Saving the critically endangered Mutavhatsindi tree

A committed group of conservationists and horticulturalists have successfully propagated a critically endangered tree that is prized for its medicinal properties and is getting perilously close to being extinct in the wild.

The breakthrough was achieved by a team from SANBI, conservation horticulturist and tree expert Mpendulo Gabayi from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, horticulturalist Mpho Mathalauga from KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden, and Ntsakisi Masia (seed collector - Millennium Seed Bank Partnership) from Thohoyandou National Botanical Garden, who have successfully propagated the critically endangered Mutavhatsindi (Yellow Peeling Plain) tree.

The saplings of propagated trees will be used to establish ex situ collections and provide an opportunity for more propagation research trials at Cape Town's Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, as well as Thohoyandou National Botanical Garden. The overall success of this project contributes to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation.

In 2020 Gabayi highlighted the threats to the Mutavhatsindi tree's existence in South Africa, as none had been successfully propagated before. The trees only exist in a small 110-hectare subpopulation in Mutavhantsindi Nature Reserve in Limpopo where they are favoured for their medicinal benefits and are therefore heavily harvested. Missouri Botanical Garden and the University of Venda, together with the SANBI team collaborated to save this highly endangered tree species.

This project was supported by ArbNet, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, the Millenium Seed Bank Partnership and Propagation BioScience Research (PBR) International. These institutions teamed up to create a long- term project that will eventually result in saving and preserving the South African gene pool through ex situ and in situ conservation.

The Mutavhatsindi, scientifically known as Brackenridgea Zanguebarica, is a species of tree that has been under extreme threat due to the harmful harvesting of mature tree parts, which inevitably resulted in the poor regeneration of the new generations of trees.

"Mutavhatsindi is highly sought after for its medicinal bark and roots, and traditional healers use the yellow dye to treat wounds, worms, aching hands, swollen ankles, and amenorrhea. Due to its severe rarity and limited occurrence, the tree is currently categorized as Critically Endangered on the Red List of South African Plants," explains Gabayi, who says that the Mutavhatsindi tree was propagated successfully after experimenting with many different propagation methods without success.

The breakthrough was achieved through the manipulation of Plant Growth Regulators using the air layering method and Dyna Ball (PBR international). The propagules had shown a good set of healthy roots emerging but had a low rooting percentage of 15%. Through a successful procedure of air layering, new trees can be grown from branches that are still attached to the parent plant. More propagation methods and procedures are still under trial to build onto the current successful experiment.

"For future generations to appreciate the existence of the Mutavhasindi tree, it is of utmost importance that the need for its conservation is incorporated into education, communication, and public awareness programmes," said Gabayi.

"By exchanging information on environmental legislation and methods of propagation and cultivation, people will better understand the value of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably.

"This coincides with SANBI's overall mandate to explore, reveal, celebrate and champion biodiversity for the benefit and enjoyment of all South Africans," concludes Gabayi.

For more information on the conservation efforts and unique species found at Kirstenbosch visit: