Plants with a Story

By Nolan Bunting

Wits Rural is a unique opportunity in our adventure in Africa. Being a research base surrounded with an electric fence, we have very few worries from the dangerous megafauna, such as lions and elephants, aside from the leopards that stalk under the stars and are not active in the day. This aspect provides us individuals the ability to walk freely through the African bushveld and learn about plants.

Plants hold a special place in my heart, as I have often enjoyed the peace of finding an organism over and over again to observe its subtle changes. In Wits Rural, three species of plants were so enthralling and entertaining, I just had to express my explosive passion.

The first of these plants is the Marula Tree, the stunning tree seemed to rise right from the camp and touch the sky. Within 30 minutes of our arrival at Wits rural, David discussed the potential ecosystem services a single tree could provide. One of them was shade, which I was glad for with temperatures in the 80s. The other was advertised to us at the airport. Without realizing it, every student upon arrival learned about the importance of the Marula economically in the form of a billboard advertising Amarula. Created with the fermented fruit of this tree, Amarula is the equivalent of Kentucky whiskey, a creamy drink like Baileys and is sold throughout the country. Marula is also used within communities in the surrounding bushbuck ridge to improve social connections within the community through trade and sharing of the liquid Marula beer, a seasonal local drink. Thus the tree provides an economic and social service in the surrounding areas. In addition to amarula and marula beer, the fruits can also be made into jams, jellies, and even eaten raw. This is a much loved tree by the communities and people of the area. Sadly, it also tends to attract the fruit loving elephants. Who break down the electric fence surrounding Wits rural in order to dine on the fruit, thus causing multiple infrastructure problems, but what an image.

Speaking of images, the next plant puts our cactuses to shame and truly demonstrates the ever present battle of plant vs animal: the Buffalo Thorn. This incredible plant, riddled with thorns, can be found throughout Wits Rural. Standing strong against Giraffes and other species, its two thorn system where one thin long thorn is followed by a smaller hooked thorn makes it near impossible to eat from this plant. Its Afrikaans name of blinkblaar translates as shining blister for its ability to create a painful feeling in your skin. Zulu, Swazi and other east African cultures have many uses for the plant. Leaves and fruits are edible and even the seeds could be used as a coffee substitute. Roots and bark are used as a traditional painkiller when created in to a paste. And the trees themselves make excellent khralls for cattle, a structure like a fence in the USA. Beyond these uses, the buffalo thorn had a spiritual use as well. A branch of buffalo thorn would be moved over the body to hook the spirit that died far away from home. The branch would then travel with the loved ones, who would talk to the branch until it reached its final resting place. The branch would be planted, sprout into another buffalo thorn to be used by the community. It was very common to see this tradition on the trains from the mines back to the communities, as family members hooked the soul of the fallen and took them home to finally get rest.

With so many amazing plants, it was hard to choose just three. As such, our last plant will be a specialized group of plants found almost exclusively in Africa, the Acacia. There are many species of acacia in Africa, in particular South Africa. Similar to the Buffalo Thorn, the acacia family is full of thorny plants that are a staple food for the animals of Africa. However, unlike the Buffalo Thorn, The acacias utilize chemical warfare through the production of tannins. Tannins, a common chemical seen in the fur industry for tanning hides, is highly toxic to ruminants in large quantities. This is because the digestion of tannin causes the stomach and connective tissue in the digestive system to harden, causing the animal to eventually die of starvation. However, the acacia only produces this toxin when under threat, as it requires copious amounts of energy to produce. While this defense is fascinating, it is a mere parlor trick to the other power of the acacia tree. This power, originally thought not to be found in plants, grants other acacias in surrounding areas awareness of the herbivores. This power is communication. Using the wind, acacias send chemical messages to other trees in the area to produce tannins and defend themselves. This amazing communication makes acacias in sense herd organisms that take care of themselves and watch out for others in their tree community.

//Community//. What is a community. We in the Imagine program truly believe in a community. Much like the acacias we watch over each other, and provide each other new perspectives and viewpoints. We share information like the locals share the drink produced from the Marula tree. We as individuals may be hard to approach with large thorns, but all provide the program the medication to improve all our life experiences. As I type, I think about how we are all bonded. Either through common classes or our brand new experiences. We are much like the plants of Africa. Individually, while spectacular, we are weak and flimsy, but together, with varied roots, form the strongest stand for the future on the savannah. So to you reading this, wish us luck and know that we are together and strong.


Nolan Bunting

CC Program 2018

Natalie Miller