The African Pencil Tree

The African Pencil Tree

Editor’s Note:

The Mascot

Juniperus procera

I would like to introduce you to a friend of ours here at Mezimbite Magazine: Juniperus procera – The African Pencil Tree.

You will be hearing a lot more about this tree on a new site called “Pencils for Africa dot com” which will be overseen by Olivia Ramsay.

Olivia has written a compelling article for us entitled “What then must we do?” – the classic question that Leo Tolstoy asked.

Olivia is answering this eternal question through two specific activities:

First, she will oversee a used pencil drive in order to deliver these pencils in the hands of children in Africa who can make good use of them.

Second, she is going to ensure that we do something to help our friend, The African Pencil Tree. Olivia Ramsay calls Juniperus procera “the mascot” for Pencils for Africa dot com.

The Red List

If you use pencils then you should know that this friend of ours has given us a lot.

Juniperus procera

The African Pencil Tree gets its name from centuries of use in the manufacture of pencils. This tree has given us literally millions, if not billions of pencils. Today however, it is on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The tree is categorized as NT or “Near Threatened”.

The categories after NT for Juniperus procera are: vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild and Extinct.

Palaeocoecologist and Mez Mag Contributing Editor, Elinor Breman has been doing some research for us on The African Pencil Tree. Some of you may recall that I conducted an interview with Elinor back in March.

Elinor contacted Aljos Farjon, one of the world’s foremost experts on The African Pencil Tree. Below is an excerpt of the research Aljos provided for Elinor.

The African Pencil Tree: Research by Aljos Farjon (an excerpt)

This species forms evergreen Afromontane forest (also locally invading onto savanna where fires permit), either with pure stands of Juniperus procera, or mixed coniferous, with Afrocarpus gracilior, Podocarpus milanjianus, or conifer-mixed angiosperm, with Olea chrysophylla, O. hochstetterii, Faurea saligna, Dombeya mastersii, Olinia rochetiana, Ilex mitis, Vepris nobilis and numerous smaller trees and shrubs, e.g. Agarista salicifolia, Catha edulis, Buddleja spp., Cadia purpurea, Cussonia spicata, Dodonaea sp., Erica arborea, Euclea schimperi, Faurea sp., Maytenus spp., Nuxia congesta, and Olea spp.

I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.

— John Muir

You cannot plant greatness as you plant yams or maize. Who ever planted an iroko tree—the greatest tree in the forest? You may collect all the iroko seeds in the world, open the soil and put them there. It will be in vain. The great tree chooses where to grow and we find it there…

— Chinua Achebe


About Aljos Farjon

Aljos Farjon

Aljos Farjon worked as a senior scientific officer for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where he headed the temperate section of its herbarium from 1996 until his retirement in 2006. He is now an honorary research associate with Kew.

A regular contributor to botanical scientific journals, Aljos has published ten books and more than 120 papers mainly but not exclusively on conifers. He is a fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

All trees held conferences except of course for conifer trees, which held coniferences.

— The Pencil Tree


The African Pencil Tree –  by Oxford Palaeoecologist Dr. Elinor Breman

(Elinor’s contribution below is based upon research provided to her by Aljos Farjon)

The African Pencil Tree, Juniperus procera, Hochst. Ex Endl., occurs in 11 countries across tropical Africa:

Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

It is also found on the Arabian Peninsula, its occurrence on either side of the Red Sea probably reflecting the recent opening of this incipient ocean. It is likely that Juniperus procera arrived in the region in the Miocene (23 – 5.3 million years ago) (Kerfoot, 1975), after which time the Sahara and Arabian Desert severed connections with Eurasian congeners.

Oxford University Ecologist and Palaeoecologist Dr. Elinor Breman

It is the only juniper to be found in sub-Saharan Africa, and so merits conservation – notably in Ethiopia and Kenya where old forest groves of this species are being depleted by logging.

The African Pencil Tree is known by many names across its extensive range (e.g. African pencil cedar, African juniper, East African cedar, Cedar; Tedh (Ethiopia); Deyib (Somalia)). It requires a tropical montane climate with prolonged dry season, and its altitudinal range is 1370-3000 m.a.s.l.. Found on mountain slopes, summits, escarpments, outcrops and in forested ravines it establishes in sand, loam or clay over various rock types, e.g. basalt, volcanic ash and cinders, granite, limestone, or metamorphic rock.

The larger trees of this species are prized for timber, having good, workable and decay-resistant wood. It is used for fence posts and shingles on roofs, for construction, furniture, cabinet making, and the manufacture of pencils.

