Kigelia africana (sausage tree)
The sausage tree is sacred to many African communities and has a wide variety of uses in traditional and Western medicine, including commercially available skin lotions.
About this species
Kigelia africana is an African tree, easily recognised due to the large sausage-shaped fruits hanging from its branches. The generic name Kigelia comes from the Mozambican name for sausage tree, “kigeli-keia”. Sausage trees are sacred to many communities and are often protected when other forest trees are cut down. In Kenya, the Luo and Luhya people bury a fruit to symbolise the body of a lost person believed to be dead.
The flowers only open at night and are pollinated by bats and hawk-moths. They are dark red, which is unusual for a bat-pollinated species (bats are normally attracted to white flowers), but the strong unpleasant smell of the flowers is thought to attract the bats instead.
Geography & Distribution
The sausage tree is found across sub-Saharan tropical Africa and as far south as South Africa. It is cultivated in other tropical countries and is used as an ornamental tree in Australia, the USA and parts of Southeast Asia.
Flower of Kigelia africana (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)
Kigelia africana is a tree, 2.5-18 m tall, or sometimes a shrub 2-3 m tall. The bark is smooth and grey-brown in colour. The leaves are in groups of three at the ends of the branches and are 10-20 cm long with 3-8 leaflets. The inflorescence is a panicle, 30-80 cm long. The tubular flowers are dark red with yellow veins, and have an unpleasant smell. The fruits are sausage-shaped, 30-90 cm long and 7.5-10 cm in diameter.
The sausage tree is very variable in habit and leaf morphology. Trees growing in forests have larger leaflets than trees growing in open areas. It was once thought that there were ten different species of Kigelia, but botanists now recognise only one. In East Africa two subspecies are recognised, K. africana subsp. africana growing in grasslands and woodlands and K. africana subsp. moosa in tropical forests.
What's in a name?
A comprehensive collation of data on sausage tree has been made by Kew’s Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (SEPASAL). Apart from detailed information on uses throughout Africa, the SEPASAL database (available online) also records over 400 vernacular names by which the sausage tree is known - an indication of the tree’s importance and value to communities throughout its geographic range.
Threats and Conservation
The sausage tree is widespread across tropical Africa. It is a sacred tree for many communities and is usually protected on farm lands when other tree species are cut down. In Malawi, Kigelia africana is now protected after many trees were cut down to make canoes.
Kigelia africana tree in Mara, Kenya (Image: Peter Gasson)
Kigelia africana is an important tree for many people and has a wide range of uses. Both ripe and unripe fruits are poisonous to humans but the fruits can be dried and fermented, and used along with the bark to enhance the flavour of traditional beers. The seeds are sometimes roasted and eaten in times of food shortage. Every part of the tree is used in herbal medicines (e.g. for digestive and respiratory disorders, and to treat infections and wounds). The sausage tree is used in a variety of commercial applications to treat skin complaints. Research into its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-tumour activity is ongoing. The wood makes good quality timber for fences, planking, boxes and canoes.
Kigelia africana is a suitable tree for planting to stabilise riverbanks, while its broad canopy makes it a good shade tree in the open savanna. It is, however, not advisable to park a vehicle or to sit beneath a fruiting tree - the ‘sausages’ (fruits) can weigh up to 12 kg and can cause considerable damage when they fall!
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Kigelia africana seeds.
Sausage tree at Kew
A dried specimen of Kigelia africana, collected in Zimbabwe by C.E.F. Allen (Image: RBG Kew)
Dried and spirit-preserved specimens of Kigelia africana are held in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. Details, including images, of some of these specimens can be seen on-line in the Herbarium Catalogue.
Bark, fruits, seeds and wood from K. africana are also held in the Economic Botany Collection. These specimens are made available to bona fide researchers from around the world by appointment.
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