Combretum erythrophyllum

(Burch.) Sond.

Common name:
river bushwillow


One of the winged wonders belonging to the bushwillow family, this medium-sized tree is a fast grower, producing creamy flowers and beautiful 4-winged seeds of a greenish brown colour when young and drying to a honey-brown.

Combretum erythrophyllumThis is a medium to large deciduous tree with reddish autumn colours. Flowers are cream to pale yellow (September - November). Fruit are small, 4-winged and a greenish brown colour, ripening to yellowish brown and drying to a honey-brown. They remain on the tree for a long time and are reputed to be poisonous, causing hiccups. The bark is a pale brown, smooth, but flaking with age to expose grey patches, which give it a mottled appearance. Knob-like outgrowths commonly occur in older trees, giving them an old, gnarled look. The young leaves are yellowish and shiny maturing to a fresh mid-green. Trees are often multi-stemmed and somewhat willow-like in habit.

This species is found in the northeastern part of South Africa, from Zimbabwe in the north down to Eastern Cape in the south with a thin line following the Orange River westward. This is a riverine species, occurring alongside rivers or away from rivers where sufficient groundwater is available. It is found at almost all altitudes and can therefore tolerate a fair amount of climatic variation and diverse soils such as heavy black loam, sandy riverine alluvium and granite sand.

Red autumn leavesDerivation of name and historical aspects
The specific name erythrophyllum means red leaf in Greek and was given by Burchell. He based it on the name roodeblat used by the inhabitants of the northwestern Cape for this species.

Giraffe and elephant browse the tree. The seeds, although said to be generally poisonous, are eaten by Pied Barbets. Wasps sometimes lay their eggs through the fruit wall. The newly hatched larvae then feed on the seeds. Birds such as the Southern Black Tit tap each fruit, open those that contain grubs and eat them.

Uses and cultural aspects
The gum has interesting properties. It is non-toxic, elastic, producing a non-cracking varnish. The roots, which some regard as poisonous, are used as a purgative and to treat venereal diseases. Ornaments, cattle troughs and grain mortars are made from the wood. A dark, rich brown dye is extracted from the roots. The dried fruits also work well in flower arrangements.

Growing Combretum erythrophyllum

This is a popular shade tree, surprisingly drought and frost resistant and fast growing under good conditions, reaching 4-6 m in three years. It has the attraction of being one of the more responsive and adaptable bushwillow species, even surviving in the Karoo gardens where its autumn colours are even more brilliant than in milder climates.

This species sets lots of seed and seedlings are often to be found under the trees. It grows easily from fresh, unparasitized seed which should be soaked for some hours before planting. Seedlings appear 7-13 days after planting. The seedlings are frost resistant after two years.


  • Carr, J.D. 1988. Combretaceae in southern Africa. Tree Society of Southern Africa, Johannesburg.
  • Van Wyk, B. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Van Wyk, B.; Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Van Wyk, B. & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Palmer, E & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of Southern Africa.. Balkema, Cape Town
  • Watt, J.M. and Breyer-Brandwijk, M G. 1962. Medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. Livingstone, Edinburgh.

Lou-Nita Le Roux
Lowveld National Botanical Garden
June 2003

with additions by Yvonne Reynolds

To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.

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