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A tribute to the long misunderstood Fever tree

A tribute to the long misunderstood Fever tree

“A white man’s grave full of malaria and tsetse fly, swarming with game from elephants to guineafowl. A blank space in the far north-eastern corner of South Africa dense with acacias and crossed only by a few dotted lines indicating unsurveyed watercourses.”

This is how Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton – the first warden of Sabi Game Reserve, declared in 1898 and later expanded to create Kruger National Park – pictured the area while examining a map of the region on the wall of Johannesburg’s Rand Club.

In 1902 when he officially took up office in what was the first government-declared game reserve in Africa, he reported the malaria and tsetse fly were all there, but that the portrait of “swarming game” was quite altered. It was the end of the Anglo-Boer war and hunters and soldiers on both sides had devastated the animal populations everywhere.

The rest is history, mostly good history where the Kruger animal populations are concerned, and a certain highly distinctive acacia tree with its mesmerising yellowish-green bark, once feared by the early pioneers who believed it to be responsible for malaria and called it the ‘fever tree’, was celebrated in 2010 as one of the Trees of the Year.

The reason for the fever tree’s association with malaria is that it typically grows in low-lying swampy areas, which are ideal breeding places for the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito.

Traditional people were several steps ahead here, as they had long since identified the powdered bark and root of the tree as a treatment for malaria and not the cause. They also made decoctions from the roots to treat stomach upsets and diarrhoea, relying on the tannins in the bark to destroy the culprit micro-organisms in the digestive tract.

These medicinal uses are well documented, but what isn’t well documented is the use of the fever tree’s bark as a  ‘good luck, good person’ charm. With its luminous appearance, it is easy to understand why the bark is attributed with magical powers.

Medicinal plant specialist Professor Ben‑Erik van Wyk cites a recent study in St Lucia where a sangoma named Sibusiso Falakhe (who received this knowledge from his mother and grandfather, both of whom were sangomas) described the tree’s use in magic. A piece of bark is ground and infused in water. The patient’s whole body is then bathed with the water to ensure the person is seen as a good person, and to bring them good luck.

Trees in rural areas, especially in northern KwaZulu-Natal, often show signs of bark being harvested. Experienced healers know that the removal of a small piece of bark will cause no damage but that removal of large quantities may even kill the tree.

A medium-sized to large tree measures about 10‑25 metres in height with a single trunk and a spreading crown. Many of the lower branches die off and turn black in colour, creating a beautiful contrast with the yellow-green bark. The sweetly scented golden flowers are borne in fluffy, rounded heads, while the paired thorns are long, white and straight, similar to those of the sweet thorn acacia (Acacia karroo).

The fever tree grows from KwaZulu-Natal northwards along the eastern parts of South Africa to Mozambique and Zimbabwe and from here onwards to other parts of tropical Africa.

A prominent feature in the Lowveld and a favourite tree of Stevenson-Hamilton, the fever tree is immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in The Elephant’s Child. The Elephant’s Child travelled for many moons in Africa ‘till he came at last to the banks of the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees’.

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