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ZIMBABWE has sat aside the first Saturday of every December as the National Tree Planting Day (NTPD).
This day, to be marked this week on Saturday, is celebrated to enlighten the nation on the importance of forests and to mitigate the effects of climate change by motivating the nation to plant and conserve trees.
The theme of this year's national tree planting day is: "Trees and Forests for Ecosystem Restoration and Improved Livelihoods."
Zimbabwe has more than 1 200 known indigenous tree species.
As part of the NTPD commemorations, one is designated Tree of The Year and promoted for planting nationwide. In choosing this tree, we consider that it is indigenous to Zimbabwe, has important food and/or medicinal properties, and has the potential for social-economic enhancement. In addition, some trees are chosen because they are potentially subject to extinction, and whose planting and conservation can enhance the environment and ecosystem integrity. Monkey bread or camel's foot is an important tree and has been declared as Zimbabwe's tree of the year for 2021.
It is also known as ihabahaba or mutukutu, or piliostigma thonningii.
It is common in deciduous woodlands and wooded grasslands. The tree is widely distributed in Zimbabwe and is well adapted to the semi-arid and arid areas.
The tree grows up to 10 metres tall with a rounded crown and a short, but crooked trunk. The flower petals are white and thick while the seed pods are covered in rust-coloured hairs. The fruit that ripens between March and June is hairy, hard, and contains flattish pods that are rusty brown. The woody and twisted fruit often splits when fully ripened, releasing seeds into the ground.
The tree is multi-purpose and highly utilised in local communities for several purposes to sustain their livelihoods such as ecological services, food, timber, agro-forestry, fodder and medicines.
Piliostigma thonningii has the potential to contribute significantly to household food security by supplementing seasonal food shortages and combating hidden hunger caused by malnutrition.
The fruit pulp that surrounds the seeds may be eaten raw and has a sweet-sour flavour.
Nutritionally, the fruit is a rich source of proteins, organic acids, vitamins, fibre, essential oils, starch and calcium oxalates.
Its nutritional content is relatively high as compared with common indigenous fruits like baobab and marula. The fruit is also used in traditional food blends for infants and adults to enhance their diets, which consists mostly of carbohydrate-rich foods. The dry fruit is pounded into a powder that is added to porridge, drinks or beer.
This is believed to improve health through enhanced blood circulation, prevention of diabetes, and reducing obesity, cancer, and chances of being affected by heart diseases.
Salt is also made by burning mature fruits.
Piliostigma thonningii is used as a medicinal plant to treat a variety of illnesses. The decoction of the leaves and bark are used to treat fever, toothache, wound healing, dysentery, diarrhoea, sore throat, cough, chest complaint, snake bites, hookworm, skin infections, stomach ache, and chronic ulcers. The roots are used to treat prolonged menstruation, haemorrhage, miscarriages, body pain, and STDs.
The flowers are substituted for tobacco, and the roots are used to increase the strength of the tobacco.
In addition to being used in food, dried flowers are also drunk or smoked like tobacco for cough relief. Scrapings of the fruit are applied as a dressing on wounds.
Foliage from this tree increases livestock productivity and survival because the tree produces nutrient-rich fodder.
The leaves, pods, and seeds are nutritious and are copiously browsed by cattle, goats, sheep and antelopes.
During the dry season, the tree is particularly important because grazing resources are limited.
Small branches are cut and used as nutrition supplements in bush meal stockfeed.
Bush meal is an emergency and survival stockfeed produced by milling trees and their products into useful fibres that animals feed on.
Piliostigma thonningii (ihabahaba, mutukutu) tree
Piliostigma thonningii is an important agroforestry tree that improves agricultural productivity, helping maintain household food security by enhancing agricultural productivity.
The nitrogen-rich leaf litter improves the soil structure, soil fertility and permeability while the retained leaves in the dry season provide shade to conserve the available soil moisture by reducing the evapotranspiration under the tree.
Additionally, this tree fixes nitrogen into the soil and when incorporated with crop production, helps to supply the plants with vital nutrients that cannot be obtained from the air.
Plants under piliostigma thonningii remain green for a longer period in the dry season providing grazing material for both wild and domestic animals.
The deep rooting nature of the tree is useful in soil protection initiatives and can be incorporated on croplands along contour ridges.
The wood is suitable for poles, firewood, carpentry, construction, making household utensils, and farm implements.
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The bark is used to make strings, ropes, and clothes. It is used in live fences around fields and as live support for vines of weaker plants.
Mutukutu/Ihabahaba tree pods ready for milling to produce stock feed. This tree is recommended for conservation and planting in dry land areas because it produces a lot of nectar and pollen that honeybees love and helps increase honey production. Humans, climate change and the environment pose a combined challenge to the survival of piliostigma thonningii.
Agricultural expansion, firewood collection, overgrazing, veld fires and over harvesting for household material are some of the main threats.
Subsequently, the numbers and distribution of piliostigma thonningii are rapidly diminishing, along with its benefit to the people.
Therefore, it is everyone's responsibility to preserve this very important tree and plant more of it.
To reverse the threat of its extinction and restore, everyone can plant at least one piliostigma thonningii by the end of the year. -- Bulawayo Bureau.
Fortunes Matutu is a forester with the Forestry Commission and has a special interest in social forestry.
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