What is a sausage tree? (Hint: it’s not what it sounds like)

A big male elephant stretches its trunk to feed on a sausage tree fruit, one of its favourite food

The hilariously named “sausage tree” is a comical-looking example of nature at its most playful. But names can be deceiving. Indigenous to tropical Africa, the sausage tree’s proper name is Kigelia africana and is a bit of a rock star in the tree world.

Yes, it’s odd-looking, but that’s part of what makes it distinctive. It happens to have quite the reputation for being one of the most useful trees to human existence for literally thousands of years.

Most of the sausage tree can be used in one way or another. Let’s take a closer look at this marvel of nature, and see whether it carries its formidable weight. Here are some interesting facts about one of Africa’s finest examples of practical beauty.

The Tree With Many Names

Lone sausage tree on the African savanna, Tanzania

By now you know that the sausage tree’s real name is Kigelia africana. It is also sometimes called Kigelia pinnata. But when traveling in Africa, you may hear several other local names. Here’s a quick reference:

  • English: Sausage Tree, Cucumber Tree
  • North Sotho: Modukguhlu
  • Zulu: umVunguta, umFongothi
  • Venda: Muvevha
  • Tswana: Moporota
  • Afrikaans: Worsboom

Where to Find the Kigelia Tree

Sausage trees mostly thrive in the wet savannah and tropical regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly, it also seems to have acclimatised in places like Hawaii, India and Australia.

It is usually found along rivers or on floodplains, where it likes the flood-prone alluvial soil. It can do well in regions with all-year rainfall (where it stays evergreen), or even with specific rain seasons (as a deciduous plant).

The tree itself grows 60-70 feet tall (18-21 m), spreading its branches wide – it provides good shade on hot days.

Kigelia africana  – The African Sausage Tree – Comes From a Glamorous Family

Kigelia africana - more commonly known as the "sausage tree" - in the Serengeti, Tanzania

The Bignonia family contains some of the world’s most magnificent flowering trees. Many of Africa’s popular trees also belong to this family, like the Calabash, the Cape Honeysuckle, and the Jacaranda. These are all known for their beauty or unusual looks. There are also many vines connected to the family.

The sausage plant gets its colloquial name from its fruit, which resembles – yes – a large sausage.

Sausage Tree Fruit Can Be Deadly

Sausage tree flowers are a distinctive and beautiful deep maroon or red. They hang from long stems in clusters, usually below the main crown of the tree. Their yellow pistils and stamen make for a bright spectacle against the red body. They mostly bloom at night and are velvety on the inside.

The flowers have a rather strong smell, and it tends to be unpleasant to humans. They do attract bats, birds and insects, though, facilitating pollination in the process.

The fruit can grow to a formidable size – up to three feet in length – and weigh up to 30 lbs (13,6 kg). It is a woody berry, containing seeds and pulpy texture. In its raw form, the sausage tree fruit is poisonous to humans, so don’t try to eat it!

Many animals don’t seem to have much of a problem, though. The sausage tree fruit is edible to monkeys, baboons, elephants, birds and other creatures that are particularly fond of the fibrous pulp. These animals ultimately deposit the fruit seeds through their dung, which helps to spread the species.

Beware! Falling fruit can be quite vicious if you’re underneath it. So avoid sitting directly below a sausage tree.

How the Fruit is Used

The fruit of the sausage tree

As mentioned, the fruit of the kigelia is poisonous to humans if consumed raw, but it tastes quite good when prepared properly. For instance, it’s a popular ingredient in traditional African beer. To reach edible status, the fruit is sun-dried and fermented twice for up to four days.

It’s also a common component in traditional medicine. And when local tribes hang the fruit in their homes, it is said to protect them from bad and destructive weather.

Kigelia leaves can be consumed as well – kudu and elephants seem to like them – and humans can ingest them when dried. The leaves contain a high concentration of flavonoids, arguably known for their antidiarrhoeal properties.

Even the Wood is Useful

While a hollowed-out fruit shell makes for a good container, the trunks of sausage trees have been particularly useful to natives for thousands of years.

Bear in mind that the tree trunks are a good size, and robust. They make for excellent canoes when hollowed out, which is especially convenient knowing that Kigelia trees love riverine and wetland areas.

No tree is perfect, not even the ‘Tree of Life’. Kigelia wood itself is too soft to be used in modern construction, but it is great as crate and shelving material.

The Holy Sausage Tree

Sausage tree blooming

The tree has spiritual significance for some African tribes. According to local beliefs, the talismanic qualities of the tree can ward off evil spirits.

In the Ndebele culture, the tree plays a particular role in the death of a family member. Legend has it that when a loved one dies far from home, the Ndebele people will bury a sausage tree fruit in place of the body.

Medicinal Uses

Sausage tree fruit is a regular ingredient in many traditional medicines and can help treat multiple ailments. These include:

  • Ulcers
  • Gastro-intestinal issues
  • Malaria
  • Rheumatism,
  • Spleen inflammation
  • Syphilis (and other venereal diseases)
  • Headaches

For the most part, the fruit is dry before use. However, there are some cases when even the bark, roots, leaves and stems are used for medicinal purposes.

In addition to internal medicine, the fruit can treat psoriasis, eczema, and other skin-related ailments. In the cosmetic world, it can be found in costly anti-aging and beauty creams.

It is truly an all-round useful product.

The Sausage Tree On Safari

Sausage tree on safari

Remember Kigelia africana, the ‘Tree of Life’ with amazing benefits. The sausage tree has been around for thousands of years, feeding animals and people, protecting and healing them. It is a highly valuable medicinal plant with tons of unexplored potential.

So the next time you go on an African safari, take a moment to pay respects to the tree that does it all. Your ancestors will thank you!

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