The Mopane Tree

The Mopane Tree (Genus Colophospermum)

The mopane is sometimes called iron wood tree or butterfly tree. The mopane is called the iron wood tree because it is rock solid compared with other wood. The wood cannot even be eaten by termites and metal saws have a tough time cutting through the mopane. The name ‘Mopane’ is ‘derived from the Chinese word ‘butterfly’ which refers to the shape of its leaves. Read on to read how unique and interesting the mopane tree really is.

Mopane Trees Communicate With Each Other

The mopane have a symbiotic relationship with elephants. They need the elephants to help reproduce by dispersing seeds, but they don’t want elephants to consume all their leaves, so they release a tannin which makes the plant unpalatable. The mopanes release a pheromone so neighboring trees can pick up the warning and release their tannin so they also taste bad to elephants, before they are browsed.

Elephants can regularly be observed taking one mouth full an then wandering off uninterested in more feeding. Interestingly, the pheromone is sent down wind so the elephant, over the ages has learned to adapt. The giant mammals can often be seen treading toward the trees from a down wind position because the trees can’t communicate with each other upwind.

Mopane Tree


They grow in swathes of numbers often becoming the dominant species in an area. They are common in Sub Sahara Africa.

Human Uses of Mopane Trees

The seeds have got a kind of pine wood smell. They are made into an essential oil in Namibia. Anti bacterial properties are also very useful for treating cuts and ulcers to stop infections; they also help stop bleeding with anti clotting qualities. Mopane twigs have, too, traditionally been used by humans for leather tanning.

Fantastic Facts About Mopane Trees

The Mopane Tree Map
Mopane Trees Are Found In Sub Sahara Africa
  • In December and January Mopane worms infest the trees. The mopane worm feeds especially on the butterfly shaped leaves, then they change into small moths called Gonimbrasia Belina.
  • You can often see packs of rows of white eggs that look like mini chicken eggs that mopane worms leave on the leaves. Mopane worms are often dried and saved by locals in jars as a source of protein.
  • Buffalos like mopane leaves in the dry season as they contain 14% protein. It is popular in Sub Sahara Africa as the wood makes great firewood and materials for house construction.
The Mopane Tree
Mopane Worms
  • The shorter roots of mopane trees( 30–120 cm deep) are well adapted to take nutrients and water out of shallow soil, out competing grasses.


Over the last few years newspapers such as the Namibian have expressed worries over too much tree felling near the Zambezi river. District officer Sikabongo told The Namibian that residents have employed foreigners to harvest the trees illegally to sell the timber.

They do so without taking into account the irreversible damage to the environment.

DISTRICT forestry officer at Katima Mulilo Dennis Sikabongo
The Mopane Tree
Mopane Leaves are Butterfly Shaped

Q & A

What other names are given to the mopane tree?

The mopane tree is also known as the balsam tree, turpentine tree and balsam tree. Plus the butterfly tree and ‘mopane scrub’ when there’s more than one.

Which Kingdom does the mopane tree belong in?

The mopane tree belongs in the Plantae Kingdom

Which order does the mopane tree belong in?

The mopane is in the Fabales order

What type of soil does the mopane grow in?

It grows in alluvial/ originating from rivers and alkaline soil (more clay types) with a high PH level.

What is the botanical name of the mopane tree?

The mopane tree’s botanical name is Colophospermum mopane.

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