T is for tree, but trees don’t drink tea, not even tea trees drink tea and none of them wear tree shirts.
The first tree I ever planted, was a red bottlebrush, the first tree I climbed was an uncomfortable coral tree (lucky beans!). Both of those trees are dear to my heart, but neither is my favourite.
I have young trees in my garden – frangipani, guava, milkwood, fever tree. The fever tree is the important one, I planted it for my mother. Acacia xanthophloea, Fever tree (English), Koorsboom (Afrikaans), mooka-kwena (Northern Sotho), umHlosinga (Zulu), nkelenga (Tsonga), munzhelenga (Venda) … it has a ton more names too, because it occurs from the southern bit of SA, right up to Kenya, in East Africa. Boran (Hwacho dima); Kamba (Kimweya, Musewa, Mwea, Mweya); Kikuyu (Murera); Kipsigis (Ochmnyaliliet); Luo (Kuth ataro); Maasai (Olerai); Marakwet (Reno); Meru (Murera); Taveta (Mwelela). It occurs in South America and Australia too.
My particular corner of the coast is not kind to them; they like sandy soil (check), but they’re also fond of a high water table, which we certainly don’t have (deep boreholes instead). The wind here batters them into small and stunted shapes too. So my mother’s is in the most sheltered possible bit of my garden, tied to a post to keep it upright, with a striped sock. It is very lovingly tended indeed, because of course it is a very important tree. Sapling. I’m always shocked when I go further inland and see tall and flourishing trees, trees here are so … wizened. Brave though.
Legend has it that the bark of the fever tree was first used by the Spanish in the early 1630s when it was given to the Countess of Chinchon, who had contracted malaria (known colloquially as the ‘fever’) whilst living in Peru. The Countess recovered and the healing properties of the tree were discovered. |source|
All important things have stories and fever trees are no exception. *Jeremy Clarkson voice* Some say that the bark cured malaria, but that the first whites in SA, not knowing the connection between mosquitoes and water, blamed fever trees for malaria. The indigenous people were right (naturally) and the extract from the bark is called … quinine. Not only did it provide the first prophylactic for malaria, it also provided generations of Brits with that archetypal tipple, the G&T.
However, the healing power of this remarkable tree only became world renowned in the 1820’s when officers of the British Army in India, in an attempt to ward off malaria, mixed quinine (the extract from the bark of the fever-tree) with sugar and water, creating the first Indian Tonic Water.
It was made more palatable when they added a little expedient of gin to the mixture. The original gin and tonic was thus born, and soon became the archetypal drink of the British Empire, the origins of which were firmly planted in the fever tree.
I was told (but i can’t find any evidence that it really exists) that Swazi myth says that if you sit with your back against a fever tree, it will take all of your grief away. Fever trees are an odd colour, for trees (the bark is a sort of yellow-green subdued acid colour; rubbing it reveals a brighter green – is there such a thing as pale lime green?), and the bark makes a kind of dust. I’ve leaned against a fever tree or two in my time, or I content myself with putting my hand flat on its trunk for a little while.
He went from Graham’s Town to Kimberley, and from Kimberley to Khama’s Country, and from Khama’s Country he went east by north, eating melons all the time, till at last he came to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, precisely as Kolokolo Bird had said. (Rudyard Kipling – The Elephant’s Child, Just So Stories)
My trees were nowhere near the Limpopo River, their beat was the Pongola. I’d seen lots before, but I really came to know and love fever trees at Nyamithi Pan, in a game reserve called Ndumo. You don’t walk close to it, because crocodiles and other potentially gruesome deaths. There are fever trees everywhere, in sunlight, in shade, near water and not – it’s a sort of resort for them, methinks. So I fell in love, hard, and they became a sort of totem for me. I had plenty of grief for them to suck and these days, even more. I’ll probably never return to Nyamithi Pan, for various reasons, it’d just hurt way, way too much.
My family tree is almost bare, which doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things, but it does make things lonesome. And so the fever tree has become a different sort of family tree, my own slender sapling. My thumb and forefinger can circle it’s trunk easily, but it’s tenacious and it’s leaves and thorns are beautiful. It’s all come full circle, I suppose. I’ve been loving, photographing and leaning against fever trees for years and now, when the grief is at its biggest and most intense, there is one growing carefully in my garden, to look after me and my ghosts.
Treehugger? Moi? Guess so. Emotions and sentiment aside, they’re pretty useful to have on our planet.
Here is some fever tree wallpaper, if you fancy it.
In case you thought I’d forgotten the tree saturated JRR Tolkien …
I am at home among trees, by root or bough. (Legolas)
Essay – Tolkien’s Trees
Tolkien’s Tree – a giant falls
The Two Trees of Valinor – Telperion and Laurelin, the Silver Tree and the Gold that brought light to the Land of the Valar in ancient times.
White Tree of Gondor – stood as a symbol of Gondor in the Court of the Fountain in Minas Tirith. The White Tree also appears as a motif upon Gondor’s flag.
Leaf by Niggle (short story by JRR Tolkien) download epub, pdf
LoTR Family Tree Project – visualising Tolkien’s works on the web.