherwise perfectly healthy tree, some branches died off, this normally will be on the southern side of the tree. The reason for this is the fact, that due to climatic changes, it is getting warmer in Southern Africa and tree branches want to save water. And shed leaves which are less active in photosynthesis, which is on the southern side.
  • Growth rings on trees are usually wider on the northern side. This is however only a theoretical possibility to determine cardinal points. When lost in the bush we will not cut down trees and have a look at a neatly smooth growth ring picture to find direction North.
  • Moss and lichens usually occur on the southern side of trees, as there is less sun on this side. But this is a very unreliable method, as the growth of moss and lichens depends mainly on the shadow. Due to heavier foliated branches on the northern side, there will also be many cases of shaded areas towards the direction North. This possibility is therefore unreliable and not to be recommended for use.

Examples of trees pointing in one direction

By closely and carefully observing single-standing trees, we can determine the direction of where these trees are pointing. Some examples taken at Kruger National Park are as follows:

This tree leans towards the North and is more foliated on that side. The tree also sheds branches on the opposite, the southern side. The mentioned direction indication of this tree is further confirmed by Red-billed Buffalo weaver nests, which are always located on the north-western side of a tree. See also this article here.

Although the trunk itself is not leaning towards the North, this tree clearly shows direction North by the higher number of long branches and densely foliated areas on the right-hand side. The shade on the bottom of the tree confirms this direction. The sun is standing high on the right-hand side of the trunk. Therefore, the direction North has to be on the right (due to its location in the Southern Hemisphere).

This tree is an extreme example of what we postulated above. It already leans very much to the North and additionally shoots new branches (light-green leaves) towards the right-hand side, which is direction North. And reduces the number of leaves in the opposite area, which is direction South.

Further typical examples of the direction of trees in Southern African savanna areas were included at the beginning of this article. When observing them, the reader of this article can make out in which direction these trees are pointing.

Lessons learned from finding direction with the help of trees in Southern African savanna areas:

  • Trees are more foliated on the northern side.
  • On flat ground and single-standing trees, most of them are leaning towards the direction North.
  • The southern side has fewer leaves and more dead branches, as the tree wants to save water.
  • Growth ring examinations are not useful when getting lost in the Wild.
  • Moss and lichen are unreliable indicators of the direction of the South.

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