The Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST has this year planted several tree species but one species called Albizia labbeck (Mtangatanga) is of vital importance due to its ecological, economical, medicinal and social values.
As we look after this species, the MUST community, especially students and academic members of staff of the Ndata School of Climate and Earth Sciences, Malawi Institute of Technology and Academy of Medical Sciences should note that we have a multipurpose “mine” in the name of Albizia lebbeck.
Albizia lebbeck is a fast-growing, medium-sized deciduous tree with a spreading umbrella-shaped crown of thin foliage, and smooth, finely fissured and grayish-brown bark.
Depending on site conditions, annual height growth ranges from 0.5 to 2.0m but on good sites, individual trees attain an average maximum height of 18 to 30m with a diameter at breast height of 50 to 80cm.
The species grows well from sea level to 1500m on sites receiving between 400 and 2,500mm annual rainfall and tolerates both light frosts and drought.
While it grows poorly on heavy clay soils, it tolerates saline, sodic and lateritic sites. The tree grows best on moist, well-drained soils.
The following summary of features and roles will, therefore, help us appreciate the usefulness of this tree species.
Firstly, it is almost green throughout the year hence it can be used as an ornamental and shady avenue tree . It is also a quick growing plant and as such it provides immediate benefit to the ecosystem and humans in terms of fuel wood and hard wood for timber.
The species has no negative ecological impacts and is not exacting in growth requirement and as such it can be grown in different climatic and edaphic (soil/rock) conditions.
It plays a big role in regulating gases in the atmosphere in particular oxygen and carbon dioxide and other green house gases.
Albizia lebbeck also regulates hydrological cycle together with other tree species and geospheric water sources and can be used as alternative forage, especially for sheep to Leucaena leucocephala in more acid soils.
It is a nitrogen-fixing tree therefore, it improves soil fertility. The extensive, shallow root system makes it a good soil binder and suitable for soil conservation and erosion control.
Traditionally, its various parts have been used to treat different ailments while its bark and pods contain saponins and tannins, used for making soap and in tanning, respectively. Note that leaves are free of toxins and tannins.
Having appreciated how Mtangatanga is being used elsewhere, it is now our turn as the MUST community to maximally utilize it.
For chemical and biochemical engineers/scientists, know that the plant is busy manufacturing and packaging the phytochemicals for itself and us to extract, analyze and quantify them as much as possible.
We need to go further to investigate how various microbial species respond to these phytochemicals. I guess this is what it means to be a university of science and technology.
*The author is lecturer in Biology and specialist in Environmental Management, Conservation and Restoration