James Odell, OMD, ND, L.Ac.
Okoubaka aubrevillei is a deciduous, monoecious tropophyte tree of the equatorial forest in West Africa, particularly in Ghana, Nigeria and on the Ivory Coast. It can grow to 40 meters in height and 3 meters in diameter. It belongs to the family of the Santalaceae, or the sandalwood family. In 1944, the tree was mistakenly categorized as being a member of the Octonemataceae family and it was not until 1957 that the tree was correctly categorized as a member of the Santalaceae family. However, the earlier taxonomy mistake crops up in literature again and again, even in more recent publications.1
The tree has a magnificent crown with drooping branches, pendulums, with oval and serrated leaves of about 15 cm. long and 10 cm. wide. Tiny, gray flowers appear on old branches, their fruits turn a strong yellow when ripe.
It is a semi-parasitic tree in which its roots attach to those of neighboring plants. This allows it to destroy surrounding plants likely to compete for water, light, and food. This explains why other plants around it do not thrive, an observation that has traditionally contributed to the belief that the tree has magical powers. The name Oku Baka is from the Anyin language, a Niger-Congo language spoken mainly in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. It translates as ‘tree of death’ due to its effect on surrounding vegetation.
Based on the records available for this genus, the population of Okoubaka aubrevillei in its range is probably less than 250 mature trees. The populations of the tree appear to have declined sharply (over 25%) in the last 60 years, in many locations - Cameroon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire.2, 3 Though the distribution range is more than 100 km2, it has been shown to be rare in all its reported locations. This scarcity is due to massive deforestation in western Africa, high demand for its bark and seeds for medicine, as well as its highly-priced wood. Thus, it is currently ranked as endangered and is subject to special monitoring. Despite the fact that the tree is reported in protected areas in many parts of its ranges, strict protection and management of protected areas have been characterized by widespread encroachment, poor staffing, inadequate funding, presence of enclave villages, land conversion to farming, and several other illegal activities in Nigeria4, 5, and other African countries.6, 7, 8
Folk Lore and Traditional Usage
Okoubaka has long been viewed as a mysterious medicinal tree, used both for its wood and therapeutic properties by shamans in West Africa. Traditional African medicine and shamanism were the dominant medical system for centuries successfully treating millions of people in Africa prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Formerly clouded in the secrecy of the magical realm of the African shamans and traditional healers, Okoubaka was used for stomach and intestinal conditions, food poisoning, various intoxications, infections, and even diseases of the skin.
The bark, leaves, and seeds of the plant have traditionally been used as a talisman to ward off evil spirits. The tree is considered invaluable for this reason and has been associated with the most stringent of taboos. Its usage was strictly reserved for local shamans. In order to prevent themselves from being poisoned the bark of the tree was chewed by African chiefs to protect themselves before meetings and visits to foreign tribe members. To resolve tribal feuds, adding poisons to food was commonly used. Many tasters’ of a tribal chief possibly owe his life to this bark. Current day African herbalists still prepare a powder from the tree's bark which is used against all kinds of poisoning.
There have emerged numerous records of Okoubaka being used for a wide variety of afflictions and conditions. The bark and seed have been used for the treatment of mental conditions (insanity)9 and for treatment of convulsions, as an aphrodisiac, for rituals and prevention of miscarriage.10 The bark and leaves have also been reported as a treatment for reducing swollen testicles (orchitis) among Edo people of Nigeria.11
In Akoase, Southern Ghana, the seeds were used in postnatal care, and its branches were tied on a broken limb, along with other plants, for the healing of the limbs.12 The bark is also reported to be used as an antidote for venomous stings and bites etc., and in the treatment of dropsy, swellings, gout, heart, leprosy, and venereal diseases.13