Like the lilies of the field wither and die when their time has come, butterflies do too. But before that time of passing there is still a young and vibrant time to be had when the flowers are in full bloom. Although the syringa tree, Melia azedarach is not indigenous, it is currently flowering and is causing quite a sensation amongst butterflies.
The tree is originally from India and was established in Barberton in 1906. It is interesting to note that between Barberton and Kaapmuiden (to the south of the KNP), and a distance of merely 50km, there are reputed to be 140 ancient mosques or domes.
The Komati River is also believed to be an Indian name. This tree is also named the ‘Neemboom' – to take from it. Different parts of the tree are believed to cure different ailments yet the seeds are poisonous.
The poison, which is found in the berries, is a triterpenoid or a limonoid which is made up of meliatoxins A1, A2, B1 and B2. Meliatoxins are not stable and this factor could be the reason why different trees have different levels of toxicity.
It is also noted that only certain trees and only trees from certain areas are poisonous. When the ripe berries are ingested the symptoms of poisoning are retching, breathing difficulty, the heartbeat is affected and a decline in the body temperature is noted.
The syringa tree is presently distributed throughout the moister, eastern parts of southern Africa, including the Kruger National Park, where it is a declared weed. In South Africa the tree only avoids the drier Karoo and Namaqualand.
All this toxicity does not seem to affect the flowers or the butterflies that visit them. In fact some Danaids are known to suck alkaloids from Senecio flowers.
The African monarch or milkweed butterfly’s larvae also feed on the toxic milkweed plant (Asclepias fruticosa), ingesting alkaloids that are heart glycocides without visible ill effect, yet the adult butterfly is rendered poisonous to birds.
The lilac to pink colour of the flowers also falls in the UV spectrum range and may also have an influence in attracting the butterflies. Therefore the syringa is one of the hottest dates on the butterfly calendar at the moment.