Global Village

Jone Haesslich
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Driving down the pass from Ukhozi Lodge to the valley one passes on one's left a fine example of a kiepersol, also known as a cabbage-tree or, to the botanists, as Cussonia spicata. This is only one of many such trees on Kariega Park. These trees have large, tuberous roots that store water. When everything else is parched and wilted, the leaves of the kiepersol remain a healthy, shiny-green – some times blue-green. Centuries ago the early inhabitants of the area noted this, and when the worst came to the worst, dug up the roots and chewed them for the water they contained.

Olive Schreiner, the South African writer of German descent, described the flavour as resembling raw quince. The leaves provide good fodder and medicinally are chewed to deaden the pangs of indigestion. In KwaZulu-Natal the fibrous root matter, pounded to a paste, is given to malaria sufferers. The wood is soft and is regarded today as of little value, but was once used for the brake-blocks of ox-wagons, while the closely packed spikes of flowers and fruit are visited by a variety of birds. So it is not only an attractive, but also a useful tree.

There are several species of Cussonia in southern Africa and in the Republic five different forms of Cussonia spicata are recognised, so understandably it is known by a variety of common names. Cabbage-tree, a common English name for the tree, refers to its growth form, with the large leaves clustered at the end of the branches, looking rather like cabbages from a distance. I have always felt that Dr Seuss, when drawing trees for his children's books, was inspired by a cabbage-tree.

isiXhosa and isiZulu speakers refer to it as the umSenge, and in Afrikaans it is often called a sambreelboom - umbrella-tree – once again from the shape of the large crown of leaves. But in the Cape it is perhaps best known by the name kiepersol, a name used by both Afrikaans and South African English speakers. The name kiepersol is of Dutch origin, but was brought to the Cape, probably during the 17th century, by way of India, where, in the form kittisol, it was used to describe a parasol – hence umbrella. But the Indian name was itself an import from Portugal, where quita-sol, meaning “excluding the sun,” was used for a parasol.

To add to this melange of nationalities the Cussonia was first described by a Swede, Carl Thunberg, and as was customary, and still is, the plant was given a Latin name: Cussonia, after Pierre Cusson, professor of botany at the University of Montpellier, in France, and spicata, describing the spikes that carry the flowers and fruit of the tree.

Today, when we talk of “the global village,” we no doubt believe that our interdependence is a result of economics, world trade and the internet, yet long before John Maynard Keynes, the World Bank or Bill Gates ever took up a centre-stage position, the global village was already becoming a reality. When next you drive down from Ukhozi Lodge to the valley, ask your guide to point out the kiepersol, a botanical epitome of our global village.