33. The Poison tree.

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. You’re sitting in the dappled shade of a bushveld tree on a hot summer’s day, contemplating the view, beetles and bees buzzing lazily through the canopy above you, when all of a sudden, you hear a loud pop.

Before settling in, it pays to make sure the shade is unoccupied.

Before settling in, it pays to make sure the shade is unoccupied.

You look up just in time to see a small seed pod drop into a patch of sun on the ground in front of you. It’s not a particularly inspiring seed, slightly smaller than a peanut. It’s not the only one. The ground is littered with them. You lean back against the trunk and return to your reverie as the seeds begin to spin themselves into position and hop energetically toward the nearest shady spot.

It is, good people, time to visit the Lowveld again. I am going to try and hold your attention while writing about a tree. Just one. And it’s not even a Magic Penis Tree. Just a boring old deadly mankiller with explosive seeds than can hop along the ground by themselves. Wish me luck.

It’s called a Tamboti. It’s not unattractive, with a scraggly mop of small green leaves and bark like crazy paving. It’s not a huge tree, but is fairly big by Lowveld standards. And it’s best to learn to identify it early on if you’re planning on spending any time in the bush. Because it’s pretty bloody dangerous.

Back up! I think it's about to open up a can of whoop-ass.

Back up! I think it’s about to open up a can of whoop-ass.

It’s one of the Euphorbioideae, which sounds very smart, and just broke my spellcheck, but it just means that it is a first cousin of the euphorbias. Which look like this.

A Euphorbia. Which is one of the Euphorbieae, which are members of the Euphorbioideae, which fall under the Euphorbiaceae. Just saying.

A Euphorbia. Which is one of the Euphorbieae, which are members of the Euphorbioideae, which fall under the Euphorbiaceae. Just saying.

And like the Euphorbias, it is poisonous. Unpleasantly so. They all have a deadly white sap that can burn your skin and damage your eyes. My father once absent-mindedly rubbed his eyes after cutting down a euphorbia and couldn’t see properly for days. The thing with Euphorbias, though, is that they are easy to spot. And they just look poisonous, so it’s easy enough to leave them alone.

They are attractive in an otherworldly sort of way, and can bring lots of insects to your garden, but there’s very little reason to meddle with them. Unless you’re my father. They have no leaves to speak of, and the wood is soft and pulpy.

Not the Tamboti. It just looks like an ordinary tree. Which is a problem. If you happen to be the sort who likes to make fires by picking up deadwood lying around in the bush, you need to be careful. Making fires with Tamboti wood is a very bad idea. If one of the logs you pick up to make your braai (barbecue) with happens to be a Tamboti log, you’re in for a bit of a ride. If you eat anything cooked over Tamboti, you are likely to end up with severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and vomiting. And sometimes death.

I regret nothing! Those sosatis were delicious!

I regret nothing! Those sosatis were delicious!

You can’t even use it to warm your house, since you will get the same effects from inhaling the smoke. You would think that this would protect the Tamboti from interference by man. No such luck. We apparently enjoy a bit of a challenge. Traditionally, it was used as a fish poison. Throw a bit of the sap into a pool and you can collect the stoned fish at your leisure. And then make sure not to eat the gills, because they can kill you.

Like many poisonous plants, it is also used in traditional medicine. It’s used, bizarrely enough, to cure stomach ailments. Which is a bit silly, since if you get the dosage wrong, you can damage your internal organs. Or die. Which will, I suppose, relieve the pain. It’s also used for curing toothache. You dribble a little of the sap on the sore spot and pray that you’re not going to die. Which will, at the very least, take your mind off the pain from the tooth.

"It hurts so bad I wish I was dead!" "I think I may be able to help."

“It hurts so bad I wish I was dead!”
“I think I may be able to help.”

Using Tamboti for medicine is not really all that surprising. Almost all medicinal plants are poisonous. It’s just a matter of getting the dosage right. What is a little more surprising is that the Tamboti is highly sought after for its wood. So much so that in some countries it is a protected species. The rich, dark, sweetly scented wood is used to make walking sticks and luxury furniture.

Which sounds reasonable. It’s not. Working with Tamboti is no simple task. When you cut into the wood, you are turning a solid chunk of toxic material into fine, floating sawdust. You can breathe it in and get sick. It can get in your eyes and blind you. It can land on your skin and bring you up in a painful rash. To work with it you need to cover yourself up like Michael Jackson using a public toilet. I’m sure it’s all worth it, though. There’s nothing like a good walking stick, and you can even use it as a cane should you have gone blind.

It is vaguely attractive though. Totally worth it.

It is vaguely attractive though. Totally worth it.

There is one thing about Tamboti wood that makes it stand out. It’s an insect repellent. If you use it to build your house and make your furniture, your house will be free from flying pests. People make coat hangers from it to keep moths away from their clothes. Which is definitely something that I would risk blindness for.

Its poison doesn’t save the Tamboti from animals, either. Most of the trees down in the Lowveld have a mortal enemy. These;

Who, me?

Who, me?

And they really are a problem. They do this;

Sorry.

Sorry.

Luckily, the Tamboti is safe from the attention of the Elephants. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own problems. They, too, have a mortal enemy. These;

Who, me?

Who, me?

Porcupines are crazy about Tamboti bark, to the extent that you suspect it must have some sort of narcotic effect on them. You may think that a porcupine is too small to damage something as big as a tree, but their size is actually the problem. The only bark they can reach is the bottom few inches. And they do this;

Sorry.

Sorry.

The bark is the part of the tree that carries all its nutrients. Ringbark a tree and it will die. And ringbarking Tambotis is what porcupines do. A 10 kg rat with fancy hairdo can kill a 20m tall tree in a night. That’s one of the odd things about the Tamboti. Its poison doesn’t seem to be a particularly good defence. Birds eat the fruit. Kudus and other buck eat the leaves, and when people in Tamboti areas hunt them, they have to be very careful to keep the stomach contents away from the meat. Black rhinos actively seek them out, and eat the branches as well as the leaves.

So there you have it. There is a tree growing down in the Lowveld that is so poisonous that it was used to poison arrows, and almost everything around it, including us, has chosen to ignore its efforts and give it a hard time anyway.

Oh, I almost forgot those jumping seeds. They really do jump around, like popcorn. Look;

If you’ve ever been to Mexico, you probably already know why they do that, since the Tambotis have a cousin there that does the same thing. The Tamboti has small, hard, lobed fruits. As they dry out once they ripen, they set up an internal tension which breaks with an audible pop, scattering the seeds beneath the tree. Where some of the seeds proceed to hop around like fleas on a dirty dog blanket.

The Tamboti is the host plant of a small grey moth that lays its eggs in the fruits. The eggs hatch, and each larva sets up home in a parasitized seed. When they fall to the ground, they escape the heat of the sun by flicking their tails, causing the seeds to shoot up into the air, hopefully towards a shadier spot.

It’s a charming little trick, and children love it. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to keep them around. What does a bout or two of stomach wrenching nausea and possible death matter when you can sit in the shade and watch a carpet of seeds spring to life and dance into the shadows.

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36 thoughts on “33. The Poison tree.

  1. marc says:

    I been working with the stuff and I live in zululand where there is heaps of tamboti…everything is 100% fact. What I want to know is can a carving board be made and used with tamboti. Please reply busy cuttig end grain blocks to make butcher block. Doing some research and you seem to be the answer. Cheers marc

  2. marc says:

    David I am thinking of making a cheese board out of tamboti. And also a butcher block using the ed grain up. Hoping to have the yellow square with the dark ring iside and lamenate a whole bunch together to make the block. Reading your article I now wider weather this is a good idea or not.
    Is it going to be ok or not or how do I find it if you not 100% sure.
    Marc

    • 23thorns says:

      I have no idea! I have seen serving platters and bowls caved from Tamboti, but they seem to be mostly decorative. The wood is popular, so the info must be out there somewhere.

  3. Eileen says:

    I can’t decide if you live in the most interesting place in the world or you are just able to make everything interesting and funny.
    I’m thinking it’s the later. Keep on keeping on please.

  4. Lovely nostalgia binge – thank you
    David
    PS thanks for the visit to http://ja2da.com

    • Sorry to reply to myself but I meant to tell you about the time I came round a corner (dirt road) in a Renault 4 – and slammed on the brakes as there was a huge pile of dung right in the way – Then I looked up a little and straight into the eyes of the depositor. Luckily he/she wasn’t upset and I was able to reverse back to a place I could turn round in, while he/she stood there flapping his/her ears at me. – Not something you ever forget.
      David

  5. […] also wrote about a tree. Yeehah! I’m extreme like that! I can practically hear everyone under the age of 30 stampeding […]

  6. Johna Till Johnson says:

    Fantastic post. You more than exceeded you goal of “holding your attention while writing about a tree”! Audacious goal, flawless execution! Loved it.

