How to wrap your head around southern Africa’s remarkable diversity of trees.

Southern Africa is home to many trees: by some estimates there are over 2100 tree species native to the region. This number is more than double the number of bird species (~900 species) and more than five-fold the number of mammals (~400 species). With such a large number it is easy to become overwhelmed by the diversity; to see a sea of green rather than a forest of individual species. Fortunately, there is a surprisingly simple way to wrap your head around southern Africa’s trees. Approximately 1345 species of the region’s tree flora – roughly 65%…about two-thirds…or (ahem) most of the trees – are contained in just 20 plant families. If you learn these twenty families, you can just about call yourself a budding arborist.

Over the course of my next few blogposts I want to introduce you to southern Africa’s remarkable trees. I will try to describe the twenty largest tree families in an engaging way: by briefly introducing some of their identifying features, describing commonly occurring or familiar species and some of their uses, and bringing to life some of the unique aspects of their ecology.

Southern Africa has some truly remarkable trees, like this Aloe dichotoma growing in the Richtersveld.

We’ll start with the Rubiaceae.

Then move to the Fabaceae (defined broadly…and then narrowly as well, just for good measure…).

Third on our list (if you’re counting broadly…) is the wonky Celastraceae.

Fourth is the Euphorbiaceae.

Rounding off the top five is the Anacardiaceae, the most delicious family.

Just missing out on the top five is the Proteaceae…but only because most proteoids are shrubs.

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