Mopane can take the form of a shrub or a tall tree with a narrow crown. Whatever the shape it will dominate the area with little else growing around it. They have kidney-shaped pods and distinctive butterfly-shaped leaves which turn from a vibrant green to a golden brown in autumn. The tree is prevalent in hot, dry, low lying areas of clay-like soil.
The scientific name for the mopane tree is derived from the Greek word Colophospermum which means oily seed and mopane which is the Shona word for butterfly, referening to the shape of its leaves.
The juvenile stage of the sap sucking insect, mopane psyllid (Arytaina Mopani) produces a sweet-tasting waxy cover which is eaten by people.
The cocoons spun by the Gonometa caterpillar (Gonometa rufobrunnea) are harvested for their silk from mopane trees.
Green leaves of the mopane are very high in protein as too are the dry fallen ones which retain 40% of their original protein.
The 10 cm long mopane worm which cover mopane trees in summer offer a great revenue source to the rural economy, this large caterpillar of the emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina) is either roasted or dried before being eaten along with maize as a high protein meal.
The 4mm long mopane bee (Plebina denoita) causes an annoyance to people when it swarms. In search of moisture they will try to crawl into people’s eyes, nose and mouth. On the plus side they produce a small amount of edible honey.
To conserve water on hot or windy days the 2 sides of the mopane leaf will limit evaporation by folding together and thus reducing the surface area that is exposed.
Mopane is one of the heaviest woods in South Africa weighing in at more than 1 ton per cubic metre.