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Artist’s rendering of Umdhlebi by Jashawk

Umdhlebi ( also known as Umdhlebe or Umdhlebie) is an unverified plant species purported to originate in Zululand, South Africa. It was first reported in the journal Nature on November 2nd, 1882 by Reverend G. W. Parker, a missionary in South Africa.

The Umdhlebi was described as having large, fragile green leaves, and two layers of bark—a dead outer layer that hung off the tree, and a new living layer that grew beneath it. The fruit of the tree was reported to be red and black, and hung from branches like small poles. Parker said the Umdhlebi poisoned animals that approached so that the natural process of decay would fertilize the soil in which it was growing. The ground around it was often littered with skeletons. When damaged, it was reported to release a dangerously caustic fluid.

Symptoms of the tree's poison reportedly included headache and bloodshot eyes, severe pain, abdominal swelling, diarrhea, fever, followed by delirium and then death. Parker never identified the source or nature of its poison, but hypothesized that it secreted a poisonous gas from the soil around its roots. In the 17th century, Missionary Henry Callaway records a case in which a large number of people were fatally sickened after using umdhlebi wood as fuel for a cooking fire.

According to Parker, Zulus sacrificed sheep and goats to the tree to calm the evil spirit. Unfortunately, as of 2013, no specimen of the Umdhlebi has ever been recovered, and other than 19th century anecdotal evidence no further verification is known to exist.

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Identification:

However as European missionaries were not familiar with local languages, it is almost certainly a misspelling of a real local tree called the Umdlebe (Synadenium cupulare).

  • In Zulu, dle is pronounced much like the German sch, which sounds like an H. As such this word is pronounced Um-sch-le-beh

However be aware Synadenium cupulare is local taxonomy. International taxonomy still classifies the tree as Euphorbia cupularis. This is a potential source for confusion as 2 very different trees are now being classified as one.

This tree is known locally in South Africa as "The Dead mans tree" or "dooiemansboom" in Afrikaans or the Gum tree. This tree is native to KwaZulu-Natal (previously known to the British as Zululand) and Zimbabwe.

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Here is an extract from a local South African website describing the Umdlebe:

"The ominously deadman’s tree is known in isiZulu as umdlebe and the tree has the reputation as a dangerous source of magical and spiritual powers. The latex of this euphorbia can be highly toxic and is a rich source of complex elements of skin irritant properties. It may cause severe burning to the skin and eyes, nostrils and lips, causing serious inflammation and blistering that often last for several hours.

The burning sensation can be felt even if there was no direct contact with the skin as it is claimed the plant has the ability to release the irritant vapour chemically. The latex may cause permanent blindness by completely destroying the cornea of the eye.

If parts of the plant is ingested it is potentially fatally poisonous"

The source can be found here:

https://www.northwestnewspapers.co.za/herald/galleries/schools/primary-schools/rga/38-series/indigenous-trees/english-indigenous-trees/194-deadmans-tree

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