Brazilian plant takes over Eastern Highlands

Choking pine trees in Border Timbers' Tilbury estate along Chimanimani mountains

By Norma Tsopo

Vernonanthura phosphorica, a native of Brazil, has been taking over Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands.

Introduced in neighbouring Mozambique in the 1990s, to aid honey production, the plant was for almost two decades only described as a mysterious and aggressive invasive plant as it took over huge swaths of agricultural land to the horror of villagers and timber producers.

Choking pine trees in Border Timbers’ Tilbury estate along Chimanimani mountains

Emerging after a tropical cyclone that hit the southern African country in 2000 the plant is believed to have been spread these winds from across the mountains.

For long unidentified by both the national herbarium and forestry commission, local identified it simply as either Cyclone or Mupesepese, a Shona language pan for something occurring everywhere, highlighting how pervasive it occurs.

Bart Wursten, a leading Zimbabwe plant expert, says while the seeds of eastern Zimbabwe’s scourge may have been carried across by the cyclone its rapid spread may be that previously well-tended farms had become neglected or abandoned after the country’s chaotic land reform programme that also began in the same year.

Close up of the leaves of the plant

“This of course happened at the exact same time, in 2000, as the cyclone,” he told Thomas Reuters Foundation.

To confirm Wursten’s perspective, locals say the plant has not been able to establish itself in parts of the Vumba that are undisturbed.

“It appears as if the plant takes advantage of openings in the forest as it has not been able to establish itself in areas that have not been tempered with,” Innocent Bode a local tour guide said.

Reproducing using seeds the plant has now completely taken over huge portions suppressing all other vegetation – often so tightly packed that not even small animals can navigate areas it would have colonised.

Flowers of the horror plant

In communal areas across the Eastern Highlands, villagers have been fighting the plant as it threatens their fields and pasture.

But not so the commercial areas where the country’s top timber producers – Border Timbers, Allied Timbers and Wattle Company are not any closer to stemming the infestation of their plantations nearly two decades after it emerged.

The fast-growing woody plant is currently spreading unhindered throughout their exotic timber plantations as well as national parks which are largely poorly managed at the back of decades-long economic depression.

Timber Producers Federation (TPF), a representative organisation of the organisations, says it could not make much progress without concretely identifying the aggressive invasive plant.

The plant does not produce any fruit and it’s not woody enough to be useful as firewood. But perpetually in flower, its only consolation, those in apiculture are the only ones with smiles on their faces.

The concern though is that the plant is a threat to the region’s rich biodiversity.

Lawrence Nyagwande, a forester and beekeeper, says more research needs to be done before completely condemning the plant as a threat.

“There is need to clearly understand this plant before we classify it as an invasive plant that should be destroyed wherever it’s found.

“Its benefits to apiculture are huge and the quality of the honey is good – clear with good aroma,” Nyagwande said.

For those who have had the plant on their properties there should be no second thoughts about fighting it.

In the Vumba, tourism and hospitality players have been coordinating efforts to push back the aggressive plant that has completely taken over former coffee farms and any openings in the montane forests’ vegetation cover.

Led by Leopard Rock Hotel’s Samir Shasha, they have been researching and sourcing herbicides to contain the plant.

The hotel which also owns a nature reserve has also been deploying staff to clear the plant which is now commonly referred to as bee bush.

Worryingly, some of the plants that had been cut and poisoned with the herbicide are regenerating in a devilish resilience that signals a long and drawn out struggle to place this evil genie back in its box.

With government a long way from taking any notice of the plant – it may be well on course to claim the entire Eastern Highlands. And beyond.