Pick Your Poison: Traditional Uses of the Kigelia Tree
The kigelia, or “sausage tree,” is a common sight in the Serengeti.
“Kigelia-Africana-Serengeti” by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work by uploader, https://bjornfree.com/galleries.html. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kigelia-Africana-Serengeti.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Kigelia-Africana-Serengeti.JPG
It may have a mouth-watering name, but don’t eat from the sausage tree (the popular name for the kigelia) unless you know what you’re doing!
Tall, with smooth grey bark and beautiful, bell-shaped flowers, the kigelia tree is often cultivated ornamentally, but Tanzanian tribes have long been putting the tree’s eponymous sausage-shaped fruits—as well as its leaves and bark—to all sorts of uses for generations.
Some of the myriad health problems treated with extracts from various parts of the tree include malaria, headaches, syphilis and other venereal diseases, rheumatism, inflamed spleen, ulcers, and gastro-intestinal issues (just to name a few). The fruit is known to have anti-microbial properties, and is thought to help with skin problems like eczema and psoriasis. It often even makes its way into high-end anti-aging and beauty products!
The heavy oblong fruits give the sausage tree its vernacular name.
“Kigelia-Africana-Fruit” by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work by uploader, https://bjornfree.com/galleries.html. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kigelia-Africana-Fruit.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Kigelia-Africana-Fruit.JPG
So why call it poison?
First off, one of the most popular ways to use the sausage tree’s fruits is in a traditional beer enjoyed by the Kikuyu people (get it?). Secondly, if you consume the tree’s fruits raw, they’re highly poisonous. So that one’s pretty literal.
(Which reminds us of one more “medicinal” property ascribed to the tree: it’s an extremely effective emetic.)
In order to make the fruits safe for beer brewing, they must first be sun-dried, then fermented with sugar cane juice for around 24 hours, then dried again, before finally being added to a large barrel of sugar cane juice, where they’ll ferment for around four days. The final beverage should taste sour, smell boozy, and hopefully not act as an immediate emetic (at least when consumed in moderation).
Besides being drunk, the beer is also commonly used as a soothing bath for children suffering from measles (whether “retains the fruit’s anti-inflammatory properties” makes a drink more or less appealing, of course, is a matter of personal preference).
Beyond potential poisonousness, and the very real chance of inebriation, there’s another good reason to be cautious of the sausage tree and its famous fruits: their size.
Dense and fibrous, the fruits can grow to over three feet in length, weighing upwards of 22 pounds. That’s a serious enough missile that even safari vehicles (a notoriously rugged lot) can take serious damage from the falling fruits.
So enjoy the lovely flowers and strange, sausage-like fruits of the kigelia tree…preferably from a safe distance.
Sausage fruits aren’t the ONLY thing that can fall out of kigelia trees…
Video: Thomson Safaris guest, Bob Phillips