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In Bad Odour?


It’s that time of the year again when, walking through the coastal bush or forests, one’s nostrils are assailed by a sweetish, fetid waft that results in most visitors inspecting the soles of their shoes. Those of us that live here are of course aware that it emanates from the milkwoods and that the stench is to pollinators an attractive indication that the greenish yellow milkwood flowers are worth visiting.

While the smell may be unpleasant to humans, it also serves as a warning: milkwoods in blossom are often infested by slug caterpillars. These spiny green creatures with apparently no legs and a pale blue stripe running down their backs have spines that cause inflammation and irritation, and doctors are kept busy at this time of year treating children who have encountered these creatures while playing in the trees. Fortunately the infestation is of short duration.

In inland forests, such as those to be found on Kariega Park, the white milkwood*  grows on occasion to a height of 16 metres, but beside the sea, flattened by the wind, it hardly reaches knee-height. To those unfamiliar with the plant it seems barely possible that the bush that one can step over on one’s way to the beach, is the same as the tree under whose shade one rests on a hot summer’s day on the fringes of the forest.

The genus name of the milkwood – Sideroxylon – is derived from the Greek words sideros = iron and xylon = wood, thus ‘ironwood’, and the timber, which has a mass of more than a tonne per cubic metre, is hard and in the past was extensively used, particularly for boats, bridges, water-mills and jetties, for it is durable even in damp conditions. Particularly in the Western Cape white milkwoods became scarce, and they are now strictly protected wherever they occur, mainly in the south-eastern coastal areas.

Three milkwood trees are under special protection as a result of their connection with historical events:

  • In Woodstock, Cape Town the ‘Treaty Tree’ stands where in 1806, after the Battle of Blaauwberg, the Cape was formally handed over by the Dutch defenders to the British. 
  • At Mossel Bay in 1500 Portuguese sailors tied a shoe containing a letter to a milkwood, becoming possibly the first tree to be mentioned in South African history. The letter described the adventures of Cobral’s expedition and the drowning at sea of the famous explorer, Bartholomew Dias. It was discovered a year later on 7 July 1501 by Commander Joao da Nova, to whom it was addressed. This ‘Post Office Tree’ is, after at least 500 years, still standing. 
  • The third of these trees, the ‘Fingo Tree’, is near Peddie in the Eastern Cape. Here in 1835, at the village of umGwashu – the Xhosa name for the white milkwood - the mFengu (Fingo) people, having been attacked by the forces of Chief Hintza, and led to safety by British troops, pledged their loyalty to God and to the British throne.

Although not a ‘monument’ nor specially protected, there is beside the road from Middledrift to Breakfast Vlei in the Eastern Cape, a milkwood where in times of drought hundreds gathered to pray for rain; its regular use being an indication of its apparent efficacy.

Quite apart from it use as a source of timber, as a gathering place or even an improvised post office, milkwoods have other uses. An infusion of the bark is said to be a sure cure for nightmares, and the powdered roots are used together with plant oil to rub on fractured limbs to hasten healing.

Recently we came across a use that was new to us. We found some of the local children gathering the shiny black berries. Now these berries are relished by birds and bushpigs, but they are a little too astringent for most people, so we were intrigued as to what they intended doing with them. “We chew them,” they answered, “they’re just like chewing-gum”. A little research at home proved the children to be quite right. The milkwood belongs to the Sapotaceae family of plants. Another member of the family, but hailing from Central America, is the Manikara chicle. It too, like other members of the family, has shiny green leaves and milky, white sap. The sap, known as chicle, was brought to New York in the 1860s for possible use as a rubber substitute, but was found to be unsuitable. In 1870 Thomas Adams was the first to consider the possibility of using flavoured chicle as a substitute for the spruce gum then chewed in the States. Our children – or perhaps their ancestors - made the discovery quite independently.

So here in the Eastern Cape we happily put up with the strange smell – and the spiny slug caterpillars – knowing of the benefits associated with the tree.

*White milkwood – Sideroxylon inerme.