Chanate – Mopane




     Family: Fabaceae, or Leguminosae (Pea, bean or legume family).  After the Orchidaceae and the Asteraceae, the Fabaceae is the third largest Angiosperm (flowering plants) family with 700+ genera and close to 20 000 species.  Local Tree genera on this website include Acacia (Vauchellia, Senegalia), Albizia, Bauhinia, Bolusanthus, Burkea, Calpurnia, Colophospermum, Cordyla, Cyclopia, Dichrostachys, Erythrina, Erythrophleum, Faidherbia, Indigofera, Mundulea, Peltophorum, Philenoptera, Piliostigma, Schotia and Xanthocercis.  The Fabaceae are recognisable by their fruit and by their pinnately compound Leaves.  Leaves may also be simple and usually have stipules – some of which may be spinescent.  Leaflets are usually entire.  Flowers are bisexual and bracteate.  Regular flowers usually have 4-5 sepals and the same number of petals.  Irregular flowers have 4-5 sepals and 5 or less petals.  Stamens have anthers that have 2 pollen sacs and there are usually at least twice the number of stamens as petals – often 10.  The superior Ovary has one locule that may contain 1 or more ovules.  The Stigma and Style are simple.  The single carpel develops into the Fruit, which is usually a pod.  This pod dehisces on both sides and may break into segments.  Seeds vary.


Tree, Fruit and Leaves


     This spineless Tree is up to 22m high – but in South Africa it is usually much less (photo 232).  The very tall trees are known as cathedral trees.  In the RSA, they usually range between 3-18m high forming a “mopane scrub”.  Likewise, the Trunk is up to 1m wide but usually much smaller.  Mature Stems (main axis of the plant, the leaf and flower bearing as distinguished from the root-bearing axis) are rough, dark grey to blackish and fissured lengthways.  This is diagnostic (photo 218).  The Bark does flake in narrow strips and has a ropey appearance.  More than one stem may develop


     The flattened papery Fruit is an indehiscent Pod, which is up to 5cm long.  Small reddish resin glands are present and are visible with the aid of a hand lens.  Each pod contains a single Seed, which is orange or yellow when mature.  Each seed is flat, usually uniform (kidney-shaped), sticky and distinctively corrugated.  Seeds may germinate while still on the tree.


      The semi deciduous tree may be without Leaves for up to 5 months.  The hairless, coriaceous (leathery) leaves are oblique (slanted, unequal sided – photo 231) or ovate (egg shaped).  Crushed leaves smell of turpentine.  The Petiole (leaf stalk) is up to 4cm long (photo 220).  The Stipules (basal appendages of the petiole) are caducous (an organ or part, which is easily detached and shed early).  Between the 2 leaflet “wings” of the butterfly-like compound leaf, is a small protuberance (diagnostic).  This is a reduced, vestigial (stunted) terminal Leaflet (photo 221).  The two remaining opposite leaflets are up to 8cm long and have no Petiolules (leaflet stalks).  The area surrounding the junction between the “3” leaflets is a deep red colour (photo 221).  When viewed with a hand lens, against a strong light, translucent gland dots are visible on the 2 large leaflets.  About 7-12 visible Veins radiate out from the point of attachment (photo 221).  The Margin is entire (with a continuous margin, not in any way indented but may be hairy).  The leaves lack a Midrib (the main rib of a leaf or leaf-like part, a continuation of the petiole).  The Apex tapers.  The Base is markedly asymmetric and slightly lobed on the side moving away from the terminal leaflet.  New leaves are pinkish.

Distribution & Ecology

     These Trees occur on sandy, poorly drained soils, in hot, dry, low-lying, frost-free areas.  They also occur in high pH (alkaline) and alluvial soils.  The 2-winged leaflets fold up in dry times to reduce water loss and effectively also reduce shade.  The tree is commonly the dominant, even the only tree type in an area – giving rise to the term Mopane woodland (photo 232 – under fruit).   Altitude range is 660 – 1200m.  The height of the trees is dependent on soil quality and other environmental factors including rainfall.  These trees occur in Mpumalanga – North of the Letaba River and in the northern Kruger National Park – just south of the Olifants River.  They also are found in Limpopo  e.g. Mapungubwe and northwards to include Botswana , Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia e.g. Etosha National Park, Angola, Malawi and Zambia.  In the RSA, it is often shrub-like.  The leaves have high protein content.  Buffalo, elephant and giraffe consume 7the Leaves  and Pods.  Larvae of the Foxy Emperor butterfly,  Charaxes jasius  feed on the leaves.  The small cicada-like insect Arytaina mopani  may appear and, in its larval stage, have a protective waxy scale that is rich in sugar.  Baboons and people seek after this insect.  Trees are the Nesting sites for Hornbills, which have a heavy bill supported by strong neck muscles and are the only birds with fused first and second (atlas and axis) neck vertebra.  The sticky seeds cling to the hooves of passing animals and may be Dispersed in this way.



     These attractive Trees are sensitive to frost.  The Wood is similar to that is Albizia versicolor and has a relatively low density – about 500kg per cubic meter.  It is one of the most widely used timber trees and is considered second only to stinkwood for making furniture.  The sawdust may be irritant.  Sapwood is pale grey to yellow and may be susceptible to borer attack.  The Heartwood is light brown to dark reddish brown with wavy streaks.  It is strong, durable, attractive and is also used for canoe building and carving as well as for parquet flooring, construction, doors, windows, and fuel.  The wood works and turns well and only shrinks slightly when drying.  Wood to the north of South Africa is usually lighter.

     Root heartwood yields a brownish dye.  Extracts from the roots kill parasitic flatworms, which may carry bilharzia.  The fibrous Inner bark is used in basket manufacture.  The red Sap is used for dye.  It is also used in local medicine.  Root bark is powdered, mixed with fat and used to colour skin.  The Seeds are difficult to germinate, however filed seeds are slightly more successful.  Usually only 1% of seeds germinate and last more than 1 year.  Heat e.g. from a fire may speed up the germination.  Truncheons (stem cutting from a selected plant – used to produce genetically identically new plants) should be planted in spring when the sap is rising.

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