The Pilanesberg lies in a transition zone between the dry, arid Kalahari region and the lush, tropical Lowveld (Mpumalanga). As a result, trees and plants suited to both regions are found in the reserve and there is a remarkable overlap of wildlife and birds attracted to this unique eco-system.
The trees and plants have adapted to 6 distinct eco-regions that range from valley and hill savanna to thickets and woodlands embedded in rocky outcrops. Thorn trees survive in brackish soil while flat grasslands are characteristic of areas rich in pediments that contain a subterranean layer of ferricrete which is an accumulation of hard sheets of iron oxides.
Outcrops of red syenite have weathered into a jumble of red-brown boulders that support a wild thicket of large-leafed trees and the south- and north-facing savanna is dominated by thorn trees and bushwillow.
The Sweet thorn tree (Acacia karroo Hayne) is one of South Africa’s most beautiful and useful trees. It has been used by rural people for everything from raft making to sewing needles and fencing. It is widespread and there are different forms in different places. It is commonly found in areas known as sweet veld (fields) and is an excellent source of nutrition for grazing.
The Umbrella tree (Acacia tortillis) is one of the oldest-known trees, dating back 200 years ago to Egypt. It is a drought resistant and grows in areas with annual rainfall as low as 40mm. Vervet monkeys and baboons love this tree; its pods and leaves are highly nutritious.
The Karee tree (Anacardiaceae) is evergreen and drought-resistant, and its beautiful canopy provides welcoming shade for game in the midday heat. Birds love its fruit and browsers such as kudu, roan antelope and sable depend on its nutritious leaves in the dry season. It has a deep and extensive root system which helps to stabilise the soil and prevent erosion.
The Leadwood tree (Combretaceae) – or hardekool in Afrikaans – is a magnificent tree and a protected species in South Africa. It gets its name because the wood is extremely dense and heavy. The Leadwood tree was used to make railway sleepers and furniture, to the point where the species was under serious threat of being eradicated. The wood is so hard that it is impermeable to termites, and up to 80 years after a Leadwood tree has died, it remains intact and barely decomposed.
The Tambotie tree (Euphorbiaceae) is also known at the ‘jumping bean’ tree because the seeds become infested with the larvae of a small grey moth, which then causes the seed to jump centimetres into the air. If you stand under the tree, you can hear the rustle of the leaping seeds.
The leaves and young branches are edible for animals and the birds love its fruit. However, poisonous latex found under the bark is harmful to humans and the milky latex can cause severe irritation to the skin and possible blindness. It is not suitable for firewood because the smoke is toxic and will contaminate any meat cooked over it which brings on a nasty bout of diarrhoea.
The Buffalo-thorn tree (Rhamnaceae) is a gourmet treat for birds and animals. The leaves and fruit are sweet and delicious, and the flowers produce abundant nectar. The berries are edible and in pioneering days, they were used to make porridge, fermented beer or ground up as a coffee substitute.
The Lavender fever berry tree (Croton gratissimus) is a hardy, deciduous tree that is drought-resistant. Its pale grey bark contrasts with beautiful silvery-green leaves that shimmer in the sun and have red spots on the underside. Its autumn colours are spectacular and a few bright orange leaves adorn the crown at most times of the year.
The leaves are fragrant when crushed and are used by traditional women to make perfume. The buds are like drooping strings of beads that open into masses of star-like flowers. The seedpods explode to disperse the seeds, which attracts flocks of birds to the area. Traditional healers have used its leaves and seeds for medicine for centuries.
The large-leaved fig tree (Moraceae) – also known as the giant-leaved rock fig – is the largest member of the magnificent fig family. Mature specimens stand as stately sentries overlooking the valley, with large, sculptured roots clinging onto rocky outcrops. These spectacular trees are easily identified from a far distance and grow as high as 25 metres tall.
This tree is known as a rock splitter, as its roots can reach depths of 60 metres as they snake their way through cracks in rocks searching for nutrients from the water and soil below. The milky white latex of its heart-shaped leaves is used by traditional healers for skin remedies. Two wasp species pollinate the flowers in the process of borrowing into the fig through a tiny hole and laying their eggs inside.
The Red balloon tree (Sapindaceae) is actually a distant relative of the litchi tree. The tree gets its name from its attractive flowers and the large, balloon-shaped fruit which produces smooth black seeds that have been used by traditional women for jewellery. It is a sturdy tree and drought resistant, preferring to live on the sides of rocky outcrops where it is protected from annual fires.
The Red bushwillow tree (Combretaceae) has long slender branches that hang low, giving the tree a willow-like appearance. It is a hardy, drought-resistant tree originating from the arid regions of Botswana and Namibia but it has also made its home in regions with higher rainfall. Its mature green leaves are excellent fodder for browsing animals like kudu, eland, giraffe and elephant. However, the seeds in its fruit are poisonous and only eaten by brown-headed parrots.
The wood is very hard and resistant to borers and termites. Early human settlers used the wood for fencing poles and it makes good firewood. The bark was also used for tanning leather. Traditional healers would steam a concoction of leaves to relieve stomach ailments and conjunctivitis.
The Hook thorn tree (Acacia caffra) is the most common naturally-occurring member of the acacia species. It has an irregular, spreading crown with bright-green and feathery-looking foliage. The drooping leaves give the canopy a soft, romantic look. It tolerates sandy soil with a low pH and is able to withstand fire, which makes it a valuable part of the ecology of Pilanesberg.
Its wood is dense and beautifully grained, and traditional woman have used it to create intricate tobacco pipes. According to traditional African beliefs, the hook thorn is believed to be a lucky tree and has been protected for its medicinal uses.
The Wild pear tree (Dombeya rotundifolia Hochst.) gets its name from the masses of white blooms which appear in early spring. It looks like a common pear tree in full bloom but is no relation to the Roseaceae family. Once the fruit is ripe and falls from the tree, the petals act as wings and float away.
The Wild pear tree grows in woodlands and rocky mountain slopes and is found as far up as northern Ethiopia. Traditional women and healers have used the bark to make strong rope fibre and even made love potions from its sweet-smelling flowers. The wood is hardy and termite-resistant and often used for fence posts. Bees are attracted to its delicious nectar and pollen and it is a favourite of bee farmers.