Africa

Tropical vegetation of Africa and Madagascar

Much of the African tropics is covered by the Sahara which has few species relative to the wet tropics of equatorial Africa.  In terms of area the largest tropical African biome is desert, followed by savannah (grassland) and thirdly the wet tropical forests of the Congo Basin and Madagascar.  Perhaps the most iconic plant of the African dry tropics is the Baobab (Adansonia spp.) which has a massive water storing trunk with a relatively small bunch of branches at the top. An endemic family is the Didiereaceae, a small group of spiny succulent plants similar in appearance to the cacti of the Americas. Another is Dioncophyllaceae including the liane Triphyophyllum peltatum which has a juvenile phase of growing sticky carnivorous leaves but, when mature, sends a climbing shoot bearing hooked leaves into the forest canopy.

Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) is one of the most important crops originating in Africa, closely followed by coffee (Arabica – Coffea arabica, and Robusta – Coffea canephora) from the uplands of East Africa.  The banana orginated in the far east and the peanut in South America despite being linked to mass production in Africa.  Millet (Pennisetum spp.) and Sorghum (Sorghum spp.) did originate in Africa and reflect the predominance of grassland habitats in the continent.  The Madagascan Rosy Periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus, produces the chemicals vinblastine and vincristine that are used in the treatment of leukaemia.

Catharanthus roseus from Madagascar

Catharanthus roseus from Madagascar

Tropical African forest is typified by a combination of trees from Leguminosae (e.g. Brachystegia), Sterculiaceae (e.g. Cola), Meliaceae (e.g. Carapa), Euphorbiaceae (e.g. Macaranga) and Moraceae (e.g. Ficus).  These forests also include a wide range of palms including the rattans (Calamus spp.).  Offshore, in the Seychelles archipelago, grows the Double coconut (Lodoicea maldivica) which boasts the largest seed in the world.

  • Baobabs may live over 5000 years and reach over 30 metres in circumference
  • Coffee originated in Ethiopia yet Brazil is now the largest producer
  • Cocoa originated in Brazil but 70% of cocoa now comes from West Africa
  • Ancistrocladus korupensis from Cameroon may have anti-AIDS properties

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