Baboon’s Tail

June 26, 2020

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Photographer: Patti Weeks 
Summary Author: Patti Weeks 

The deciduous perennial shrub baboon’s tail (Xerophyta retinervis) sometimes looks like a cluster of blackened dead stumps, but at this point it is simply in a state of dormancy. Named of course for its resemblance to a baboon’s tail, this shrub has other common names: monkey’s tail, resurrection plant and black stick lily. There are approximately 50 species of this genus, including nine in South Africa. This knee-high plant is very tough and can survive long periods of drought, as has the one in these photos, taken December 14, 2019, in South Africa’s Waterburg region in the province of Limpopo. South Africa has been suffering from this drought since 2018. The shrub can go years without blooming, but in the right conditions, it will sprout long, linear leaves and can produce lovely pink, mauve or white flowers. After a rain, it can resume its metabolic function within 48-72 hours. Scattered in open areas, these shrubs stabilize sandy soil.

Ranger Barend van Rooyen of the Nedile Lodge in the Welgevonden Game Reserve, shows my safari tour group the overlapping, wiry fibers in one of the stout stems, which are tight but can be fanned open. He tells us that since the stems resist burning, ancient bushmen would put smoldering hot coals inside the fibers to transport them from one village to the next.

According to an online source of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, various parts of the shrub have been used traditionally for their medicinal properties, from relieving asthma to acting as an anti-inflammatory or analgesic. The tough stems have also been used traditionally to make brushes and mats. European settlers used the stems to make scrubbing brushes. In unprotected areas baboon’s tail shrubs are gathered illegally to make bases for epiphytic orchids; however, nurseries are able to propagate the shrub by seed for this purpose.

Photo Details: Top - SONY DSC-RX10 IV camera; 151.11 mm focal length; f/4; 1/200 second exposure; ISO 800. Bottom - Same except 49.51 mm focal length; f/4; 1/417 sec. exposure; ISO 100