Zambia

Livingstone

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Elephant toothpicks

Elephant toothpicks

Elephant toothpicks
Peter Roberts

Standing like sentinels guarding the dappled woodland, spiky Sansevieria pearsonii plants have acquired many nick-names: gemsbok horn, mother-in-law’s tongue and elephant toothpick. Their stiff, upright leaves are lined with conspicuous ridges, which enclose long, whitish fibres.

Strong cord is made locally from these fibres, which can be easily extracted from softened leaves. A common practice is to soak the leaves in the river for two weeks. After that, the fleshy plant tissue is scraped away, leaving behind a mass of hairlike string.

To form a plaited rope, two or three bunches are rolled side-byside on the leg to create tension, which makes the separate strings curl up and wind around each other. The resulting cord can be used to tie up makoros (dug-out canoes), construct bird traps, and string together stonefilled cocoons to make rattles. Perhaps it could even be used as dental floss…for elephants!

The leaves shoot up from rhizomes that grow horizontally just under the surface of the ground. These rhizomes form a network that may extend for hundreds of metres, spreading the plant in all directions. In July, pinkish-grey flower buds open to reveal creamy star-like flowers, held on long stalks. On winter evenings, their heady fragrance sits in a layer of cool air, attracting moths for pollination, and enveloping passers-by in sweet scent.

When the flowers have been pollinated, they transform into small, green berries, which turn bright-orange when ripe. Many birds feed on these delights from late October onwards.

Locally, the plant is known as musokasebe, a name composed of two parts: musoka, meaning to cook; and sebe, which is the ear. This may come from the well-known practice of using the leaf sap as a remedy for earache. First, the leaf is heated over a fire, making the tough outer layer softer and more flexible. Then, the leaf is twisted above the infected ear, allowing sap to drip in and reach the ear drum.

Laboratory tests on other species of Sansevieria in Botswana have confirmed that leaf extracts are effective in combating ear infections caused by Streptococcus bacteria. Antibiotic properties are a common feature of many plants in the Livingstone area, but this one seems particularly simple to administer.

Take care when packing it into your first aid box, however, as those leaves have ferociously sharp tips!

More articles in this series:
Rainforest Riches (ZT, Issue 13, June 2013)
Berry banquet (ZT, Issue 12, March 2013)
Marvellous Mangoes (ZT, Issue 11, December 2012)
Underground Forests (ZT, Issue 10, September 2012)
The healing powers of Aloes (ZT, Issue 09, June 2012)
Dogbane Drugs (ZT, Issue 08, March 2012)
Devil’s Claw (ZT, Issue 07, December 2011)
Elephant Toothpicks (ZT, Issue 06, Sept 2011)