Each year at about this time, the Sausage Tree (Kigelia Africana) at the Lincoln Park Conservatory puts out its flowers. These deep red and yellow blooms hang down from the tree’s branches on long, pendulous, chandelier-like stalks, and bloom at night to attract their bat pollinators. The flowers fall off during the day and produce a copious, sticky nectar that makes them attractive treats for tropical African animals such as antelope and baboons.
The most striking feature of the Sausage tree, though, is the sausage fruit. These woody-looking fruits grow quickly, at times reaching three feet in length and weighing close to 30 pounds. In the Conservatory, the sausage fruits are typically closer to two feet and weigh between 16 and 20 pounds. While the fruit is poisonous, especially when not yet ripe, humans have been known to cook and then ferment it to make the taste more palatable. Eating the raw fruit can cause blisters in the mouth and skin.
Traditionally, sausage fruit has been used medicinally. Its anti-microbial properties aid in treating a variety of skin conditions, including measles, eczema, psoriasis, skin infections, and other wounds. People have also used other parts of the plant, including the leaves and roasted seeds as a source of vegetable nutrition. The roots make a yellow dye, and the trunk can be used to make canoes, shelves and fruit boxes.
One of the fun facts about our tree is that it blooms at about the same time as the one at the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee. Every year Chicago Park District or Mitchell Domes staff make the trip to exchange flowers so that both sites can pollinate some of the flowers and visitors get to see the mature fruits. This flower exchange didn’t happen last year because of Covid-19 restrictions. We are hoping to pollinate both trees this week. If we’re successful, we should start seeing the fruits soon.
The sausage tree is just one of the myriad wonders on display in the recently reopened Conservatory. Reserve your tickets to tour our global collection of plants!