Field Guide to the Trees of Southern Africa

Field Guide to the Trees of Southern Africa
Southern Africa---here defined as that portion of the continent south of the equatorial rainforests---is a collection of highly varied landscapes, from robust mountains such as the Drakensberg to scrub-savanna to sere desert to coastal heath. The trees peppering this terrain are similarly manifold (where they are found at all, that is. The Namib Desert is largely devoid of them). Indeed, southern Africa contains the three most diverse floristic regions in the continent: the Cape Floristic Region, Maputaland-Pondoland Region and Succulent Karoo Region, which together contain about 20,600 species.

Coastal Red Milkwood

This evergreen tree or large shrub grows in coastal dune and sand forest along the Indian Ocean coasts of Mozambique and South Africa. Butterfly larvae feed on the milkwood, and its fine burnt-hued wood is valued by boat-builders for its strength.


African Baobab

This gargantuan tree is one of the largest and oldest in the world. Exceptional specimens may live more than 2,000 years and possess trunks greater than 90 feet in girth. Baobabs, sometimes described as looking like an upturned tree with roots for branches, grow in well-drained woodland and savanna across southern Africa. An individual in South Africa's Limpopo Province, the Sagole Baobab, has been called the largest tree in that country: It is over 70 feet tall and some 34 feet in diameter, according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

Common Lightning Bush

This little deciduous tree grows in scrubby country in southeastern Africa: savannas, grassland and forest edges. Humans use it medicinally, and butterfly larvae for sustenance.

Quiver Tree

This striking member of the aloe family has a robust trunk and densely forked crown branches. It inhabits desolate arid and semi-arid tracts of central and southern Namibia and northwestern South Africa. Traditional uses of the tree include the construction of arrow-quivers from its wood by the San people (hence one of its common names) and the hollowing out of its trunk to confer natural refrigeration.

Henkel's Yellowwood

A tall, stately conifer, the Henkel's yellowwood grows in mountainous forests of Lesotho and eastern South Africa. With its dense, drooping branches and stature, it is a popular garden species. Cape parrots nest in older yellowwoods.


Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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