Cordyla africana


Family: Fabaceae
Common names : sunbird tree (Eng.); wildemango (Afr.); iGowane-elikhulu, umbhone (Zulu)
South African Tree list no. : 216
Zimbabwe Tree list no. : 281


Did you know that Africa has its own mango? Although the fruit is not as big and tasty as the exotic one and it belongs to a different family, it is extremely rich in vitamin C.

Cordyla africana is a tall, deciduous tree with a wide-spreading crown, 10-25 m.


Old stems are grey to dark grey and fairly smooth, the bark sporadically peeling off in thin longitudinal strips. Very old bark is rough and peels off in thin irregular sections. Living bark is dark green.

Leaves are 20-30 mm apart and arranged alternately along the twigs. They sometimes curve slightly downward but are so horizontally placed on either side of the twig that it resembles a flat, large, bipinnate leaf. Leaflets are thin and smooth, up to 45 x 20 mm. They are pale to dark green above but matt, pale green beneath, with translucent dots scattered across the surface of the blades.

FlowersThe flowers are borne in short sprays in the axils of the leaves. They face upwards and are filled with nectar, which attracts sunbirds. They usually appear in September and October, together with the new leaves. Although the flowers are without petals, they are very showy with their feathery puff of golden stamens protruding from the cup-like calyx. The tree is a splendid sight when in flower.

Although the species belongs to the legume family, the fruit is pod-shaped only in a very juvenile stage. When mature, it is drupaceous, golden-yellow and glossy, with a soft, thin skin. It is oval and nearly always slightly depressed on one side. It has a thick persisting stalk. The fruit drops from the tree before it is quite ripe, completing the ripening process on the ground. It contains one or two large, pale brown seeds embedded in a jelly-like pulp. They often germinate while still in the fruit.


The timber is white to off-white initially but becomes light brown when dry and has no heartwood. The wood is light and soft and produces a fairly smooth finish.

Conservation status
Cordyla africana is widespread in Africa, but only just enters South Africa on the eastern border. The conservation status for SA is Least Concern (LC), as it has a wide distribution range and the species is not threatened.

Distribution and habitat
The trees occur in hot, dry bushveld, riverine and sand forest and often on sandy soil. They are found mostly in sand forest and coastal forest in Maputaland in KwaZulu-Natal. In Mpumalanga, a few have been recorded near Komatipoort and Barberton and only a few in the Kruger National Park. A few are scattered across Swaziland. Further north, it is abundant in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
According to Joaõ de Loureiro, the Portuguese botanist-missionary who collected and described the tree in Portuguese East Africa, the generic name is based on a Greek word meaning club-shaped or thickened towards the apex, in allusion to the shape of the bud and fruit. The specific name means African.

The flowers are pollinated by sunbirds which are attracted by the sweet nectar. Elephants are exceptionally fond of the fruit. Consequently, the seeds are distributed over a large area.

Uses and cultural aspect
It is used in particular to make African drums. The entire trunk is hollowed out. These drums are said to be sonorous and can be heard a great distance away. The wood is also used as building material. The unusual white latex sap from twigs and green fruit is used as gum.

Tree in flower

Growing Cordyla africana

Unlike most legumes, the fruits are thick and almost oblong instead of broad and flat. When the seeds are ripe, the lobes have usually already been forced apart by the embryo, which has begun to develop. The seed should therefore be planted quite fresh, otherwise the embryo will shrivel. The rate of growth is extremely fast initially, but it slows down later. This is an exceptionally attractive tree in all its seasonal development stages and should definitely be planted more often in areas with a suitable climate.

References and further reading

  • Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Esterhuyse, N., Von Breitenbach, J. & Söhne, H. 2001. Remarkable trees of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1973. Trees of southern Africa, vol. 2. Balkema, Cape Town.
  • Pooley, E.S. 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Van Wyk, A.E. & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Van Wyk, P. 1972. Trees of the Kruger National Park, vol. 1. Purnell, Cape Town.


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