How to interpret the smells of the bushveld

This time of year is by far our favourite. As the bushveld comes alive as do our senses with all the incredible sights, smells and sounds that surround us. EcoTraining's David Havemann speak to us about what these smells mean and how to interpret them.

The southern Africa bushveld is blessed with over 2,000 tree varieties, imagine putting all those flowers into a collage of creativity. As guides, you will find your eyes being drawn to a rainbow of colours splashed around the once baron bush.

The Greater Kruger has around 330 indigenous trees and a wonderful attribute of these organisms is that they are non-motile which means, lucky for us, they are easy to find.

What you will come to realize as the season becomes hotter and more humid, is that you don’t just rely on your sense of sight to find each tree’s unique character but your sense of smell as well.

I’ve always encouraged my guests and students when out on safari to enjoy the fresh air of the amazing bush that surrounds us. Especially during the summer months of the year, with the first spring rains falling and the bushveld in bloom, there really is nothing better. Every smell that has been suppressed by months of dust burst out into full expression.

The longer you spend in the bushveld and start to tune yourself into natures unbounded creativity you will learn that most indigenous tree flowers have their own distinct scent.

But, how do you describe these smells to your guests?

This is very tricky as we all have our own opinions and experiences when it comes to the smells in the bush. So, let us talk about some of the ways that may make it easier to explain the smells.

These bushveld smells can be divided into 7 broad categories:

  • Musky – perfumes/aftershave
  • Putrid – rotten eggs
  • Pungent – vinegar
  • Camphoraceous – mothballs
  • Ethereal – dry cleaning fluid
  • Floral – roses
  • Pepperminty – mint gum

I’m happy to announce that there are not many unpleasant plant odours amongst the Bushveld trees. One of my favourite aromas is the woolly-caper bush (Capparis tomentosa) which is definitely a combination of floral and musky. There is always much anticipation when it comes to the flowers when in full bloom. Imagine a tennis ball size fruit, orange in colour and full of yumminess. That’s if you can get to them before the baboons.

There is another potent smell that comes out at night, the locals say that this is what the breath of a southern African python smells like. You generally only smell this bush down in drainage lines, which happens to be where the python likes to hang out.

This is another one of my favourite smells, this plant is called a potato bush creeper (Lycianthes rantonnetii) and as you will see the flowers are really really small. The main reason for this intense fragrance is to attract moths at night to help with pollination, amazing!

This is a wonderful subject to wrap your mind around, especially as a guide, try and be as creative as possible and learn to bring the bush to life.

For example, when the shaving brush bushwillows (Combretum mossambicense) are out in full swing, pick a flower and instead of using shaving cream use some mud.

This is a wonderful introduction to the interconnection between the biotic and the abiotic and great way to keep kids engaged on your safari. Please remember fellow guides to always be as sensitive as possible when it comes to picking flowers, an apology towards the plant goes a long way.

If you love plants and flowers, we have a wonderful Flora Friday Series on our YouTube Channel if you are interested in learning more about different trees, grasses, sedges and their flowers. But in the meantime, here is an awesome video with David Havemann as he chats about one of our favourite smelling plants out there, the coconut-scented sage (Syncolostemon canescens).