Cassine peragua

L. (= C. capensis, C. kraussiana, Elaeodendron kraussianum )
Family: Celastraceae (spike-thorn/spindle-tree family)
Common names : Cape saffron, bastard saffron, false saffron, bastard saffronwood (Eng.); bastersaffraan, lepelhout (Afr.); iKhukhuzi (Xhosa); umKhukhuze, umBofanyamogone (Zulu)

Colourful berries of Cassine peragua

Cassine peragua is a medium-sized tree suitable for suburban gardens, with fragrant flowers and decorative, bird-attracting fruits, but its most attractive and unusual feature is its beautiful saffron-coloured trunk.

Saffron barkAn evergreen shrub or small to medium-sized tree with a rounded crown, usually 2-5 m tall but it can be a handsome well-branched tree up to 12-15 m in height with a trunk diameter of 1 m. The trunks are often crooked. The bark is greyish brown becoming flaky and falling off in thin scales to expose the powdery saffron-yellow pigment in the outer layers of the bark.

Leaves are tough, thick and leathery, shiny dark green above and paler and smoother underneath, elliptic to almost round, with rounded and often notched tips, 20 to 45 x 15 to 40 mm. New growth is copper-coloured. The margin is slightly rolled under and coarsely and irregularly serrated. The net-veining is conspicuous on both surfaces particularly on the undersurface and if you hold the leaf up to the light it is translucent. The petioles are short (± 6 mm) and the leaves are opposite.

Flowers and new coppery leaves

Close up of flowersThe flowers are small, white and fragrant, borne in loose branching clusters in from late summer to winter (Feb.-June). The fruits are a small oval berry up to 5 mm in diam., green turning yellow then reddish-purple and finally dark purple and fleshy when mature, usually containing 1 or 2 seeds but potentially 6 seeds.

The fruits are eaten by birds.

It occurs from the Bokkeveld Mountains to the Cape Peninsula along the coast through the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal into Swaziland and at a few isolated localities in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. It grows in forest, forest margins and in kloofs, in dune scrub, coastal thickets, on dry rocky areas, on mountain slopes, and along streams.

Three forms of this species are recognized as subspecies:

  • C. peragua subsp. peragua is the typical subspecies and the most widespread. Leaves are elliptic to obovate. The saffron-yellow pigmentation in the bark is conspicuous. It is most commonly found in forest, on forest margins and in woodland.
  • C. peragua subsp. barbara is a low, often stunted multistemmed shrub up to 2 m tall with almost circular, stiff and brittle leaves with very short (1-2 mm) petioles. The saffron-yellow pigmentation in the bark is absent or hardly noticeable. It grows in coastal scrub in the Western Cape, between the Cape Peninsula and Bredasdorp.
  • C. peragua subsp. affinis is a slender, often multistemmed tree with narrowly elliptic leaves with longer petioles (6-12 mm). The tip usually ends in a sharper point, whereas the other two are more rounded or notched. Also the venation is not as conspicuous as in the other two. The saffron-yellow pigmentation in the bark is absent. It grows in riverine fringes or moist vegetation in the Calvinia and Cederberg area of the Western Cape.

Derivation of the name & historical aspects
Cassine peragua means 'the cassine of Paraguay', an inappropriate name if ever there was one, as it is definitely not from Paraguay, nor does it really deserve the name cassine. I have heard differing versions of the story, but as I understand it, there is a medicinal plant in Carolina (USA) that was called cassena by the indigenous people. There is another closely related and very similar species from Paraguay known as the Paraguay tea or south sea tea. It appears that Linnaeus confused our species for the Paraguay tea. He therefore based the specific name on the common name of the Paraguay tea, and used it as the type species of the genus Cassine. He later tried to correct his mistake by renaming our plant Cassine capensis (i.e. cassine of the Cape ) but the rules of nomenclature don't allow this and the older name is the legitimate name. The Carolina cassena is Ilex cassine, also known as dahoon, and the true Paraguay tea is Ilex paraguariensis also known as mate or yerba mate, and both are ancient and valued medicinal plants. Confusing Cassine peragua for either of them could be dangerous as they are both herbal teas, whereas the leaves of Cassine peragua are thought to be toxic.

Celastraceae consists of 60-70 genera and ± 1 000 species that occur in the tropical and warmer temperate regions, with 19 genera and ± 80 species in southern Africa. Cassine consists of three species endemic to southern Africa : Cassine peragua, C. parvifolia and C. schinoides. The southern African species that used to fall under Cassine have been renamed in various genera including Elaeodendron, Lauridia, Robsonodendron and Mystroxylon.

Uses & cultural aspects
The wood is yellowish, hard, tough and very handsome when varnished. It was used by cabinet-makers and wheelwrights and makes good sticks. In the time of Van der Stel it was used for making a large type of ladle (lepel).

The leaves are reported to be toxic and have caused deaths in animals in trials.

Grove of  Cassine peragua

Growing Cassine peragua

Cassine peragua is a quite slow-growing, but tough and wind-tolerant tree for small or large gardens. If planted in an exposed situation in a windy coastal garden it will most likely be stunted. Create a grove of them where you can admire the beautiful orange trunks that will develop and the birds they will attract to your garden. It is not wise to plant it near a wooden deck, paving or parking areas as the berries are produced in abundance and they stain.

Cassine peragua can be propagated by seed or by cuttings. Seed can be sown fresh in late summer or stored and sown the following spring to early summer. Clean the flesh off before sowing. They could also be sown in autumn in frost-free areas but we have had better results from sowing in the warmer months. Take heel or tip cuttings from semi-hardened-off new growth in spring or early summer. We get good results from choosing the longer, thinner stems from the growth on the shady side of the tree or from inside the canopy. Treat with a rooting hormone, use a well-drained medium like milled bark and polystyrene and place under mist. They are slow to root. If nothing has happened after 3-6 months it is most likely that they have formed a callus but failed to form any roots. Take them out, damage the callus by scoring it, re-treat with rooting hormone and re-plant in fresh rooting medium and put it back under mist. This usually proves effective in stimulating the cuttings to produce roots.

References and further reading

Archer, R.H. & Condy, G. 1997. Cassine peragua. Flowering Plants of Africa 55: 70-74, t. 2133.

  • Archer, R.H. & Van Wyk, A.E. 1997. A taxonomic revision of Cassine L. s. str. (Cassinoideae: Celastraceae). South African Journal of Botany 63: 146-157.
  • Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. (eds). 2003. Plants of southern Africa : an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa. Balkema, Cape Town.
  • Pooley, E. 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35.


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Alice Notten
(Propagation information supplied by Anthony Hitchcock)
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
June 2005


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