Strychnos madagascariensis


Family : Strychnaceae
Common names : black monkey orange (Eng.); swartklapper, botterklapper (Afr.); Morapa (N Sotho); Nkwaka (Tsonga); Mogorwagorwana (Tswana); Mukwakwa (Venda); umGluguza, umKwakwa (Zulu)

Strychnos madagascariensis tree
© Prof. A.E. van Wyk

Very often confused with Strychnos spinosa, S. madagascariensis is a single- or multi-stemmed tree with a spreading, irregular, angular canopy. It grows singly or among other species of trees and is often a loner. It is, however, an attractive addition to a garden landscape.

Strychnos madagascariensis is 5-8 m tall and is heavily branched. The bark is pale grey with white patches which darken with age. The simple leaves are green, hairy and leathery and are oppositely arranged with an entire margin. Leaves are not attached by an obvious leaf stalk and are clustered on the ends of short thick twigs. The trumpet-like flowers are clustered at the base of the leaves, are greenish yellow, and often appear after heavy rains. The smooth, hard fruit is large and green for most of the year, ripening to yellow. Inside are tightly packed seeds surrounded by a fleshy, edible covering.

Strychnos madagascariensis fruit
© Prof. A.E. van Wyk
Strychnos madagascariensis open fruit
© Prof. A.E. van Wyk

Conservation status

Distribution and habitat
The black monkey orange is found in Botswana, Limpopo, North-West, Mpumulanga, Swaziland and KwaZulu-Natal. It is easily noticed in the Sand Forest at the coast and is also common in the woodland and thornveld of the bushveld savanna. It is seen on rocky hills (koppies), in riverine fringes and coastal bush.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Strychnos is taken from the Greek word for deadly, which refers to poisonous alkaloids contained in the seed integuments. The species name, madagascariensis, means from Madagascar. The genus is widespread over the tropics with nine of the 190 species of trees, shrubs and lianas occurring in South Africa. The genus is an important source of drugs and poisons. Strychnine and other strychnine compounds are extracted from the seeds of S. nux-vormica and other species, and curare is extracted from the bark of S. toxifera and other species.

Leaves are eaten by duiker, kudu, impala, steenbok, nyala and elephant; the fruit is eaten by baboon, monkey, bushpig, nyala and eland. The numerous herbivores aid in primary seed dispersal. Secondary dispersal is provided by dung beetles. Due to the presence of compounds that mimic dung compounds, these seeds attract the beetles. The seeds are then rolled with the dung and buried.

Uses and cultural aspects
There are a number of uses of the plant. Traditionally the flesh is pounded and dried and is edible. The seeds, although bitter, are dried and are considered a sweet treat for children. Musical instruments, the marimba and flutes are made from the dried shells.

S. madagascariensis, drying seed in Maputaland
© Prof. A.E. van Wyk
S. madagascariensis showing seeds with pips removed on right
© Prof. A.E. van Wyk

Medicinal uses include using the plant as an emetic. The roots are ground up, mixed with hot water and taken orally. A paste is made from the fruit for treating jigger fleas.

Growing Strychnos madagascariensis

Strychnos madagascariensis is easily grown from seed and will grow fairly fast when cultivated. It is, however, sensitive to frost.

References and further reading

  • Schmidt, E., Lötter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park. Jacana, Johannesburg.
  • Van Wyk, B. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. A guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Van Wyk, B., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Van Wyk, B. & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa, edn 2. Livingstone, Edinburgh and London.

Images are courtesy of Prof. A.E. van Wyk, Botany Department, Pretoria University.

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