Native Trees of Uganda: Kifabakazi
Current name: Spathodea campanulata
Other names: Ugandan flame tree, Nandi flame tree, African tulip tree, fire tree, flame of the forest
I remember collecting the empty pods of this tree when I was a child. They have a perfect boat shape and are guaranteed to give any marginally inventive child hours of fun.
Over the years the S. campanulata virtually disappeared from Kampala. The towering tree was the victim of our quest for, dare I say, modernity. Now, you will only find S. campanulata trees in older housing settlements like Kololo, Mengo, Rubaga and around Nsambya hill.
Fortunately, the-one-women-kill (I’m sure that’s not the translation) still thrives outside the city, where its medicinal value is greatly treasured.
So striking is the Ugandan flame tree that it holds a dear place in local folklore. I’ve heard one story of a king with the power to shrink his enemies and to send them down the river in the boat-like pods of the tree. One day his power backfired and he shrunk his daughter – like a 6th century version of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – and lost her forever.
Then, there’s the children’s story, recorded in Spirit of the Forest: Tree Tales from around the World. It essentially involves a girl called Mzuri, her love Tutu, an antelope, a hawk and of course, an evil king. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, only with no suicide pact. Mzuri and Tutu are buried in the same grave upon which a new tree grows. The new tree is called ekifabakazi because its inside is as soft as a lover’s heart. (So I guess it isn’t the-one-women-kill after all.)
Good luck trying to buy S. campanulata seedlings in Kampala. The gardeners I’ve contacted often confuse it with setaala (polyscias fulva) because both trees are used to make drums. I ‘stole’ seeds from the kids’ play area at Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel in Entebbe and they’ve just started germinating.
The tree is easily propagated from seeds. Natural reproduction takes place on bare ground, in grass, and under weeds and brush. Vegetative reproduction is easily carried out with cuttings or root suckers.
Kifabakazi is a slender tree, which can grow up to 30 feet. Take care not to plant it close to walls, as its roots have been known to crack even the sturdiest foundations.
In a month or so, I should have a couple of seedlings to give away. Holler if you are interested.
P.s.: None of the pictures above are mine. Click on them for the source material. I’d particularly encourage you to visit Misty Mistler’s website for beautiful floral paintings.