Trees are magical. A proper big, spreading, ancient broad-leafed tree falls into the same category as rounded, ancient rocks and deep, clear pools of water.
We are drawn to these things. They make us quiet. They make us want to reach out and touch them, as if doing so will allow us to feel the pulse of the earth itself; will allow us to become part of something bigger and infinitely wiser than ourselves.
We have always known that trees can hold magic. The Vikings believed the cosmos was held up by a giant Ash called Yggdrasil. The druids worshipped in groves of spreading oaks. The Maoris declared the largest Kauri trees to be royalty.
It’s time for another Lowveld post. One about plants. Or just one plant. But it is a magical one. Here’s one now;
Were you stuck dumb with awe? Did you feel the pull of the ancient gods? Did you sense that you were in the presence of royalty, or feel a sudden urge to sacrifice a goat? Not? Oh come now! It is not, I will concede, much to look at. But it is a proper magic tree! More so than the Ash and the Oak; their magic is lost to us. We stopped believing, and now all they have left is the power to make us feel inexplicably moved in their presence.
Not so my little tree. Its name says it all. It is a Magic Guarri. Or, if you have a more scientific bent, Euclea Divinorum. And it is the sort of thing that makes you believe that it was placed on earth by a benevolent god specifically for the benefit of mankind.
Let’s get the woowoo magic out of the way first. The divinorum part of its Latin name comes from the fact that a decoction of the roots is used by some tribes for the purposes of divination. But that’s not the only type of divining it’s used for. A fresh twig of Magic Guarri is said to quiver when close to an underground water source. Yup; it’s used for dowsing, too.
But that, as they say in the infomercials, is not all. Twigs are broken off and carried around or hung up in the eaves of houses as good luck charms and to ward off witches and bad luck. And yes, witches are as real to some of the people living in Africa as they were in Europe and the States during the witch hunts. In some rural areas, people are still driven from their homes or even killed on suspicion of witchcraft. Lightning strikes and sudden illnesses don’t happen by themselves.
So much for old-school magic. Now for the real stuff; the Magic Guarri is so staggeringly useful to the people of Africa that it doesn’t need evil spirits to exist to deserve its name.
We’ll start with the wildlife tourism stuff since that’s what these posts are about, mostly. If you go on a guided walk, or even, often enough, a guided drive in the bush, you are going to get to see the Magic Guarri. Your guide will stop, stroll over to a Magic Guarri, and break off a bunch of twigs. He’ll strip a bit of bark off the end, and crush the fibrous wood so that it ends up looking like a primitive paintbrush.
Then he’ll make you brush your teeth with it.
Do not be offended. He does not have issues with your dental hygiene. He is trying to keep you engaged because the cool things like leopards and lions and elephants are not lurking around every corner, despite what you may have seen on the Discovery Channel. And he’s onto something.
The Magic Guarri tree has been used for this purpose since time immemorial. So much so that it is also known as the toothbrush tree. And here’s the really interesting part; it used to be thought that they were used like this simply because the twigs are really fibrous and made a good, stiff brush. Until a scientific someone took a closer look. It turns out that Magic Guarri wood has powerful anti-bacterial qualities that are only now being explored. That’s right; Magic Guarri is the natural equivalent of the sort of toothpaste that nine out of ten dentists would recommend.
If you’re doing the whole touristy thing, you might want to pick up a curio or two. A traditional African basket is always a good option. You will not realise it, but you will have stumbled across the Magic Guarri’s next remarkable quality; colour.
Let’s just say that you go for a nice multi-coloured number like this one;
Your basket will have been dyed with Magic Guarri. Not just one of the colours; all of them. Magic Guarri is rich in tannins, and the bark is used to make a variety of different shades of brown dye.
Which is no big deal. Lots of trees are used to make dyes. But the Magic Guarri is a bit of a show-off. The bark may be brown, but the roots are deep red. They are chewed to turn the mouth a rather fetching red colour (far more practical than lipstick), to tan leather, and to dye floor mats so dark they are almost black.
