The Shepherd’s Tree, also known as Boscia albitrunca, is a common sight in southern Africa. This tree is famous for its ripe fruit, which can be used as a coffee substitute due to its caffeine-like properties. The tree’s green fruits have a unique white flesh inside, and the tree itself has a noticeable midrib.
In Cape Town, it’s often called the Cape Starling tree because the Cape Starling bird loves it. But the tree isn’t just a pretty sight or a coffee substitute. It’s also used in traditional medicine, particularly for treating eye infections.
The Tree’s History
The Shepherd’s Tree also known as Boscia albitrunca has been a part of southern Africa’s landscape and culture for centuries. Its ripe fruit was traditionally used as a coffee substitute, and its white flesh was believed to help with eye infections. This tree has been a symbol of African cultural and natural heritage for a long time.
This tree, often referred to as the “Tree of Life,” has been an essential resource for local communities, as both humans and animals rely on it for food, shelter, and other uses.
The Shepherd Tree Name and Origin
The name “Boscia” is a tribute to Louis Augustin Guillaume Bosc, a French botanist from the early 19th century. The species name “albitrunca” refers to the tree’s white flesh that’s revealed when the bark is cut or damaged.
The tree’s name has historical significance because African shepherds used it as a coffee substitute for centuries. The tree’s ripe fruits were harvested and roasted to create a beverage that tasted like coffee.
Today, the tree is valued for more than just its coffee-like properties. Its wood is used for making household utensils, and its leaves are believed to have medicinal properties.
Cultural Significance and Traditional Uses
The Shepherd’s Tree has a lot of traditional uses and cultural significance in southern Africa. Its ripe fruits are roasted to make a coffee substitute, a practice that has been around for a long time. The tree’s leaves are also used to treat eye infections in cattle.
The tree’s fruits are also used in traditional dishes, and its flower buds are used as caper substitutes in pickles. The tree also holds spiritual beliefs. For example, it’s believed that if the tree’s fruits wither prematurely, it will negatively affect the harvest of millet crops. The tree’s wood is also used for making household utensils.
Where You Can Find Boscia albitrunca
The Shepherd’s Tree is mainly found in southern Africa, particularly in areas with low rainfall. It’s a resilient tree that can survive in harsh climates. In South Africa, it’s common in the North West, Northern Cape, and parts of the Free State provinces. It’s also found extensively in other southern African countries like Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.
You will very often come across this evergreen tree during your safari through the Namib Naukluft Park.
Growth Behavior and Morphology
The Shepherd’s Tree can grow up to 6 meters tall and has a sprawling crown that provides shade in hot climates. It’s a resilient plant that can withstand drought conditions and is adapted to the harsh African savannah climate. The tree’s white flesh has been traditionally used to treat eye infections.
Flowers and Fruits
Boscia albitrunca has beautiful, sweet-scented, star-shaped flowers and unique fruits. The flowers contain both male and female reproductive parts. The tree’s fruits are round and about the size of a cherry. They’re green when unripe and turn yellow or orange when they ripen. The fruit’s flesh is fleshy and soft, with a hard stone in the center.
The Shepherd’s Tree’s leaves are evergreen, leathery, and hairless. They develop in groups of 2-4 on slight spur branches. The leaves have a distinct midrib, which is the prominent central vein that runs from the base to the tip of the leaf.
The bark of the Shepherd Tree is pale grey to light brown and has a textured surface. It has vertical strips that range in color from dark to pale yellow. The bark’s texture is relatively smooth, but it can be slightly rough and coarse in some cases.
If you happen to come across a decent sized specimen during the day, you will be able to sample its shade during a lunch stop.