People from several African countries are known to eat Mopani worms, but what do Mopani worms eat? Mopani leaves of course! The Mopani tree is one of the most distinctive and well-known trees of the African savannah and is part of the Kruger National Park’s Big Five of trees, along with the Baobab, Fever Tree, Knob Thorn and Marula.
Mopani trees are very common in the northern reaches of South Africa, around the Hoedspruit area, and are prolific in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Being exclusive of other plants in their growth patterns, they usually occur together in clumps known as Mopani thickets, in vast tracts of land called Mopani veld.
This tall tree can grow up to 25 m high and is important for more than its suitability as a caterpillar nursery.
The wood is extremely hard and termite resistant and often employed in the construction of houses and fences. It’s also used for railway sleepers, as pit props and as charcoal and firewood.
Mopani wood has an attractive rich colouring, popular for decorative purposes such as flooring, lamp bases and sculptures. It’s also becoming the preferred choice in the creation of woodwind musical instruments, as African Blackwood becomes increasingly harder to come by.
The butterfly-shaped foliage of the Mopani tree is unmistakable and always attractive – bright green in summer and forming a kaleidoscope of russet tones in autumn. Elephants are very fond of the leaves and so is Gonometa rufobrunnea, a wild silk moth whose cocoons are harvested for silk production.
The Mopani moth lays its eggs on the leaves of the Mopani tree, and the caterpillars that hatch duly set about feasting on these same leaves until they pupate and turn back into moths. The harvesting of Mopani worms is a lucrative trade in Southern Africa, where the worms are either canned or dried and exported as a high-protein food.
Apart from its importance as a valuable food source, traditional uses of the tree include the production of twine from the bark, toothbrushes from the twigs and healing potions from the leaves.
One of the best uses of the Mopani tree for safari-goers, though, is its popularity amongst leopards as a resting spot, or at very least as a shady place to stop awhile and take in your surroundings, while enjoying a sundowner or a relaxed bush breakfast out on the trail.