Sunday, 26 April 2020

Bloody Bean Trees - Part 2: Africa

I have been distracted by a large project that I put aside in 2014 and am working on that for the next few months. Hopefully I will return to the Dragon's Blood series, tidy these three up and complete the ones about the famous Dragon's Blood trees.

Baphia nitida seedpod or legume.
Ogooué-Maritime Province, Gabon
© David J Harris African Plants, A Photo Guide
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

African Caesalpinioideae
African Faboideae
Baphia nitida
Pterocarpus angolensis
Pterocarpus erinaceus
Pterocarpus rotundifolius
Pterocarpus soyauxii
Pterocarpus tinctorius
An irrelevant diversion about the Phoenix

African Caesalpinioideae

 Erythrophleum suaveolens seedpods.
Kolwezi, Lualaba Province, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Pictures: © Warren McCleland. African Plants, A Photo Guide 
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.  

The genus Erythrophleum gets its name from the ancient Greek ἐρυθρός (erythros - red) and φλέω (phleo - abundance). The only Chinese species is Erythrophleum fordii (格木 - gé mù), whose famous wood is dark brown, hard and bright and used for ship building and house pillars. Erythrophleum suaveolens (previously Erythrophleum guineense) was said in one of the first descriptions (in 1832) to provide a red juice when cut. This was the origin of the name of the genus.

This red juice was used as an ordeal poison in West Africa. Erythrophleum suaveolens was the ordeal poison most widely used in Africa. It has many local names including cassa, gregre tree, moavi, sassy bark and tali. The commonest crimes for judgement by ordeal were witchcraft, theft and adultery. Innocent drinkers were thought to vomit before the poison could absorb sufficiently to kill them. Nobody has tested the accuracy of this method of testing guilt. Later descriptions have the red drink being made from pounded bark steeped in water rather than a sap or latex from cuts. The poison drink was often publicly tested on dogs before the ordeal ritual, to show that it was a potently lethal poison. Presumably they only used guilty dogs.

Sometimes whole societies would submit to the ordeal in order to cleanse their people of evil witches and sorcerers. To survive the ordeal was a matter of great pride. Often one in four of those who took the ordeal would die.

Erythrophleum africanum bark was used
as a minor ordeal poison in East Africa.
Cuando Cubango, Angola.
Pictures: © Luis Catarino. African Plants, A Photo Guide 
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

The komanga (Erythrophleum couminga) is a related species that was used in Madagascar and the Seychelles as one of three common ordeal poisons. These were also often used when someone was accused of witchcraft.

The tanghin (Cerbera manghas, previously Tanghinia venenifera - in the Apocynaceae family) was used near the eastern coast of Madagascar. The ksopo (Pervillaea venenata, previously Menabea venenata - also in the Apocynaceae family, but the section that used to be the family Asclepiadaceae) was used in the west and northwest of Madagascar. Both of these plants contain compounds similar to digitalin from foxgloves. They also kill by affecting the heart.

Erythrophleum couminga was not just local to one region, it was used as an ordeal poison throughout Madagascar and the Seychelles. The komanga was regarded as the most powerful of the three. Contact with the smell of the flowers, rain washed from the leaves and the smoke from burning the plant were all credited with killing. Cassaine, coumingine and erythrophleine are all nitrogen-containing toxic alkaloids that have been isolated from this tree. The toxins are very chemically distinct from the steroid toxins (containing no nitrogen) of the other two Madagascan ordeal poisons but they all have the same effect on the heart as digitalin.

Erythrophleum couminga.
Picture: Thanks to © on Flickr
The only photo I could find that was free to use.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


Vachellia haematoxylon (previously Acacia haematoxylon). Called grey camelthorn, rooi-ebbehout (red-ebonywood) or kha/kaa/kwa boom. In ancient Greek αἱματό- haemato- is bloody and -ξύλον -xylon is wood. Found in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. The leaves of this tree are the favourite food of camels in the Kalahari. However, the name probably comes from giraffes, which are called kameelperde in Afrikaans. For 200 years before we got the word giraffe, the English word was camelopard, from the ancient Greek meaning a camel-panther.

With the very closely-related camelthorn (Vachellia erioloba) they are essential for to the local ecosystem as they keep their leaves in the dry season. Vachellia erioloba is slightly bigger than Vachellia haematoxylon at up to 16 metres (52 feet) tall. Their roots may be over 60 metres (200 feet) long, going deep to find water. Seedlings seldom survive the dry season. Older trees tend to be of cohorts of similar ages and probably all started as seedlings in years with unusually high rainfall.

Vachellia haematoxylon in habitat.
Near the untarred road between
Keetmanshoop and Aroab, southern Namibia. 
Pictures: © Alex Dreyer African Plants, A Photo Guide 
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.  

In 1760 an illiterate farmer called Jacobus Coetsé Jansz went to what is now Namibia to hunt oliphants. He killed at least two and, as he had no idea what a giraffe was, he killed a couple of them as well. While there he saw large trees "the heart or innermost wood of which was of an unusually beautiful bright red colour". This may be Vachellia haematoxylon or one of the closely-related species. Powdered wood of Vachellia erioloba was used as a red pigment in face-painting.

The wood of Vachellia haematoxylon has been said to be of fine quality, suitable for making musical instruments. The purplish-red camelthorn wood is being sold in the UK as a barbecue fuel due to its dryness, burning time and density. Apparently the old, dried fallen branches are collected sustainably in South Africa. Many of the red-coloured woods are mentioned throughout history as excellent firewood, even when harvested from a humid, tropical swamp.

As it was available I bought a small bundle of camelthorn firewood. I now know that it is very hard, especially when sawing the branch lengthwise.

Camelthorn firewood, showing dark reddish-brown heartwood and pale sapwood.

Camelthorn heartwood, freshly cut and sanded.
The upper piece was cut through the branch, 
the lower piece along the branch, from the same part of the branch.
The rectangular piece is 2.7cm x 4.7cm (1 1/16 x 1 6/7 inches).

Vachellia erioloba has an association with ants, producing food for them and providing homes in swollen thorns that can be easily hollowed out. The ants help defend the tree from herbivores and pests. Many species of Vachellia are myrmecophytes (ant-plants) like the whistling thornVachellia erioloba is unusual among myrmecophytes as it may have up to four species of ants on one tree. Even one branch may have several species of ant.

Vachellia erioloba flowers and ordinary thorns.
Kgalagadi National Park, South Africa. Pictures: © Peter Zika
African Plants, A Photo Guide. Free use for
non-commercial scientific or educational purposes. 

Vachellia erioloba swollen thorns suitable for ant residence.
Kyffhäuser, Namibia. Pictures: © Alex Dreyer
African Plants, A Photo Guide. Free use for
non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

African Faboideae

Baphia nitida

Baphia nitida (called camwood in most English sources) was an African tree that was used for red dyes.  The deep claret-red heartwood was used by the Benyai of modern Zimbabwe to dye feet (see  below). The chiefs of the Ekonda (now in the Democratic Republic of Congo) wore hats called botolo that were dyed red with camwood powder mixed with oil for special occasions. The Kuba people, also in the DRC, mixed the powdered wood of either Baphia nitida or Pterocarpus soyauxii with palm oil. The resulting blocks were called bongotol and were highly-prized and given as prestigious funerary gifts.

The wood was also used medicinally against ringworm, stiff joints, sprains, rheumatic pains, constipation, skin and venereal diseases. The wood is very hard and was used to make pestles to grind rice.

There was much confusion about the identity of the various red woods exported from Africa, with redwood, camwood and barwood being used in the trade of many that were probably of several different species including Baphia nitida, Pterocarpus osun and Pterocarpus soyauxii.

Baphia nitida flower.
University of Winneba, Kumasa campus, Ghana. Pictures: © Hannes Öhm 
African Plants, A Photo Guide Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes. 


Dalbergia lemurica pods.
Photo: © D Du Puy from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Creative Commons Attribution CC BY?

Many Dalbergia species are exploited for their red wood in Africa, especially for sale as hóng mù  in China and Japan. For the details of that trade see the Bloody Bean Trees of Asia. Madagascar has a particular problem due to the extreme poverty of the people and the easy money that can be made by felling mature trees. The only way to prevent this deforestation in a fragile ecology is to improve the economy and reduce poverty. Preferably everywhere in the world.

There are dozens of species just on Madagascar including the Dalbergia lemurica shown in the photo above. This plant may have been named for the many lemurs of Madagascar. Though perhaps it was named for the hypothetical lost continent/land bridge of Lemuria. Lemuria was first proposed by a zoologist called Philip Sclater in 1864 to explain the similarities between the animals of India and Madagascar. This similarity is now known to be due to continental drift separating populations over millions of years. Lemuria is now best known as an off-brand Atlantis populated in the imagination of eccentrics by creepy super-races with psychic powers and by pulp authors with those super-races, near-Conans and near-Tarzans.

