Africans we adore

Most people like flowers and trees. Very few like the Latin names for flowers. But I may be able to get you interested.  Stick with me. If you wanted to name a tree, you would probably go with some interesting character of the tree, right?  So a tree which smelled a bit after you cut it and which had reddish bark might be called red stinkwood. Or, if the fruit looked a bit like a plum and was found in Africa, call it African plum.

A botanist would name it after a species it appears related to.  When Gustav Mann with explorer Richard Burton found a new species in the mountains of Cameroon during our Civil War, he shipped it back to William Hooker at Kew Gardens for classification.  Hooker decided that the fruit looked similar to those in a genus called Pygeum.  The name pygeum comes from a Greek word, πυγή, “rump, buttock”, because the two lobes of the fruit resemble the human gluteus maximus muscles.

These pygeum fruits might be called callipygian if they are extremely good looking buttocks.  Or they might be called steatopygian if they are extremely big.  These are the names used to describe the hind end of humans.  The earliest known human inhabitants of the area where red stinkwood grows (the Khoi or bushmen) just happen to often be extremely steatopygian.  In fact they are so steatopygian that some were displayed like zoo animals in Europe in the 1800s. So that is why the African prune was initially classified as a species in the Pygeum genus. One can surmise that Hooker just had bottoms on his mind.

Gorillas love the fruit of Pygeum and it grows in the mid-altitude 3000-6000 mountain forests where gorillas like to hang out.

Lowveld Botanical Gardens

Pygeum africanum used to be widely dispersed in Africa—wherever there are high enough and wet enough mountains.  But the bark contains medicines which Europeans covet. European money and African corruption led to the near extinction of the species.  Today it is protected by international law and sustainable harvesting techniques have been developed.

When you strip the bark off a tree to dry, grind and sell, just leave half to two thirds of the bark in place.  This will enable the tree to continue to move water from the soil up to its leaves and so survive.  When the bark grows back in 3-5 years, you can strip off the side you left.  This is only profitable to the harvester if he can be sure the tree will be safe until he comes back in a few years to harvest the next time.  Otherwise, the sensible approach is just to strip all the bark off and maximize profits.

Since land tenure is tenuous where P. africanum grows, most harvesters just strip off all the bark and kill the tree.  Until commercial plantations are established, this is likely to continue to be the case.  Until more profit can be made by keeping the trees alive, they will be killed.

It’s similar with gorillas.  Gorillas were killed for meat and medicine until they grew so rare that people would pay huge bucks to see them.  They became worth more alive than dead.

It happens that one of the most interesting studies of Pygeum africanum relied on data from the Bwindi (“impenetrable”)) Forest in Uganda, where more than half the surviving mountain gorillas live.  Marchant and Taylor (1997) did a pollen analysis on and radiocarbon-dated two core samples from montane Mubindi Swamp in Uganda at 2,100 m (6,900 ft) altitude between mountain ridges in Bwindi Forest National Park. They found that Pygeum africanum has been in the catchment continuously since their Pollen Zone MB6.1, dated about 43,000–33,000 years ago.

If you read the article, you will find them using the name Prunus africana because botanists now believe red stinkwood is more closely related to plums and peaches than to other pygeums.  DNA studies have not yet been reported to confirm the relationship.  So until then, I will continue to use pygeum, just because I like the word.

By the way, steatopygia has not been found in gorillas or any other ape, just as a colorful tail is found in peacocks but not in woodpeckers. However, baby gorillas do look very human.