Dais cotinifolia L.

Family: Thymelaeaceae
Common Names:
Pompom tree, Pincushion tree, Kannabas, Speldekussing, Basboom, inTozani (X); inTozwane-emnyama (Z)

Dais cotinifolia at Kirstenbosch

The pompom tree is one of the best known and well-loved indigenous trees, tough enough to be used as a street tree and small enough to fit into most gardens. When in flower at Christmas it looks like a giant candy floss, as the tree transforms into a cloud of soft pink balls. Its natural home is the eastern part of South Africa where it grows on the margins of forests, wooded hill slopes and in stony kloofs.

Dais cotinifolia is a small tree growing only to 6 metres, with a lovely rounded, leafy crown. It can be single- or multi-stemmed, with the brown stems covered in small speckles of whitish cork. The smooth, simple leaves are bright green, sometimes with a slight bluish tinge on the upper side. The veins of the leaves are a translucent yellow colour, forming very clear patterns as they run through the leaves. The leaves are usually scattered up the branches or crowded at the ends of the branches. In very cold areas the trees are deciduous, but in warmer climates like Cape Town they only lose their leaves for a short time at the end of winter.

Flowers of D.cotinifolia The trees flower in early summer, any time from November to December. In the city of Cape Town the street trees flower in November and in the more protected environment of Kirstenbosch, the trees only flower in December. The new flower buds look like lollypops, with big round heads on long thin stems at the end of the branches. The green heads pop open with the many small flowers in tight bunches inside, looking like pink fluff balls. For about three weeks the tree flowers in profusion. The tiny black seeds are formed in the bottom of the little flowers and are ready to collect about month or two after flowering. After flowering, the green cup shaped bracts that held the flowers, become hard and brown, remaining on the tree for many months. These dried "flowers" can be used for decorations, model building and children's games.

Growing Dais cotinifolia

This is a wonderful tree for the garden, fast growing, fairly drought resistant once established and frost hardy. When planting, choose a sunny position and prepare it well by digging a large hole of about 1 m x 1m, adding lots of compost and bone meal. Water the young tree regularly during the summer months until it is well established, which usually takes about two years. Placing a thick mulch of compost around the base of the tree helps to prevent water from running away, keeps the soil moist and cool, suppresses weed growth and slowly releases nutrients into the soil.

The tree grows easily from seed and usually seeds itself all over the garden. Sow seed in spring or early summer in seed trays filled with a well-drained medium. Cover the seed lightly with fine milled bark or sand, place in a shady position and keep moist. To improve the germination, treat the seed with a fungicide that prevents damping off. The young seedling can be potted up as soon as they are big enough to handle. The trees grow fast and reach their full height within 4 to 5 years, flowering from about their second year. The trees can be lightly pruned if necessary, young trees becoming very bushy if the leader is trimmed. Flowers are produced on the previous year's growth, so any pruning should be done after flowering.

Breaking a branch off this tree is quite difficult because the bark tears off in long strips, from which accounts for its common name, *Kannabas. This is a typical characteristic of the family Thymelaeaceae to which Dais belongs. Eve Palmer notes in her description of Dais cotinifolia that the Africans, who use the bark as thread or cord, say that it has the strongest fibre of any tree in KwaZulu-Natal.

Eve Palmer also mentions the interesting fact that Linnaeus founded the genus Dais in 1764. In this genus there are only 2 species, Dais cotinifolia from South Africa and one other species from Madagascar. Dais means a torch in Greek, and the genus got its name from the resemblance of the stalk and bracts holding the flowers to a torch about to be lit. The leaves resemble those of another genus Cotinus, hence the species name cotinifolia.

* Kannbas According to C A Smith in “ Common Names of S A Plants (1950) this name is incorrect and was the result of a confusion between Gonna and Kanna. “ Kanna “ is a Hottentot name for Sceletium (Kougoed), a succulent plant highly valued for its narcotic effect when chewed. Gonna is a collective name used by the Hottentots for several species of Thymeleaceae

Author: Liesl van der Walt
November 2000

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This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website www.plantzafrica.com.