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Every Tree Tells a Story: the Kigelia

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

Trees are probably one of the most underrated things out there. Over the past decade, the scientific understanding of what exactly trees are capable of has revealed some of the most incredible of behaviours – from talking to one another, to helping each other out in times of hardship, and warning one another of upcoming threats. The trees of the Okavango are no exception. You might be surprised to learn that the Delta is actually an extremely nutrient-scarce environment (it is in a desert after all), so much so that a whole host of plant species have evolved carnivorous mechanisms to gobble up their prey and absorb nutrients in a novel way. As a result of this nutrient scarcity, there are only a few hardy species of trees that are able to dominate the Okavango skyline. This blog series is dedicated to the very best of them.

A series of a giraffe feasting on a sausage fruit and its leaves.

Right now, across the Okavango, bright red flowers carpet the desert floor. It’s the driest and hottest part of the year, and nearly every single tree has lost its leaves. That is, everyone except the sausage tree. A few weeks ago, as we sat eating our lunch out in the bush, there was suddenly a huge sound like a crashing wave. We looked towards the source and saw a sausage tree shedding its leaves. Within seconds, it was bald. Within a matter of days, that entire tree was covered, once again, in a new blanket of vibrant, poison-green leaves. During these hot months, amongst all the other bald trees, this is the only shade around and, as an added sweet-treat, they bloom an abundance of gorgeous maroon flowers that hang from vine-like stems and provide a welcome snack during such barren times.

The delightful and delicious kigelia blossoms.

As the Kigelia's flowers blossom, a feeding frenzy ensues. Those who can fly come first: mosquitoes, bees, bugs, bats, bulbuls, drongos, and every other pollinator under the sun is deliriously attracted to the scent of the sweet nectar. The climbers are next. Baboons and vervets lift the sticky flowers to their lips and give the trail of sweetness an enormous lick, before promptly moving on to the next flower. Finally, the herbivores feast below. Such is this delicious, shaded, oblivion that they seem to forget their surroundings. In the canopy above, lurking leopards lie in wait. Check out our Nat Geo documentary ‘The Flood’ to find out what happens next!

As oblivious impala graze below, leopards lurk above, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

As the pollinators do their job, the flowers fall and are quickly replaced by enormous fruits. Over the next few months, these grow into huge, green, pendulous, (you-guessed-it) sausages that dangle down from the branches. If you’ve ever had one of these narrowly come crashing down alongside you, you’ll know just how densely packed the fruits are with goodies. Let’s just say that our camera operators quickly learn to never risk sleeping under a fruiting sausage tree! It's a testament to the tree's strength they're even able to bear such heavy fruits. But they aren’t always a nuisance.

A leopard falls asleep in the fork of a sausage-laden kigelia.

According to our Head of Production, Andy Crawford, these sausages make a fantastic set of 100% organic, compostable weights for some bush-friendly exercises, and for the Okavango’s residents, they’re a delicious treat (check out giraffes feeding on them for some comedy gold). By gobbling up the seeds these oblivious animals fulfill the Kigelia’s most important task of all: to breed more. As they spread and grow, so too do the benefits they provide. Their trunks are the perfect hidey-hole for nesting birds and squirrels, their canopy the best shade of the bush, and their fruits a vital source of nutrients for all of the Okavango's residents.

Blog and images by Hannah Gormley.


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