Wagon Tree Protea nitida
Wagons for Firewood: Protea nitida Wagontree Waboom
If three "scientific" names seem a lot to cope with, then the vernacular names will leave you utterly confused. Protea nitida has been known as Blousuikerbos (the leaves have a bluish tinge, referred to as "glaucus"), Bobbejaansuikerbos (baboons may climb the trees to feed on the nectar in the flowerheads, or even to use as sentry posts), Brandhout (a name commonly given to firewood: apparently it was the only tree used for firewood when Thunberg visited the Cape in 1773), Suikerbos (the Afrikaans for proteas), and Waboom (it was used for the wheel rims and brake blocks of wagons). Waboom was first recorded in 1720, so that the common name has been in use a lot longer than the scientific name. The English name "Wagon Tree" was obtained from the "National List of Trees". The little we know concerning the use of the Wagon Tree comes from the accounts of the early explorers Masson (1773), Thunberg (1773), Burchell (1882) and a few surviving antiques.
Rourke (1982) illustrates some of the uses of Wagon Tree wood as kitchen utensils and furniture. The wood was popular for ornamental furniture because of its reticulated grain and reddish colour. It also makes excellent charcoal, which probably resulted in large-scale destruction of Wagon Tree forests on Table Mountain in the 19th century. However, the Wagon Tree's fame lies in its use as wagon wheels "fellies" (rim pieces, five on fore and seven on rear wheels). It was also apparently used for brake blocks. However, its use in wagons appears to have stopped early on, and surviving wagons built in 1795 and 1860 contain no Wagon Tree wood: Rourke surmizes that `modern' models (ie post 1800) were not built using heavy woods, such as that of the Wagon Tree. Some firewood cutters maintain that the name comes from the use of Wagon Trees as sleds for hauling firewood down the mountains.
The bark was used for tanning leather. The stripping of bark was eventually outlawed in the Cedarberg because of heavy exploitation - bark collectors killed over 20 000 trees during 1891 in the Cedarberg area alone. The tannin-rich bark was also used as an infusion for treating diarrhoea.
Since the Wagon Tree grows on soils with gravel and clay, farmers use it as an "indicator species" betraying the prescence of more fertile and less acidic soils than that present beneath surrounding fynbos. How much Waboom-veld has been ploughed up is anyone's guess.
The leaves were used for making ink: Mary Yates of Humewood sent in the recipe below (using Wagon Tree ink, of course) and writes:
"My Waboom ink came from the Hout Bay Museum, but they don't keep it anymore and I have been unable to obtain details of the recipe. My efforst to make the ink have not met with much success. Three times I have turned out Khaki tar! I will get the proportions of leaves, nails and sugar candy right with more perserverance."
Eve Palmer records that Louis Trichardt, the Voortrekker leader, probably committed his ideas to paper using Wagon Tree ink.
Making ink from Waboom leaves
It was common practice amongst the early settlers to make ink and dye from the leaves of Protea nitida. Latrobe in 1816, travelling near Uitenhage, records that when his supply of ink ran out he continued his diary with ink made from the leaves of the Wageboom. Either dry or fresh leaves were boiled up with a rusty iron nail and a piece of sugar candy. The resulting fluid (a decoction) becomes a fine blue-black, ideal for dyeing and, especially as a black reviver.
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