It annoys me when documentaries on plants spend the majority of the time on the lives of the animals around those plants instead of close-ups on the flowers and fruit and so on. However, I do see the appeal of the occasional animal portrait. Especially when it includes the only known representation of an aye-aye looking cute and goofy rather than monstrous and creepy.
Lithograph by Joseph Wolf from The Mammals of Madagascar by PL Sclater 
in The Quarterly Journal of Science in 1864

Pterocarpus angolensis

Pterocarpus angolensis winged and bristly seedpods. 
Picture: Angola © Elke Faust No indication of size of botanist.
African Plants, A Photo Guide.
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

Southern Africa had a bloodwood, Pterocarpus angolensis. The red sap was used as a dye and cosmetic. It is also regarded as a magical medicinal for blood-related problems.

The Kwanyama Ovambos of Namibia call the tree omuuva and use the wood to make their huge drums, called ongoma. It is also used with iron keys to make sansa, thumb pianos. They also sometimes use it to make mortars for food preparation and bellows for blacksmith's forges. Their most common cosmetic is the red heartwood of the root pounded to make olukula, then mixed with butter, fat or oil. The mixture would be stored in carved wooden boxes, hollowed out fruit or gourds. When wearing traditional dress the women would cover all their bare skin with this pigment. The dried, powdered leaves of a basil relative (Ocimum simile) were sometimes used to perfume the red pigment. The root is also used for dyeing baskets, clothing and leather.

Pterocarpus angolensis with red goo exuding.
Democratic Republic of Congo © Jos Stevens 
African Plants, A Photo Guide
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

Pterocarpus erinaceus

Western Africa had a bloodwood called Pterocarpus erinaceus. This was one of the woods traditionally used for the West African djembe drums, though not the most sought-after wood for them. In Sierra Leone the wood was used to make the xylophone-like balinga. See the entry for Coelocaryon in my article on miscellaneous families of bloody trees for a comment on single-note xylophones.The reddish-brown wood is similar to others in the genus but harder.

The dried, tannin-rich bloody sap was imported into Europe for use as a medicine and in tanning leather in the 18th and 19th centuries. A description in 1852 says that the Gambian kino differed from that produced in other parts of the world as it was " in small, angular, glittering, black granules, giving a beautiful brownish-red powder". The Gambian name kino was first used for this dried gum and was transferred to the products of many other trees in Asia, Australia and the Caribbean.

Pterocarpus erinaceus winged seedpods.
Latin erinaceus means "like a hedgehog".
Pictures: Burkina Faso © Stefan Porembski  No indication of size of botanist. 
African Plants, A Photo Guide Free use for
non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

Kino from Pterocarpus erinaceus collected
by the Livingstone expedition, 1858 -1863.
Photo: Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Creative Commons Attribution CC BY?

In Angola the "black-purple", "blood-red" or "red or atro-purpureous" resin which dropped in abundance from incisions made in the trunk was called Sangue do Drago (dragon's blood) by the Portuguese colonists. It was used by the locals for treating wounds. The wood was dark purple and heavy, strong and easily polished. It was frequently used for making war clubs.

Pterocarpus erinaceus flowers. Pictures: © Philippe Birnbaum
Route de Manantali, Mali. African Plants, A Photo Guide
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

Pterocarpus rotundifolius

Pterocarpus rotundifolius (= Pterocarpus melliferexudes a blood-red resin. Flowers frequented by swarms of bees and preferred as a site for beehives by the locals. Angolan name: mulumba.

In Mpumulanga, South Africa, a decoction of the roots is used for stomach problems in humans and fertility in cows.

Pterocarpus rotundifolius flowers. Pictures: © Günter Baumann
Lilongwe City, Malawi. African Plants, A Photo Guide
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

Pterocarpus soyauxii

Pterocarpus soyauxii was another bleeding African tree, known as padauk or padouk. The leaves are a popular green vegetable with 15-29% protein and 25-52% carbohydrate. Many parts are used medicinally for many different ailments, just as with its relatives.

The wood is apparently much sought after for xylophones both in modern manufacture and for traditional Africa instruments. The high pigment content of the wood, up to 13%, lowers the damping of vibrations, leading to a more sustained note.

Pterocarpus soyauxii showing the distinctive winged seedpods
that give the name to Pterocarpus from the ancient Greek for wing-fruit.
Congo © David J Harris African Plants, A Photo Guide
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes. 

Pterocarpus soyauxii Bleeding trunk, picture.
Congo © David J Harris African Plants, A Photo Guide
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes. 

Pterocarpus tinctorius

Pterocarpus tinctorius (Local name: tacula) was another wood used in Africa for staining human skin and dyeing leather.  The root powder was preferred as the dye was more concentrated. The root powder was used medicinally as a cure-all for a wide range of diseases. Also used to make magical charms. Newly-born children were painted all over with the dye. On festive occasions ladies would dye their feet with the red powder so they appeared to be wearing shoes. Flowers pleasantly fragrant.

Pterocarpus tinctorius winged seedpods.
Picture: Angola © Luis Catarino  African Plants, A Photo Guide
Free use for non-commercial scientific or educational purposes.

Post tenebras lux "After the darkness, light"
From the title page of The Quarterly Journal of Science 
that has the Joseph Wolf lithograph of Madagascan mammals, above.

An irrelevant diversion about the Phoenix

The ancient Greek word φοῖνιξ (phoinix) had several meanings including Phoenician people, the crimson/purple colour they were famous for producing from shellfish, the date-palm, a perfume made from date-palm leaves and the fabulous phoenix bird. There were also real or mythical people called Phoenix; an aged Greek hero at Troy, a brother of Europa, a man who accompanied Dionysos to India, a poet who composed a lament for the capture of Colophon and many place-names.

The first mention of the phoenix in Greek was in the tiny fragments we have of The Precepts of Chiron, which simply suggested that it outlived 972 aged men. The poem might have been composed by Hesiod, but we don't know.

In the fifth century BC, the priests at Heliopolis in Egypt told the Greek tourist Herodotus that the phoenix lived in Arabia. Every 500 years the eagle-sized sacred bird would die and, at the same time, give birth to a new phoenix. The new phoenix would then fly to the temple of the Sun at Heliopolis to bury its "father", cocooned in an egg-shaped casket of myrrh resin. Herodotus also said the phoenix was gold-feathered and red-winged in the pictures he was shown. I am not changing the colouring of that picture now, for artistic reasons, there would not be enough difference to distinguish it from the flames.

Ovid added a nest of spices in a palm tree in his Metamorphoses. The stories about the rebirth of the Phoenix from flames appear to have started much later.

The exact relationship to the benu (or bnw) bird of Egypt and how each myth affected the other is not known. Certainly the benu bird was the origin of the story of the phoenix of Herodotus but we don't know how much he understood of what he was told.

One of three benu birds pictured in the
Book of the Dead papyrus from the Tomb of Ani.
19th Dynasty, c. 1250 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

To the ancient Egyptians the benu was an avatar of the Sun god as creator. Self-created, standing on a small primordial island in a primordial sea/abyss, the benu brought light to darkness. The call of the benu set everything that is and shall be into motion and its breath brought life. This Creation myth was mentioned in the Pyramid Texts Utterance 600, from before 2000 BC.

The priests at Heliopolis believed their temple was built at the exact location of Creation. The benu rose in the East and may get its name from weben, meaning "rising" or "shining", or bn meaning "going round in circles" . Originally a yellow wagtail it later became a type of heron, perhaps a large species now extinct called Ardea bennuides from Oman. This was even bigger than the still-living Goliath heron.

Steatite heart-amulet bearing inlaid glass scene of Ay adoring benu-bird. 
Ardea bennuides was up to 2m (6 foot 6 inches) tall, so this might be realistic.
Late 18th Dynasty (before 1292 BC).

Could it be that the original benu bird has been forgotten? The hoopoe (Upupa epops or Upupa africana) is a very colorful bird, black, white and shades of orangey-pink with a spectacular crest, almost reminiscent of a sunrise. They were very well-known in ancient Egypt and frequently painted. The hoopoe was regarded as a solar bird and would await the tomb's owner in the eastern sky after their rebirth.

Hoopoes are well known for sunbathing, and dust and sand-bathing. They have also been observed "anting" where live ants are applied to the feathers, probably to discourage parasites. Many other birds have been observed doing this, including corvids like ravens, crows and magpies. One tame magpie would even cook the ants in its owner's pipe before applying them. Smoke bathing is often observed and has been seen in crows, ravens, jays and a wide range of unrelated birds from owls to gulls. Even using cigarettes. Some birds have deliberately started fires to bathe in the smoke.

Is it possible that hoopoes were observed smoke-bathing in a fire and became an enduring myth? It certainly has a nicer call than the heron.
African Hoopoe at Limpopo, South Africa.
CC-BY-2.0: Derek Keats, Johannesburg, South Africa

Other Egyptian sacred birds Herodotus described include the ibis. He recounted the Egyptian story that the ibis would protect Egypt from an invasion of winged serpents from Arabia every year. The winged serpents seem to have gone extinct, possibly due to progressive desertification of Arabia.

So, this aside was simply to explain my justification for using the little phoenix picture as a divider on this page - the phoenix visited Africa regularly, if not very often.