Where Words Take Us – Miombo

Young pinkish red leaves of the msasa tree - Brachystegia spiciformis
The young leaves of the msasa (Brachystegia spiciformis)

Our word for this week is Miombo. It’s the Swahili word for Brachystegia, a genus of trees from the legume family, known for their characteristic pods. Throughout the springtime, they make loud popping noises as they explode to scatter their seeds*. Miombo is also the name of the open woodlands dominated by these and related trees.

Miombo woodland

The Woodland is characterised by the Miombo trees, particularly msasa (Brachystegia spiciformis), mufuti (Brachystegia boehmii) and munondo (Julbernardia globiflora)*. Although sparse, they stand tall and proud, deeply rooted in the African soil and shooting their long branches up to 20 metres high, providing a shady habitat for about 8500 plant species and all of Simba’s kingdom – also those who didn’t get to be famous! This, the largest biome of southern-central Africa stretches across the African savannah from Angola in the west to Mozambique and Tanzania in the east – like a beautiful green sash.

The autumn-spring, or is it spring-autumn?

Dark, wine-red young leaves of the msasa tree
Young msasa leaves

The Miombo has a truly special way in which to herald the start of the rainy season. It might even trick the European traveller into believing they have landed in autumn*. The trees produce a flush of new leaves, ranging from a dark wine to an almost pinkish colour. The red pigment protects the underlying chlorophyll of the young leaves whose cell membranes are still thin and soft, and easily be damaged by the sun*.

The green sash of the Miombo woodlands on the map of Africa
The green sash of the Miombo on the map of Africa

Under threat

Is it a surprise, though, that like elsewhere on the planet, human beings are systematically destroying the Miombo. Millions of people depend on the woodlands for anything between 42 and 92% of their income. During the dry winter months particularly, the easiest, and sometimes the only way to put food on the table is to chop down trees and sell the fire wood. The bottom line is this: No more woodlands, no more Lion Kingdom.

So what have animals and plants in Africa to do with me might well be your question if you live on another continent. Well, we all know about greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change. Forests and woodlands are sinks and reservoirs which naturally absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere – the atmosphere of the whole world – which is why we should be concerned for the forests and woodlands in all parts of the world.

Just look at the splashes of colour all over the page. Don’t you think it’s worth making an effort to clean up our act? Heck, if only for the sake of the next Lion King movie, if you will?

Miombo Landscape with red spring leaves on the slope of a koppie in Miombo Woodlands
The glory of the crimson carnival in Miombo Woodlands

You may notice that this week’s word is not mine but ours. That is because Miombo was kindly contributed by SAFREA member Patricia McCracken, the editor of Veld & Flora, who shared this lovely article for my October Spring Series:

Moll, E & Wursten, B, 2020, ‘Spring Fever’, Veld & Flora, vol. 106, no. 3,  Sept. 2020, pp. 8–11.

I would also like to thank the authors and photographers for their permission to reference the article and use their images, which illustrate the splendour of the Miombo better than a thousand words could.

Veld & Flora is the magazine for members of the Botanical Society of South Africa. The Botanical Society (www.botanicalsociety.org.za) helps its 14 000 members to know, grow, protect and enjoy SA’s indigenous plants.

Finally, I have to thank my editor, Safrea member Arja Salafranca, who taught me the how of extracting the academics from academic writing in order to ‘ground the piece, make it colourful and more touchable’.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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