The Berchemia zeyheri tree is valuable to the people, animals and birds of South Africa.
Red ivorywood is an evergreen to semi-decidous tree that is drought resistant but not frost resistant. The tree normally grows in dense groups with other trees, reaching 15 m in height and is very attractive to birds. It is mostly found in the northern part of South Africa in the province of Limpopo, where local people sell the fruit on the street.
The sapwood is yellowish with a hard and heavy heartwood. It has grey-brown bark, with light grey, corky dots on young branches. The bark is smooth on young trees but becomes cracked on older branches and stems. The leaves have a thin texture and are a blue-green colour. They have reddish leaf stalks and in colder areas the leaves turn yellow in autumn. The venation is in a herringbone pattern.
Flowers are yellowish or greenish white, star-like in clusters, on stalks 10 mm long. Flowers appear between September and December and are followed by sweet, yellow to brownish red fruit from January to April.
© Geoff Nichols
Another related tree is Berchemia bicolor (brown ivory), which also bears edible fruit but differs in leaf size and the colour of the fruit.
Red ivorywood occurs naturally from Zimbabwe in the north to the Eastern Cape in the south. The tree grows plentifully in a rural place called Niyani, meaning place of berchemias, in Limpopo. The tree grows in woodland, bushveld, rocky areas, along rivers, streams and on old termite mounds. It is also found on south- or east-facing slopes of mountains.
The generic name, Berchemia, was derived from a French botanist, M. Berchem, and zeyheri was named after C.L.P Zeyher, a well-known German botanist.
The tree is an important useful plant in all the countries where it occurs. The fruits are delicious and can be eaten fresh or stored in containers. The sticky, sweet, dried fruits can still be eaten after several months. The fruits are a food source to wild animals such as baboons, vervet monkeys, bushbabies, and many others. Birds such as Black-eyed bulbuls, Crested, Pied and Black-collared barbets, Redwinged starlings, Grey louries, Rameron and Green pigeons, also feed on the fruit. The birds play a very important role in the distribution of seeds. Leaves are browsed by giraffe, eland, kudu, nyala, bushbuck, impala. Porcupines eat the bark, which can cause damage to the tree.
Uses and cultural aspects of the plant
The fruit is sold in rural markets, especially in Limpopo, and creates an important source of income. Furniture made from this tree is very strong, durable, and takes paint and varnish well. The wood is also good for making wooden bows, walking sticks, small boxes and curios. It is believed that in KwaZulu-Natal the tree was known as the royal tree because only chiefs were allowed to carry knob-kerries (a stick with a rounded knob on one end) made from it. The hard and strong wood is regarded as a precious timber in Mozambique and is also used as fencing poles. Fibres and woven materials are dyed with an extract made from the bark to give them a purplish colour. The powdered bark is also used to cure headaches when smoked and an extract from the inner part of the tree was used to relieve back pain.
Growing Berchemia zeyheri
Red ivorywood grows easily from seeds. Seeds should be cleaned by removing the pulp (alternatively enjoy the fruit as a treat and keep the seeds!). They should be planted in seedlings trays filled with river sand or a mixture of compost and river sand (1:1). After planting them, they should be covered with a thin layer of sand and kept moist. Germination takes 5-9 days. Seedlings should only be transplanted in nursery bags after reaching the 2-leaf stage.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
- Grant, R. & Thomas, V. 2000. Sappi Tree Spotting-Bushveld. Jacana Education, Johannesburg
- Van Wyk, B., Van Wyk, P. & Van Wyk, B-E. 2000. Photographic guide to trees of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants: a guide to useful plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Venter, F. & Venter, J.A. 1996. Making the most of indigenous trees. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Avhurengwi Phillemon Ndou
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden