Plant story - saving Oldfieldia dactylophylla, a rare and highly endangered tree species from Malawi

The excitement could not be concealed when the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership collection team came across three Oldfieldia dactylophylla trees loaded with fruits.

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01 Jan 2010

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Oldfieldia dactylophylla in the wild

Seed collector standing next to debarked nawonga tree (Oldfieldia dactylophylla) (Photo:Maganizo Namoto)

Oldfieldia dactylophylla is a very rare and highly endangered tree species in Malawi, and it is not often that one finds these trees producing fruits. The team had driven 1,000 km to Chitipa district and walked about 3 km deep into the Muwanga Forest to reach the area. The discovery was very exciting indeed.

A rare find

According to the Malawi National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens (NHBG), there are no records of O. dactylophylla anywhere else in Malawi and there are no voucher specimens. Almost all the trees that were observed during the expedition were badly debarked by exploiters and according to the local villagers, debarked trees never produce fruits.

Oldfieldia dactylophylla fruits

Mature fruits (Photo: Maganizo Namoto)

A very useful plant - over-exploited and on the verge of extinction

Extensive and unregulated exploitation of O. dactylophylla is threatening the existence of this important multipurpose tree species in Malawi.

The species is locally known as ‘nawonga’ which in the native language means ‘thankful’, a name befitting its usefulness. Multitudes of local villagers and exploiters from neighbouring Zambia are scouting the Muwanga Forest to collect roots, stems, bark and fruits of the nawonga tree, which is also used for traditional medicine. Parts of the tree are used to cure skin diseases of cattle and many people use it to cure diarrhoea and venereal diseases. The latter service is the most popular.

It is also said that pieces of nawonga wood placed on entrances of cattle kraals at night repel unwanted wild animals such as hyenas. Similarly a few roots of nawonga placed in maize gardens prevent thieves from accessing the gardens when the owners are not there– a practice known as ‘kutsirika munda’’ in the native language. The rare fruits of the Nawonga are edible and are enjoyed as snack mainly by people in the forests. Oldfieldia dactylophylla wood is also used for construction and as fuelwood.

Saved by Millennium Seed Bank partners

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership team collected a good amount of the precious seeds for ex situ conservation. As a routine activity, samples of the seeds were subjected to various germination tests. There are indications that the seeds require pre-treatments to germinate and this might partially explain why natural regeneration is so rare in the forest. Methods are under development to germinate the seeds.

Story by Maganizo Namoto & Clement Chilima, Forestry Research Institute of Malawi  | More plant stories

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