A story from Karichota
In this brief survey of the important trees at Karichota, we are almost obliged to start with the tree which dominates the landscape.
Known in Kikuyu as Mutarakwa, to English speakers as the pencil cedar, it is actually a juniperus (procera) but you almost never hear it called that! The first remarkable aspect is its growing style. There are three clear stages: in a protected environment, wildlings spring up readily and appear as random sticks stuck in the ground; in the second stage (after 2-3 years) they develop an almost perfect “Xmas Tree” form; towards the end of their lives they become exceedingly dry and sparse and stick up out of the forest like natural lightning rods – indeed they are prone to be struck by lightning as we experienced last year when five of them were hit by one massive strike and came crashing to the ground.
Mutarakwa are also ready hosts to mugumu fig trees (Ficus thonningii) which love to wrap their strangling roots around the rough-barked trunks. When the lightning struck last year, an entire fig came crashing to the ground with the Mutarakwa! Bees are fond of creating wild hives in their trunks and our indigenous forest epiphyte orchids enjoy the flakey bark, so much that on the older trees the entire tree top can be covered with the Tridactyle bicaudata orchid which is the most common species in the Burguret forest. Hartlaub Turacos are fond of its berries and flock around the Karichota houses when the female fruit is ripe. Curiously, the Mutarakwa is not as social as most of our trees and does not “clump” as well as most. Elephants seem not to be tempted to uproot them, which explains part of their success in the forest.
In general, the population of Mutarakwa has been devastated throughout Kenya, primarily because the tree contains chemicals which make it resistant to termite damage, particularly in the red wood sections of the tree; the white cedar sections lack this resistance. This has made it the tree of choice in the making of fence poles, roof shingles and building supports. In Gathiuru Forest Station there is a plantation of cedar which is over a 100 years old – a magnificent sight!
Seedlings are readily available through the Mt. Kenya Trust and at the government forest stations; go ahead and plant as many as you can!