The buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata Willd.) is a small to medium sized tree, growing to a height of 3-10 (-20) m. The crown is irregular, with dense spreading and drooping branches. The trunk is short, up to 40 cm in diameter, branching near the base, with a grey-brown bark. The branches are armed with pairs of sharp thorns (0.7-2 cm) on each node. The leaves are simple, alternate and very variable in size (3-9 cm long x 2-5 cm broad), glossy green on the upper side and paler below. The flowers are small (4 mm), green to yellow, borne in clusters. The flowering period depends on rainfall and can start from October to late summer (January). The tree bears numerous fruits, the weight of which often bends the branches. The fruits are small, between 10 and 20 (-25) mm. They are globose, glossy drupes that turn from green to dark brown as they ripen in late summer (January) or later in winter. They have a hard, shiny exocarp and a floury, nutritious mesocarp. The oval seed is usually solitary and embedded in a hard stone (Orwa et al., 2009; Mazibuko, 2007; Ellis, 2003).
The buffalo thorn is a multipurpose tree of considerable cultural importance in Eastern and Southern Africa, and many beliefs and traditions are attached to it (Mazibuko, 2007). Its Zulu name umLahlankosi means "which buries the chief". In Botswana, the tree is believed to protect from lightning (Mazibuko, 2007). The fruits are edible and nutritious though not very tasty and somewhat mealy. In times of scarcity, they can be eaten fresh, dried or made into a meal or porridge. The fruit flesh mixed with water is a good thirst quencher and is fermented to prepare a beer (Roodt, 1998 cited by Ellis, 2003). The young leaves are not very palatable but are nutritious and can be prepared in the same manner as spinach. Roasted seeds can be used as maize meal or as coffee substitute. The wood is used for fuel, agricultural implements and utensils. The thorny branches are used for fences. The sap is used as a mixing agent for arrow poison and, because of its high tannin content (12-15%), the bark helps in tanning leather. The buffalo thorn is used as an ornamental in gardens (Orwa et al., 2009). Many parts of the plant are used in ethnomedicine. Tannins may play a role in the treatment of dysentery (Ellis, 2003). In East Africa, roots are used for treating snake bites (Hutchings et al., 1996 cited by Mazibuko, 2007). These properties have been attributed to the peptide alkaloids and antifungal properties isolated from the bark and leaves (Mazibuko, 2007).
The leaves and fruits are a valuable fodder source for livestock and game (Orwa et al., 2009).