  7. Shirley Cooksley says:

    Your best!! Its being passed around the room and drawing the appropriate laughter!

  8. als24 says:

    It’s happened to all of us….sitting in the bushveld. Yeah, because I totally knew what a bushveld was before reading this, much less have been sitting in one. Great post! Made my giggle a little bit 🙂 Definitely got a new follower in me! Thank you for liking my post or else I never would have found your blog! xx

    Allie @ callmesassafras.wordpress.com

  9. Loved that! Like dalo2013, I only planned to browse as you had been kind enough to read and like one of my posts. I was hooked! Glad we didn’t meet any of these when we were in SA! 🙂

  10. narf77 says:

    I loved this post! I am afraid my natural cynicism has to be tinged with some childlike exuberance because Euphorbias are some of my favourite plants of all. I like my plants to be unusual, spiky, urticarious (a great word…look it up Mr 23Thorns 😉 ) AND poisonous. I have to come to the defence of my Euphorbiaceae friends Mr 23Thorns. That self-same white poisonous sap that can melt your skin is being studied by scientists in Australia because for years, Aussies have been rubbing the sap of their tiny weed cousins onto skin cancers. We Aussies are prone to skin cancers. We have white pasty skin and our sun wasn’t designed for white pasty skin (much like yours). Here in Tassie we have it even worse. That dirty great hole in the ozone layer (let’s just call it the world’s dumping ground for Ultra-violet light and be done with it…) that conveniently encompasses Tasmania means that we pasty skinned whities with blue eyes are prone to skin cancers. The reason scientists are sitting up and paying attention to weeds is that this violent sap that can take the skin off a drum at 10 paces actually seems to work against skin cancer. Swings and roundabouts…you can kill a duck with it and you can burn off a skin cancer…swings and roundabouts…
    I love how you allowed that poor man to suffer the indignity of being preserved for all posterity in your blog post and you gave him the double indignity of not cropping out his plumbers crack. Kudos to you Mr 23Thorns ;). I would like to know why we don’t have euphorbias littering our Aussie countryside? We have your Oleanders all over the place and they are very similar. I guess we only import your poisonous shrubs if they disguise themselves with pretty flowers…we Aussies love a challenge. Cheers for this post by the way. You have indeed satisfied me regarding horticulture on the Lowveldt and have garnered my attention for at least the next 10 or so posts. You can post about whatever you like for 10 whole posts and my attention will be focussed. After that, I am going to need another horticultural fix or I can’t promise to be a good girl.

  11. sisteranan says:

    Thank you, i loved this. You aren’t just making it all up tho, are you? *tries to look stern, fails completely*

    I know what you mean about the medicinal/poisonous attributes – one year my kids and i were learning about the middle ages through traditional gardens – my girl planted a monk’s pharmacy garden, and my boy (who was studying alchemy) planted a poison garden… they were really plucked off when they realized they’d both planted the same thing…

    • 23thorns says:

      It’s all gospel. Or that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
      There is huge research into medicinal plants here, and the most promising ones are the ones with the most unpleasant sounding local names, like “sore-eye”, and “poison ball”.

  12. Spy Garden says:

    “There’s nothing like a good walking stick” totally true! haha Many men would risk blindness/death for some “vaguely attractive” wood hahahaha ha Have you ever read Carl Hiassen or Dave Barry? They are two of my favorite authors, and you are right up there with them; yours is one of the very few blogs I actually read regularly. I mean, I look at pictures of a bunch of garden-y blogs but actually take the time to read your posts, always so funny! I showed the “Spy” the video of the jumping seeds, he liked that!

  13. bobbii says:

    When you visit Arizona don’t bring any of those seeds! Ok

  14. Jocelyn Hers says:

    We have a wisteria whose seed pods dry out, twist, and explode. Grown men have been known to leap up in horror thinking we are under attack, so your Tamboti sounds more plausible & definitely more entertaining.

  15. dalo2013 says:

    Great writing…I had planned to just browse but humor kept me going…and the best part is I learned some pretty neat things.

  16. zen city says:

    that was hysterical!
    😉

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