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|Habitat||Varied, but reportedly prefers barren, rocky ground.|
Umdhlebi or umdhlebe is an unverified plant species purported to originate in Zululand, South Africa. Henry Callaway's The Religious System of the Amazulu (1870) records several stories of the tree; an additional report appeared in an 1882 note in the journal Nature written by Reverend G. W. Parker, a missionary in Madagascar.
To date, no specimen of the umdhlebe has ever been recovered, and other than 19th-century anecdotal evidence, no further verification is known to exist.
Though providing little in the way of physical description—focusing instead on the extreme toxicity of the plant and its purported capacity for movement—the accounts collected by Callaway nonetheless mention several varieties of umdhlebe.:421–427 Parker describes two of these in greater detail: a small, shrub-like form, and a larger tree with two layers of bark—a dead outer layer, and a new living layer that grows beneath it; both are described as having red and black fruit and brittle, glossy, lanceolate leaves.
The fruit of the tree was reported to hang from branches like small poles.
The umdhlebe is reported to grow in a variety of habitats, but to prefer rocky ground. Parker notes that due to superstition, the area around the tree is never inhabited despite often being fertile'.
The umdhlebe was reported to be extremely toxic, poisoning any living thing upon approach and leaving the ground around it littered with skeletons.:421 When damaged, it was reported to release a dangerously caustic fluid.:422, note 86Symptoms of the tree's poison reportedly included chills, headache, bloodshot eyes, severe pain, abdominal swelling, diarrhea, fever, delirium, and death.:423–424The mechanism by which this poison is delivered is unclear. Parker mentions the possibility of "carbonic acid gas" exuded from the soil around the tree, but notes that the tree is not confined to such soils; Callaway records a case in which a large number of people were sickened, some fatally, after using umdhlebe wood as fuel for a cooking fire.:424–425
The fruit of the umdhlebe was accorded medicinal properties, including acting as an antidote to the tree's own poison. The collection of these fruits required that the tree's poison be avoided or ameliorated through one of several methods - by making use of unspecified medicines,:423 by offering a goat or sheep to propitiate the tree's spirit, or simply by approaching the tree from the windward side.
Name and identity
Callaway speculates that the tree is "a kind of aspen",:421, note 85 and notes a similarity to the folklore surrounding the upas of Java — a resemblance also mentioned by the botanist William Turner Thiselton-Dyer in the introduction to Parker's note.
Responding to Parker's letter, a writer identified only as 'H.M.C.' proposed that the word 'umdhlebe' is a derivative of the Zulu root hlaba, and speculated that the legend may have its origin in accounts of one or more members of the spurge family.
- Parker, G.W.; Thistleton Dyer, W. T. (2 November 1882). "Umdhlebi Tree of Zululand". Nature. 27 (679): 7. doi:10.1038/027007a0.
- Callaway, Henry (1884) . The Religious System of the Amazulu (in English and isiZulu). Springvale, Natal: The Folk-Lore Society – via Internet Archive.
- "H.M.C." (9 November 1882). "The Umdhlebe Tree of Zululand". Nature. 27 (680): 32. doi:10.1038/027032a0. Retrieved 22 June 2013.