The Mopane Tree

The Mopane Tree

If you are visiting the hot, low-lying regions of northern South Africa and Zimbabwe you’ll see so many mopane trees that it is easy to consider them boring, but they play an enormously significant role in the environment, influencing the lives of people, mammals, birds, and insects.

Their height varies according to local soil types and ranges from tall trees, which grow to about 17 metres, to small shrub-like trees which only reach about a metre or two above the ground.

One of the most interesting aspects of the mopane tree is that they are the host of the mopane “worm” (the larvae of the Mopane emperor moth) which feed on the trees in in huge numbers in summer and are harvested by local people as food. The caterpillars have a very high protein content, higher per kilogramme than beef or soya beans, and are usually dried and added to meals, or eaten as a snack. Birds also feed on the “worms”.

While feeding on the trees the “worms” excrete large amounts of processed vegetable matter which, given their enormous numbers under the right conditions, acts as a valuable fertilizer.

Not to be outdone by a bunch of “worms” mopane flies, which are really stingless bees, use cavities in the trees to make hives which contain a dark honey, widely regarded as delicacy.

Towards the end of the dry season (July-October) the trees shed their leaves and these are eaten by a variety of mammals.

Elephants regularly eat the bark of the mopane by rolling branches in their mouths and pulling it off with their teeth.

The wood of the mopane is very hard and heavy and widely valued as firewood and as fence poles or building material because it is largely termite resistant.

Mike Cadman

Mike has worked as a journalist for a variety of international and local media organisations as well as environmental NGO’s for the past 38 years and is the author of five books. During his career, he has covered all major news developments in southern Africa and has travelled extensively throughout many parts of the continent. He spends as much time as possible in the bush and has extensive knowledge of broader environmental issues as well as the creatures that live there.