The Quiver Tree

Namibia is purported to have some of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world. But what’s more fascinating are the stories behind the artful images they depict—plant and animal life, traditional cultures, history and landmark events. Many people are unfamiliar with Namibia—until they visit on our motorcycle safaris and fall in love with it.

This month we take a look at the Quiver Tree.

stamp quiver tree blutkuppe - van ellinckhuizen 1993 smallNamed in 1685 by Simon van der Stel, then governor of the Cape, branches from this national plant symbol were hollowed out by the San to make quivers for their arrows.

Botanically, it’s a species of aloe indigenous to Southern Africa and is found most commonly on slopes or tops of rocky hills, growing in solitude or clusters. The tree reaches heights of three to nine metres, with branches that divide in the shape of a “Y” once it reaches two to three metres. The semi-spherical crown that develops makes the trees appear as giant mushrooms. Lifespan estimates range between 100 to 200 years, with 130 years generally accepted.

As is the way with all of Mother Nature’s creations, it’s perfectly suited for its environment. Thick succulent leaves and spongy fibres in the stem and branches store large quantities of water for a long time. The leaf’s smooth waxy surface minimizes the chance of evaporation. A thin layer of white powder covers the fissured golden bark, deflecting sunlight, and scales produce a cooling effect in soft breezes. Leafy rosettes grow only at the ends of stumpy branches high above the desert floor, reducing evaporative water loss.

Bright yellow blossoms appear for the first time when the Quiver tree is 20 to 30 years old. The abundant nectar attracts sunbirds who often nest in enlarged hollows in the stem.

stamp fish river canyon quiver tree smallRed alert was declared at the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2010 after observers noted entire groups of Quiver trees were dying while hardly any young trees had been discovered. The conclusion is controversial and experts have commented that advocates of climate change theory have not sufficiently studied the plant itself.

It’s not necessarily alarming when groups of quiver trees die simultaneously, given natural weather patterns and the fact that trees growing in clusters often germinated at the same time. Once seedlings have survived the critical early stages and developed into drought resistant plants, a Quiver tree population has 100 years in which it can wait for a succession of years with good rainfall. Many variable can influence sustainability over such a long period so accurate trends can be difficult to identify.

Nonetheless, warnings of climatologists are being taken seriously. In addition to the threat from climatic conditions affecting seedling growth, goats, and plant collectors have contributed to steadily diminishing numbers of Quiver trees.

Source: Stamps and Stories, Vol. 1, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012.