The Shepherd’s Tree (Boscia albitrunca) stands sentinel across the valleys and plains of Namibia. Standing not-so-tall yet proud on the savanna bush- and grasslands, aside mountainscapes or on the banks of dry rivers across the land, it is one of the most easily recognisable trees in Namibia, clearly identifiable by even the most novice of flora-natics. Here are Travel News Namibia’s five reasons why this rockstar of the Namibian biosphere is one of the coolest trees out there:
Boscia albitrunca (which when translated from Latin reads white-trunked bush/tree), has many names here in Namibia. The English-speaking populace knows it as the Shepherd’s Tree. It has for centuries been a shaded shelter of choice for shepherds guarding their sheep or goats in the hot sun. In Afrikaans it is known as the Witgat. Wit means white in this southern African language, and the use of gat may be derived from the word gaat, which is what coffee was called in Afrikaans in the olden days (check the next point on our countdown to see why that’s relevant!).
Known locally as the ‘tree of life’, because humans and animals alike can find sustenance from it, a more diverse tree is hard to find on the Namibian savanna. Its uses vary from fodder for both livestock and wildlife from its evergreen leaves, to a nourishing supplement for humans. The roots, when dried, roasted and ground act as a substitute for coffee (see #1) or can be pounded into a white meal to make porridge. The trunks are used to catch rainwater by Bushmen and even the berry-like flower buds are edible. A concoction made from the leaves is used to help treat eye inflammation in cattle and also haemorrhoids for humans (ouch)… And above all that, it’s also a really great supplier of shade when the sun is bearing down.
So one thing that you should be able to deduce from the mention that this amazing tree can be found nearly everywhere in this desert country is that it is durable. Able to withstand low rainfall conditions and the hot arid environment of the Namib Desert and the rocky hinterlands of the Kunene Region, the Shepherd’s Tree is the ultimate survivor. Its small leaves help with water retention and its rugged bark and sturdy trunk protect it against the elements.
A curious phenomena discovered in the Kunene Region is that of the Shepherd’s Tree’s epic fight for survival against the giraffe population of the region. These tall creatures can easily feed on the evergreen foliage provided by the hardy Shepherd’s Tree and has thus become a favourite food source for them in the region. The trees, with no way of defending themselves, have started to slowly but surely adapt to the looming threat of tall beasts by growing only a small tuft of leaves at the very top of their tallest branches, trying to make themselves seem harder to reach and less appealing to the long-necked fiends. Their method is far from foolproof though as many still perish, unable to survive with so few leaves. So, although the giraffe is a favourite amongst animal lovers, it is no friend to the Shepherd’s Tree.
Old Shep isn’t alone in the Boscia family. In fact it has 6 close relatives, one of which is also widely spread and quite common in Namibia. Boscia foetida, or the Smelly Shepherd’s Tree, is the weird, uglier and stinkier cousin. More shrub-like in appearance, the flowers and freshly cut wood of the Smelly Shepherd has an unpleasant odour, as the name implies. With little to no uses, this black sheep of the Boscia clan can’t even promise you a nice place to rest in the heat, as this rhino can attest…
A common sighting you are likely to experience is the close correlation in positioning between Shepherd’s Trees and termite mounds. Not unlike the Shepherd’s Tree itself, large termite mounds protrude from the earth in bushlands and savanna across the country. Termites have found a haven in the shade of Shepherd’s Trees and often use them as the starting point or anchor for their high-rise abodes. You’ll often spot a Shepherd’s Tree with a termite mound right underneath it, beside it, or sometimes even already dwarfing it. Termites even build structures on the limbs and branches of the tree. Sometimes hosting these eager guests gets a bit too much for the tree, but most often they find a harmonious symbiotic balance to their existence and live happily ever after…
Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa, Braam & Piet van Wyk, Struik Publishers
Trees of Southern Africa, Keith Coates Palgrave, Struik Publishers
Benut ons Inheemse Bome, Fanie & Julye-Ann Venter, Briza Publications
Learn more about Namibia’s tree here.