Poison arrow tree

Acokanthera schimperi


In Elspeth Huxley’s truly terrifying novel, “The African Poison Murders”, written in 1938, many unpleasant characters run around the highland farming community trying to outdo each other in business, seduce each other’s wives and in some cases even do away with each other, but the true villain of the piece is a little tin of black poison, made from the roots of our good friend the Morijio tree. Rumoured to be strong enough to kill an elephant from an arrow tip dosage and capable of finishing you off if you use it’s wood to roast meat, it is clearly not to be messed with. Elephants however, seem to delight in its fruit, and my lovely friend Chebet said she used to eat them freely as a child, in the woods around Eldoret. Chebet is a sturdy girl though, and grew up on ugali and mursik, so it takes a lot to knock her over! There are reports of extracts being used medicinally but it doesn’t sound like a very good idea.

It is not too easy to distinguish the Morijio from other, surrounding forest trees, so I keep one (behind a shrub) near the house so I can make sure all the visitors know what it looks like. It is similar in build to the Olive trees, and the leaves are similar to Euclea divinorum (Mukinyei) though brighter and more oval, and in the habit of growing more upright. Trying to describe it gives me a good excuse to reprint Franz Eugen Köhler’s magnificent drawings from his 1897 Medizinal-Pflanzen (in the public domain). Note that the male and female flowers are on different trees, making it dioecious. Nice word.

For those of you who have travelled to the more remote parts of this extraordinary country, how many settlements have you noticed with a lone tree standing at the centre of the village, and how often does that tree turn out to be our friend the Morijio? This is because nothing will go near it except elephants , so the tree is left alone, even though all else has been grazed or turned into charcoal. How many places do you know that bear this name?

One great beneficiary of their somewhat anti-social attitude is our orchid population; orchids hate to be disturbed, and nothing disturbs the Morijio, so you will often find them festooned with orchids of many species. At Karichota the Chameangis sarcophylla in particular seem to always choose the Morijio as their most desirable residence, as you can clearly see in the photo below.

And we also love it, and plant it widely as it is a vital part of our environment. But if you choose to do so, please remember where you put them……