The genus Cunonia is named after John Christian Cuno who
in the 18th Century published a book of verse about his garden in
which many exotic plants were growing. The specific name, capensis,
means "of the Cape".
The Butterspoon tree may be seen in forests and moist areas, especially
along watercourses. It is found along the coast and adjacent inland
areas from the Western Cape eastwards to Mozambique. In forests
it may reach up to 10m in height but where it is growing out in
the open it may only reach 5m.
We have only one species of Cunonia in South Africa. If
you wished to see other Cunonia species in their natural
habitat you would have to travel to the Pacific Ocean island of
New Caledonia (near Australia), as this is the only other place
where members of this genus also occur!
of the most striking characters of the tree is the pair of stipules
which enclose the growth tip. They are large and pressed together
forming a spoon-like shape, hence the name "Butterspoon"
Tree. The leaves are dark green and glossy with contrasting reddish
The showy, scented flowers appear from February to May and are
carried in dense, creamy spikes which have a bottlebrush-like appearance.
The fruits are small, brown, two-horned capsules which release very
fine, sticky seed. Seed is dispersed in two ways; firstly by visiting
birds which fly off with the seed clinging to their feathers, legs
and bills, and then by the wind which blows the fine seed away.
It is a beautiful evergreen garden tree which attracts insects
to its flowers. It does not grow well in very hot and dry conditions
preferring a more temperate climate. Some frost is tolerated so
it may be grown on the Highveld in a sheltered spot preferably near
water. It is apparently one of the fastest growing of South Africa's
The Afrikaans common name Rooiels (= Red Alder) is derived from
the resemblance of the wood to the true Alders (Alnus spp.) of the
Growing Cunonia capensis
It may be grown from seed in deep seedtrays filled with seedling
mix. The seed is very fine and can be covered very lightly with
finely sifted seedling mix. The young plants will need plenty of
water and a sheltered aspect.
The tree is reportedly used for treating nervous complaints. The
wood has been used to make furniture, has a fine grain and is relatively
hard and heavy.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden