What’s In a Name
Once again I will reference two small pen blank sized pieces of wood purchased some time ago from Woodcraft that were part of a set of 32 pieces, comprising 16 different types, of African woods. Included in the set were two pieces of a wood I had certainly never heard of, Weeping Boer Bean. Turns out that Weeping Boer Bean is one of the common names for the tree botanically known as Schotia brachypetala. Two other common names are Tree fuchsia and African walnut. And it is with that second common name that the potential for confusion and mis-identification creeps in. Wood workers are more likely to use the common term African Walnut to refer to the tree and wood botanically known as Lovoa trichilioides which is native to western Africa whereas the Weeping Boer Bean, as the name implies, is a native of southern Africa. Neither tree, by the way, is in any way related to the true walnut trees of the various species within the Juglans genus.
If you buy a wood sold as “African Walnut” it is possible that you have either of the above species, although Weeping Boer Bean is not commonly seen in the United States and the only commercial source I could find for it was in the same collection of African Wood Pen Blanks that I purchased, so more likely than not you will have Lovoa trichilioides on your hands. And, maybe for most wood workers it won’t matter anyway, but as you most likely realize by now, I enjoy these sorts of mysteries about what wood, exactly, is it.
Schotia brachypetala grows in warm dry areas in bushveld, deciduous woodland and scrub forest, most often on the banks of rivers and streams or on old termite mounds, at lower altitudes from around Umtata in the Eastern Cape, through KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Mpumalanga, Northern Province and into Mozambique and Zimbabwe. For those readers without a map of southern Africa in their heads, this refers to regions in the eastern and northeastern sections of the nation of South Africa with range spilling into the neighboring countries of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
The Weeping Boar Bean tree can be a large tree, reaching up to 70+ feet in height but most are a bit smaller than that. They are perhaps best known for their brilliant scarlet flowers and their seed pods. The flowers, leaves, and the seeds provide food for many different birds and mammals, including monkeys, so these trees are frequently hubs of animal activity. The “weeping” reference doesn’t come from the shape of the branches, as it does with “weeping willows” but rather from the thick and copious nectar that drips from the tree flowers.
The wood is not commonly used for wood working purposes outside of South Africa so not a great deal has been recorded about the characteristics of the lumber, so we don’t have the same level of detailed data that is common for most timber trees written about on this site.
But what we do know is that the wood of the Weeping Boer Bean has a dense, fine and even texture, though the grain can be wavy. The sapwood is pinkish-grey while the heartwood is a dark walnut, almost black, color, often with conspicuous green streaks. The wood is hard and fairly heavy, or dense. Some have noted that the wood from smaller logs looks fairly uninteresting soon after being cut, but soon oxidizes to various shades of green and red. This sort of color change is not uncommon in tropical hardwoods, but usually color change refers to darkening of the existing color; color actually changing to completely new hues is rather unique.
The sapwood of the Weeping Boer Bean is not durable, unless treated. The heartwood, however, is fairly resistant to termite attack.
The wood of the Weeping Boer Bean tree saws cleanly and planes well to a lustrous smooth finish. However, as is always the case, if figured grain, such as wavy, is present, tear out may be a problem with planer operations. Some experts have recommended adjusting planer blades to a 15 to 20 degree angle to help combat this tendency but I have not personally tested the effectiveness of this advice and only offer it here as a repeat.
Weeping Boer Bean wood glues well, polishes well and takes a high gloss varnish finish. However, due to the density of the wood, pre-boring is necessary before nailing to avoid splitting.
Weeping Boer Bean is not a wood one is at all likely to find for retail sale in the United States, and as I have noted previously, the only retail option I can locate is the very same pack of African pen blanks I purchased from Woodcraft years ago.
However, while it is a long shot, it is possible that you or one of your neighbors has a Weeping Boer Bean tree growing in their yard! The tree is used for ornamental purposes because of its brilliant flowers and is available from some United States nurseries. The trees are most likely in areas that have similar climatic conditions to those in its native range, and this includes southern California. You might, on the outside chance, be able to locate cut off pieces from pruning operations, or if extremely lucky, larger pieces from a removed ornamental tree. Admittedly, this is unlikely but it just might be in the realm of the possible for a few interested parties in the right time at the right place.
Your only other option seems to be obtaining the wood from South Africa itself. It is said that elephants commonly push the trees over, but work fast to avoid destruction of the wood from borer attack.
Rare Woods USA of Mexico, Maine is offering a wood they list as “African Walnut” but they do not further specify what the botanical name of the wood is. So, it MIGHT, on an outside chance be Schotia brachypetala but I would guess it is more likely to be Lovoa trichilioides. However, if anyone is deeply interested in working with Weeping Boer Bean, it might be worth at least a phone call.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for wood, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price.
Although they do not stock Weeping Boer Bean wood at this time, I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.
Weeping Boer Bean wood is considered quite good for furniture and cabinet work as well as a range of other uses that capitalize on its rich dark color, including but not necessarily limited to: turned objects, carving, jewelry boxes and domestic flooring. It is also said to have been excellent for all kinds of wagon wood and was chiefly in demand for wagon beams, but this, of course, refers to distant historical times.
As is often true of tropical woods, Weeping Boer Bean finds use in traditional medicine. The bark has been used in a variety of way including: general body strengthening, blood purification, curing heartburn, combating hangovers,treating nervous conditions and as a cure for diarrhea.
Another, non-medical use, of the seed pods is as a food source with a high carbohydrate content. The Weeping Boer Bean tree seeds are edible after roasting, and have also been ground and used as a coffee substitute by the Dutch colonists many years ago.
Finally, the bark can also be used as a dye, giving a red-brown or red color to fabrics.
Weeping Boer Bean does not appear to be listed with either the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as being in any way threatened or endangered. It seems unlikely to be the case since it is commonly grown as an ornamental tree, but it is possible that wild populations could come under pressure if the wood were to become internationally popular as a timber wood.
Personally, I believe that regardless whether a species is listed by conservation agencies or not, conservation and good forestry practices should be of overall concern when working with or purchasing any species.
It realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchased any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine. You simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered!
Although severe reactions are rare, Weeping Boer Bean wood contains tannin and is known to cause eye irritation in some people. Appropriate protective equipment is therefore recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, exotic wood, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it. However, given the potential uncertainty about identification, it is possible that one sample might be quite different from another even if labeled the same, and caution is almost always rewarded.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I have experienced no negative side effects when working with the small pieces of Weeping Boer Bean wood that I obtained.
My Personal Experiences
My experiences with Weeping Boer Bean were limited to two small pen blank sized pieces, but that seems to be more experience than most United States based wood turners have, so I offer my humble observations here.
I found the wood to be quite dark and heavy for its size, in other words, dense. The grain was closed with no pores. The wood cut very smoothly and cleanly and only required a very light sanding. The pieces finished beautifully and it showed some remarkable figure.
My experiences, all positive, match those of other wood workers who have worked with Weeping Boer Bean. I enjoyed the wood very much, liked the look of it, and would gladly work with it again given the opportunity. It doesn’t seem likely that I, or most any other American wood worker, will have the chance given the extremely limited distribution of Weeping Boer Bean wood outside of Southern Africa, but if I can find it at a reasonable price, I would snatch it up and enjoy it!