Mythology, Mischief, Machette and Matches – by Karim


As someone who studied classical Sanskrit literature and mythology, I am often asked if mythology is at all relevant to the “real world”. My answer is that mythology is eminently relevant since it is usually based upon a composite of real-life human experience.

How often do we cite the fate of Icarus for example, when we observe corrupt politicians or business leaders who display too much hubris – thereby accelerating their downfall ?

Ancient Greek Mythology tells that Iκαρος (Icarus), son of the master craftsman Δαίδαλος (Daedalus), flies high up into the sky because his father constructed wings for him made out of feathers and wax. But Icarus ignores his father’s wise instructions not to fly too close to the sun. The sun melts the wax on his wings and Icarus falls into the ocean and drowns to death.

Editor’s Note: The above sculpture is “Study No. 1 for Icarus by artist Al Farrow


Sculptor, Al Farrow

About Al Farrow

Sculptor Al Farrow has had numerous solo exhibitions since 1970, and is currently represented by Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. His work has been in group shows at the Oakland Art Gallery, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, Falkirk Cultural Center in Marin, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, among many others. He has over 20 years of bronze casting experience. His work is in important public and private collections around the world, including San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, di Rosa Preserve in Napa, and other collections in New York, Germany, Italy and Hong Kong.


The Indian Pencil Tree

In the Hindu stories, Krishna has come to earth to remind the human race that everything belongs to god. His mother does not know that yet, but her child’s mundane lies point her toward the higher truth. All tricksters do this: they lie in a way that upsets our very sense of what is true and what is false, and therefore help us reimagine this world.

— Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth & Artby Lewis Hyde 

I recently wrote a story entitled The Pencil Tree, which is based on the Indian Sanskrit myth about Krishna and Arjuna in the Kandhava Forest by the Yamuna River in ancient times. In this myth, the Kandhava Forest is lit ablaze and all the trees are about to perish.

This is what The Pencil Tree thinks:

“If we stay where we are,” said The Pencil Tree, “ we shall be consumed by the fire and we shall be cremated alive. Better that we call a real woodsman – not that impostor Agni – and ask the woodsman to chop us into small pieces of wood and bury us in a clay-covered grave.”

Kandhava and Hava

Question: What does this myth in the Kandhava Forest, have to do with real life and the real world? After all, this is just a mythological tree selecting not to burn to death but instead have the woodsman’s machette chop this tree into pieces.

In my interview with Hava Hegenbarth – “Color Pencils“…  Hava says the following about the prospect of being burned alive by the men comprising her convoy’s Rwandan road blockade:

“I did not wish to be burned to death. That is what I was thinking in that moment. And so I was deciding to make a run for it. I knew I would not make it if I ran, but I also knew that I would likely die either with a spear in my back or being bludgeoned and hacked by a machete.

Hava and The Indian Pencil Tree in Kandhava preferred the prospect of being hacked to death with a machette than to – in Hava’s case – be doused with petrol and set ablaze with a match.

“And so Galahad decided that it would be a disgrace to set off on a quest with the other knights. Alone he would enter the dark forest where there was no path. This is the myth of the Hero’s Journey.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey

Slash and Burn

Machette are used to slash trees and matches are used to burn them.

Slash and burn farming is practiced by anywhere between 250 and 500 million farmers around the world. In the tropics, slash-and-burning leaves the soil infertile, leading farmers to cut down ever more trees in order to grow food.

 — The Ecologist

What then must we do?

что же мы должны делать – Tolstoy

One of the most important environmental benefits indigenous forests provide is regulating climate and rainfall patterns; through harvesting and retaining rain, these forests release water slowly to springs, streams, and rivers; this reduces the speed of water runoff and with it, soil erosion.

Indigenous forests and trees play an important role in spiritual and cultural life.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai, The Guardian 

What then must we do? We cannot stop all the slashing and burning, all the deforestation, all the violations of trees in all the forests. However, we can sharpen our focus on one tree and see what we can do for that one tree. To at least acknowledge its potential endangerment.
To recognize it is categorized as NT (Near Threatened). The Pencils for Africa dot com site will monitor the fate of The African Pencil Tree – adopting this tree as its “mascot” and friend.
Will this tree slip from an NT to a vulnerable… or critically endangered… or extinct in the wild ?
If our friend does become endangered, what factors are responsible and what – if anything – can we do to prevent this downward spiral? We share a long history with Juniperus procera:
Collectively, in all the 11 countries that The African Pencil Tree grows, for all the centuries that pencils have been manufactured and used, Juniperus procera has given us billions of pencils. Billions of arithmetic solutions, billions of stories, billions of sketches, billions of drawings.
Now that is a loyal friend!

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