And then, as if to prove the Magic Guarri is a sport of the gods and not a nice, sensible, naturally evolved tree, you can make purple ink out of the berries.
Speaking of which. The berries are edible, but not very nice. Do not, for one second, think you have found a chink in the Guarri’s armour. The fruits are used for making beer, which makes them very important indeed. They are also, since the Guarri thrives on multi-tasking, medicine. They are used as a laxative.
Which pales to insignificance compared to the rest of the tree. Medicinal plants are a source of endless fascination to some and grinding tedium to many, so I’m going to rattle through this rather quickly. In order to live up to its name, various parts of the Magic Guarri are used to treat upset stomachs, ulcers, cancer, open sores, arthritis, jaundice, snakebite, gonorrhoea, headaches, toothaches, and, I kid you not, leprosy (yup, like witchcraft, leprosy is still a thing in Africa).
A decoction of the roots is used to treat infertility. Once it has sorted out this problem, it is taken to treat stomach cramps and contractions during pregnancy. And just to prove that it will not abandon you in your time of greatest need, it is then taken to prevent miscarriages.
When I said that the Guarri was a bit of a show-off, I meant it. Remember those berries you took as a laxative? Do not be alarmed if they turn out to be a little too effective. That pregnancy causing, easing, and saving potion also acts as a natural version of Imodium.
You are, I hope, starting to form the vague impression that the Magic Guarri is quite useful. But we’re not done yet. It does some other things, too. In some parts of Africa, the branches are used to purify drinking water (it’s that whole anti-bacterial thing again). Even better than that, branches are added to milk to make it more digestible and stop it from going off. For more than a year. Which is kind of handy if you’re a traditional pastoralist without access to electricity.
But what if you’re not a traditional pastoralist? All the uses I’ve mentioned so far can be prefaced by the quietly belittling word “traditional”. Does this mean that the magic of the Guarri is going to go the way of that of the Ash and the Oak as the influence of the West is more strongly felt? Maybe not.
The Guarri has another trick up its sleeve. It has an unusually high tolerance for some heavy metals. And arsenic. Where there is lots of arsenic in the soil, there is lots of Magic Guarri. Which would be vaguely interesting, except for one thing. Finding lots of arsenic in the soil is a pretty good sign that there is something else there, too. Gold. Yup. Finding lots of Magic Guarri might help you find lots of gold.
You might have picked up that the Guarri is a firm believer in overkill. Once you’ve found your gold, you are going to want to rip it and tear it and grind it from the earth. And you’re going to leave a bit of a mess. A poisonous mess. Gold mining waste pits are not exactly easy to rehabilitate. Almost nothing will grow on them. Almost.
Magic Guarri will. And it just so happens that it is remarkably good at holding together eroding soil.
So there you have it. An unassuming little tree that just happens to be one of the most coincidentally useful plants on the planet; there are other, more useful plants, but they have been bred over millennia for the purpose. The Magic Guarri was just kind of lying around waiting for us.
And that’s the thing. It is useful for us. Not much else. Birds eat the fruit, and a few animals browse the leaves, but not very enthusiastically (all those tannins make it rather bitter and, in excess, poisonous). Its bounty seems to have been reserved for mankind alone; an exclusive gift from mother-nature.
Or maybe not. The Guarri has one final magic trick up its sleeve. And it’s not for us. It talks to the plants around it. And it does so to save their lives.
When the Magic Guarri is suffering from some sort of environmental stress, such as drought, it releases a pheromone into the air around it. And the plants surrounding it pick this up and respond by increasing the level of tannins in their leaves. Which makes them unpalatable to browsers. Which is kind of handy when you need all of your bits to carry you through the hard times.
Yup. Not content to live a life of selfless service to mankind, the Guarri takes time off to perform a little selfless service for its leafy brothers and sisters every now and then.
So there you have it. It is, I am willing to concede, no noble forest giant. You would not reach out a hand to feel the pulse of the world through its trunk, or strip off your clothes and dance naked in the moonlight beneath its spreading boughs. But should you ever pass one by, pause for a second to tip your hat to it. It is, after all, not every day you come across a magical gift from the old gods.