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Written by: Juan Proll on 12 October 2022

What are the most common trees in the Serengeti: 6 Serengeti trees you can’t miss on your safari

Serengeti - common trees

The Serengeti National Park is the “benchmark” for wildlife in Tanzania. For travellers from all over the world, it is the ultimate safari highlight. In addition to the vast grasslands, there are a number of trees that give the landscape a typical African feel. Today we will introduce you to 6 of the most common trees in the Serengeti.

Umbrella Acacia tree Serengeti

The endless plains of the Serengeti are the scene of the world’s largest unaffected animal migration. Every year, millions of wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of other hoofed animals embark on a 1,000-kilometre-long migration across the border between Kenya and Tanzania. But apart from that, the animal population of vegetarian four-legged friends and carnivorous predators is immense. This makes it one of the most popular safari tours.

When thinking of the Serengeti, however, the trees often stand out. One reason is that they are home to lions, leopards, and some fascinating birds of prey. On the other hand, for many travellers, they embody the “African landscape”. But what kind of trees can you find in Tanzania? I would like to introduce you to the six most common trees in the Serengeti.

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The umbrella thorn(Acacia tortilis)

The umbrella thorn is the tree that represents Africa like no other. They stand like mighty umbrellas in the savannah, providing shade. If there’s a lion taking a siesta underneath or a giraffe chewing on an acacia, it’s the perfect image of Africa.

Among the different types of umbrella acacia, Acacia tortilis is strongly represented in the Serengeti. Like other acacias, they are a source of food for many animals, even if they don’t want it. Giraffes are a particular nuisance, so they’ve developed tannins. They “spice up” the soup for the disrespectful grazers and “poison” their leaves. It won’t kill the giraffes, but it will make their stomach ache. And because the acacias have learnt that sticking together in the Serengeti increases their chances of survival, they send out chemical messengers (ethylene) to warn other acacias in the area. In this way, they can prepare an overdose of tannins before anyone even attacks their leaves.

Have you ever seen a giraffe smile while feeding? They are probably laughing at the decorative behaviour of the acacias. Instead of heading downwind to their favourite food, they move against the wind when foraging.

Umbrella Acacia tortilis

African myrrh (Commiphora africana)

If a giraffe had eaten too many tannin-rich acacia leaves and had stomach problems, Commiphora africana would be the antidote. After all, the bark, roots and berries are used in traditional medicine for a range of treatments, including stomach ailments. It can also be used to treat colic in children, liver problems and skin rashes.

Commiphora africana is the most common of the Commiphora species in Serengeti, especially in the eastern part of the park. It can only be distinguished from the umbrella thorn by its slightly different shape. The peeling, papery, blue-yellow bark of the Commiphora is also striking.

Commiphora africana

Yellow fever tree (Acacia xanthophloea)

This tree also has something to do with disease. But not in the way you might think. Firstly, the “xanthophloea” part of the tree’s scientific name comes from Greek and means “yellow bark”, which makes the tree very distinctive.

The colloquial term fever tree comes from the combination of two things: firstly, its tendency to grow in swampy areas, floodplain forests, lake shores or areas of high groundwater. In the Serengeti, for example, the black cotton soil along the rivers is particularly wet. On the other hand, settlers noticed that the tree was particularly common in malaria-prone areas. They concluded that the “fever trees” were the cause of malaria. But now we know otherwise: Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes that live in the swampy areas where these trees thrive.

Yellow fever Acacia

Sausage tree (Kigelia africana)

Admittedly, this large tree is not very common in the Serengeti. That makes it all the more impressive when you see it. The name says it all. We call it the “Sausage Tree”. It really does look like oversized sausages growing on long stalks hanging from this tree. These fruits can easily reach 60 cm and more. But beware: they are poisonous. At least to humans.

The fruits are a favourite food of larger mammals such as elephants, but baboons can also open the hard “berries”. Eventually, the ripe fruits fall from the tree and rot if they’re not eaten first. Either way, they release seeds – either directly, or after a long, exciting journey through the digestive tract.

Any Serengeti guide will tell you that the worst place to camp in the Serengeti is under a sausage tree: “If you don’t get squashed by the 5-10 kg fruit, the elephant will do it when it comes to collect the fruit”.

Incidentally, it is a popular local belief that the fruit of the sausage tree can block cyclones if hung in one’s hut.

Strangler Fig (Ficus thonningii)

The name sounds threatening: strangler fig. It sounds like something you shouldn’t get too close to. Imagine you are standing somewhere in the sun and suddenly a small plant starts climbing up on you. You have no chance of escaping. And as this parasite uses your body to get closer to the sun, it branches out and thickens mercilessly. Slowly but surely, you will be strangled, disappearing into the plant’s increasingly dense web. While you are almost invisible from the outside, the rotting process is already beginning inside. All that remains is the shell of a plant that no longer needs you to survive.

Yes, nature can be brutal. Although this attack doesn’t happen to people, but to trees, the result is the same. But the tree produces large quantities of highly nutritious leaves, twigs, and bark throughout the year, making life easier for wild animals.

The strangler fig is considered a sacred tree in the region. Among the Kikuyu and Mount Kenya tribes, for example, it is said to bring rain when an elder makes an offering to their god Ngai by fanning the smoke of a roasted, fattened lamb up the tree.

Strangler fig
This Strangler Fig grows in Arusha National Park, not in the Serengeti

Candelabra Euphorbia (Euphorbia candelabrum)

At first sight, the Candelabra Tree looks like a giant chandelier with countless candleholders. Not something you would want on your table for a romantic dinner. But maybe at a bush dinner?

I can’t recommend burning down a candelabra tree. It is a spurge. The plant’s white latex sap is poisonous. You should generally not inhale smoke. But with spurge in the smoke, it would be even worse. Just touching the thick, milky sap can cause skin irritation and blindness if it comes into eye contact.

The tree, which is mostly found in the western and northern parts of the Serengeti, has another special feature: it looks like a plant hermaphrodite: on top it looks like a cactus and at the bottom of the trunk it looks like a normal tree.

Candelabra euphorbia tree

Tanzania is full of highlights. The Serengeti is one of the most popular safari destinations. We are happy to answer any questions and help you plan your trip to Tanzania, whether on a group tour or private safari. Here on site we are always well informed about the current situation. So get in touch with us!

Author: Juan Proll

Traveling has always been Juan Proll's great passion: three years in Latin America, two years in Southeast Asia and Oceania as well as short trips of up to nine months in Europe, Central America, and North Africa. In 2010, he decided to quit his job in Germany as an adult education teacher and head of department for migration issues and to become a ranger in South Africa. Juan has been traveling across Africa since 2011, traveling to southern and eastern Africa and also climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Beforehand, he completed his nature guide training in South Africa and worked in a Big Five game reserve. With further training and intensive self-study to become a cultural guide, Juan has since expanded his field of activity beyond the natural world to include the countries, cultures, and its people. In mid-2013 he joined Africa-Experience and has been guiding travelers through Africa as a safari guide ever since. Juan is a member of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.

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