Ten kilometres outside of Kampala’s city centre is the National Tree Seed Centre. It’s a plot of land set just off Jinja Road, its location is somewhat out-of-place along the busy main artery towards Jinja and Kenya. The variety of seeds found here are many, but my interest is in one seed in particular – Cordia millenii.
C.millenii or as I have come to discover its many local names Ngoma ngoma; mukebu; mukumani or drum tree is not an easy seed to get hold of. Joseph Ochwo the seed procurement specialist explained to me seeds which are collected from around Uganda’s forest reserves are driven by the demand of sales rather than a conservation effort, even though the centre is funded by the National Forest Authority (NFA).
I have witnessed with my own eyes the level of deforestation of C.millenii in just two compartments of the Budongo Forest Reserve and even without running any statistical analysis I know what my result are likely to show. The tree is endangered and it is protected but it is being illegally pilfered at an alarming rate to fuel the timber trade, specifically for boat building and furniture making.
Mr Ochwo said that C.millenii seeds are becoming scarcer because the mother trees remaining in the forests are few.
“We don’t have security over tree resources. We are not responsible to protect them. Sometimes we don’t even manage to get the seeds necessary for the centre.
“From what we know C.millenii is grown from seeds. We have not tried any other method such as cutting roots. This method involves applying hormones to a root less than a foot or half a foot, it is then able to start sprouting. But this is an expensive technique and it is not convenient. Usually this method is used for research purpose, so we prefer to use seeds.”
The centre recommends that anyone buying C.millenii seeds carry out a pre-treatment. The seeds should be soaked in cold water for 24 hours before planting.
He continued: “The seed has a dormancy so in order to soften it you have to put it into water. There are nutrients that come out from leaving it in water. The coating of the seed becomes soft and it is able to be peeled off. By continual soaking, the embryo would have expanded and we can then get hold of the seeds found inside the pockets of the shell. One complete a large seed can produce two to three seedlings. It is what we call a poly-embryo seed.”
The trees produce seeds once a year. They are meant to flower and fruit between February and May. However I did not see any evidence of this in Budongo during my study. By June and July the seeds are meant to have matured for collection.
“It is possible that fruiting may be delayed for different forest environments,” he told me. “There is also an insect called Weevil which attacks the seeds before they have a chance to mature, so that is also another issue. We collect seeds from areas in Uganda based on available means.
“Our C.millenii seeds come from Kalangala Central Forest Reserve, an area on Lake Victoria and also from Kitoma Forest Reserve in Kasyoha, Bushenyi in the south-west part of the country.”
The centre sells seeds, exactly what it says. It only raises seedlings when it needs to test a batch of seeds for quality. The tests which are run include viability; purity; germination; weight and disease, all following the protocol of the International Seeding Testing Association (ISTA). After all the laboratory tests are complete the experts here can tell a farmer how many seeds he needs to buy for a species of tree in order to grow a specific amount of seedlings.
“We don’t raise seedlings for commercial purpose. People have a negative attitude towards indigenous species because they are slow-growing. Some NGO’s who get funding are emphasising the importance of growing more indigenous species; and only when this happens do we order more in.
“If a species is not attracting orders or is not needed for a project then we don’t collect them. Some seeds have a storage life. C.millenii is an inter-mediate species and the seeds cannot be stored for more than 12 months. After that time they lose the ability to germinate.”
He told me the best way to germinate a seed is to plant it in sand not soil.
“Sand has some characteristics which is suitable for germinating tests. It does not retain water for long. The seed survives in only the water required and the excess is drained out. When a seed sits in water for a long time it can rot. Sand also carries limited bacteria and will not attract insects which are prone to attack the seeds during germination. After germination you can then put it into a medium that has the relevant nutrients so that the seed can grow further.”
C.millenii takes 21 days to germinate at its earliest stage, but it can be monitored for up to 47-52 days later. The soil which it thrives best in is ferrous clayloam. Maturity depends on a number of factors, but it is possible that if conditions are good, slow maturing trees can grow very large much earlier than anticipated.
“I was in Tanzania and I saw a very large muvule (Milcia excelsa) which should take between 50-100 years to fully mature grown and it was only 12 years old.
“I think that if C.millenii is planted and left in the wild it can grow. It needs climbers and animals and nature will take its course. But under management I am not sure, because the removal of certain climbers and other plants may affect its growth.”
When it is collected 50kg of C.millenii seeds are kept in storage. But unless it becomes a national strategy to sell more C.millenii for the various industries that are driving its extinction, the tree seed centre says it is not going to increase its stock.