Turraea nilotica is a deciduous shrub or small tree native to tropical areas in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania & Sudan, and south to the northern part of South Africa. It can be found growing in sandy to rocky ground or on termite mounds in wooded grasslands including Bushveld regions, and is commonly known as the Bushveld honeysuckle tree, Miombo honeysuckle tree, or small mahogany. The name nilotica means “of the Nile Valley”.
At mature height, this spreading tree may reach 2 to 10m in height. In its first year of growth, the main stem is covered in fine hairs; by the next year, the bark is nearly smooth. As the plant ages, the flaking bark becomes cork-like. The newer twigs often have whitish lenticels, or pores in the bark that enable gas exchange. The pubescent leaves are elliptic to obovate in shape, with curled edges and rounded apexes. Leaf undersides can be particularly woolly and show strong venation patterns. The leaves are arranged alternately, a feature which differentiates Turraea nilotica from the similar-looking Vangueria infausta.
The delicate, and maybe even a bit Seussian, flowers open in July, while the twigs are still bare. When newly opened, the flared staminal tube is greenish-white in colour; as time passes, the tube colour changes to a lemon-yellow. The inside surface of the staminal tube is coated with a layer of long hairs. The exserted style is approximately twice the length of the staminal tube. Flowers are noticeably fragrant despite their small size, and are usually borne at the tips of the shoots in clusters of 5-18. They last until September to October, when they are replaced by flattened globose capsules about 1.25cm in diameter. These are dry and leathery on the outsides, and split apart to reveal black kidney-shaped seeds half-covered by neon orange-red arils.
As is characteristic of its genus, the root bark of Turraea nilotica is rich in limonoids. Traditionally, the roots of this species have been used to treat toothaches, pneumonia, epilepsy, abdominal pain and venereal diseases (among other sicknesses), according to Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park by Ernst Schmidt, Mervyn Lötter, and Warren McClelland (2002) and the CRC World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants by Umberto Quattrochi (2012). The fresh leaves are sometimes eaten, though they are said to become toxic when dried. Mohamed Pakia’s book, African Traditional Plant Knowledge Today (2006), states that the branches have been used as cooking sticks. Turraea nilotica is also a food plant for Pseudaphelia apollinaris larvae.