The milkwood tree has been a constant in my life for as long as I remember. The trees grow prolifically in the coastal dune forests of the Wild Coast in the former Transkei “bantustan”, where I grew up. As we discovered as children, the gnarled branches make excellent resting spots in the shade for tired, salt- and sand-encrusted bodies. And those springy ones that twist close to the ground as they try to grow towards the light … well, the joys for small children are endless.
After I left the Transkei to study and work elsewhere, I would return every year to this piece of paradise. The milkwoods would be there, like sentries of a time when there were no cares. In Durban, I felt a comforting flutter of familiarity when I saw these same trees – albeit much smaller and seldom in a clump – on the city beachfront.
Today, a little further south from my childhood home, they shelter my outdoor gathering space, stretching their limbs overhead and lining the forest that my garden touches. I like to think that they are protecting this space. Hence, I did not sniff in derision when I read that the milkwood tree is associated with some powerful stuff: its energy is thought to bring a deep sense of connection and belonging and to help us “with feeling at home in the world” (more on this here).
These trees and those that I knew so well in the Transkei and chanced upon in Durban are the coastal red milkwood (Mimusops caffra). The South African National Biodiversity Institute tells us that it is found naturally in dune forest in KwaZulu-Natal and the Transkei, and is common from Port Alfred and Bathurst (small towns about 150km to the south of East London) and all the way to Mozambique. It’s a protected tree in South Africa, which means that it may not be cut, disturbed, damaged or destroyed.
Those in my garden are sporting fat red fruit right now: the birds love them, and the monkeys gorge on them. The berries prettily decorate the table. They seed themselves freely, and it’s always a thrill seeing a baby milkwood sprouting from the black, sandy soil.
Two other Mimusops are indigenous to South Africa: the bush red milkwood (M obovata), which is bigger, and the Transvaal red milkwood (M zeyheri), which has yellow fruit.
Then there is the white milkwood, also indigenous to South Africa, but that’s a different genus entirely (Sideroxylon inerme). As a child, I remember being intrigued when we stopped in Mossel Bay on a long road trip to Cape Town to have a look at the “post-office tree”, which functioned as a post office for European colonists in the 1500s: people would tuck letters into the tree. This enormous, sprawling tree is a white milkwood.
A different matter entirely is Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio drama, Under Milk Wood, later made into a stage play and a movie. It’s set in a make-believe village called Llareggub (try it backwards), and it’s about the dreams and lives of the people who live there. No resemblance intended, I promise, not even on this April Fool’s Day!