Guide to Trees and Shrubs of East Africa

My father used to sing in the bathroom. And a song I remember often hearing from the other side of the bathroom door was one that was made popular by the Italian Tenor, Mario Lanza. Its first lines – the only ones I remember – were:

‘I think that I shall never see

A poem as lovely as a tree.’

I guess I’ve never thought of trees as especially lovely things. When Anne Bernie, one of the authors of Trees of Kenya, was complaining about the cutting down of 80 trees to make room for the Lavington Mall, I rather insensitively said, ‘But I reckon I would swap a couple of trees for an Artcaffe.’ She wasn’t amused.

I am remembering these things because I have just been asked to review the third edition of Najma Dharani’s Field Guide To Common Trees & Shrubs Of East Africa. It is published by the prolific and popular Struik Nature, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House of South Africa.

I’m not sure I am really qualified to write such a review. I am certainly no expert on the trees and shrubs of East Africa – or of anywhere else, for that matter. But perhaps I am qualified, because the guide is meant for people like me who would like to be able to name the trees we see around us – and know more about their qualities and their uses.

I struggle to put names to even the trees in our garden, even though my wife has told me them a number of times. But I can tell you the names of all the birds that come to our Lavington garden – and most of those that fly over it, as well. I suppose it is because I now know the families of birds. So if, for example, I see a bird of a shape of a thrush I can immediately turn to the Thrush sections of my bird book.

But for a tree I would have to look through the whole guide, because I have no sense of how trees and shrubs are classified in families – except for a few, such as acacias or palms. Mind you, Najma’s tree book is a pleasure to look through. It features over 500 of the trees, shrubs, palms and mangroves that are to be found across East Africa. For each plant it gives information on its habitat, bark, leaves, flowers and fruit. And the photographs are excellent.

I tried out the guide in our garden. For some of them, I already know their names. By their fruits I know them – like it is said, I think, in the Bible. So I can point out the avocado and loquat trees to curious guests from abroad. Also, I know two by their flowers – the flame tree and the jacaranda. But it took me to go through 94 pages to identify the splendid big trees that dominate the garden – the crotons. I felt guilty because that name I should have remembered.

So let me illustrate how a single species is covered in the guide. I will take the flame tree. I now know its Latin name is Erythrina Abyssinia. Other common names are Red Hot Poker Tree and Lucky Bean Tree. In Swahili it is Mwamba-ngoma (It grows in rocky bushland, and the wood is used in making drums). The Luo call it Murembe. The red seeds are often made into necklaces. As for its uses, the wood is also good for making doors, stools and beehives. The bark is used in treating gonorrhoea, burns and inflammation of the eyelids. The roots feature in the treatment of malaria, syphilis and snakebites.

I am going to enjoy this guide. Along with a bird book, it will travel with me in the car.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation