© G Nichols
Ehretia rigida is a deciduous small tree or shrub, usually
multistemmed, with an untidy rounded crown. It has tangled branches
which arch downwards or droop. This rather haphazard look gives
it its common names, puzzle bush and deurmekaarbos.
Ehretia rigida can grow up to 9 m in height. The bark is
very smooth and grey on new branches and rough on older branches
and stems. The plant has an alternate leaf arrangement but the leaves
seem to grow together in clusters at the tips of its short branches.
The leaves can be smooth or covered with stiff hairs that are rough
to the touch. It has small leaf stalks of about 2 mm long. The flowers
grow in dense clusters on the branches. These pale mauve, blue or
white flowers can only be seen in spring with male and female flowers
on different plants. They have a diameter of 7 mm and are sweetly
scented. The fruits are round, orange to red, turning black when
ripe and are eaten by wild animals. Parasitic plants, such as the
mistletoe, Viscum rotundifolium, are often found on the puzzle
© G Nichols
The plant occurs in a wide variety of habitats, including wooded
grassland, karroid vegetation and bushveld. In South Africa it occurs
throughout the eastern half of the country and also in Botswana,
Swaziland and Lesotho.
Derivation of name
Ehretia was named after an 18th century botanical artist,
R.D.Ehret. The Latin word rigida means stiff, referring to
the hard leaves.
Other species of the genus in southern Africa are Ehretia amoena,
E. obtusifolia, E. alba, E. coerula, E. cymosa and E. namibiensis.
Three of these, E. rigida, E. amoena and E. obtusifolia
occur in South Africa. Ehretia rigida is further divided
into three subspecies, namely, E. rigida subsp. rigida,
E. rigida subsp. silvatica and E. rigida subsp.
nervifolia, which occurs naturally in the Witwatersrand National
The tree is a food source to domestic stock and wild animals, such
as the kudu, nyala, bushbuck, impala and grey duiker. Its fruits
are eaten by people and many birds such as the Crested Francolin,
Helmeted and Crested Guineafowl, Southern Yellowbilled Hornbill,
Crested Barbet, bulbuls and starlings.
and cultural aspects
Ehretia rigida is very attractive to birds and insects and
is therefore a wonderful addition to the wildlife garden. It can
be pruned to make a shape and can also be used as a hedge in a garden.
Ripe fruits of this plant are edible but not tasty. For traditional,
medicinal purposes, the roots are powdered and used to treat small
cuts in the skin. It is used over the abdomen and chest to relieve
pains and is also used to treat gall sickness in cattle. The plant
is believed to bring luck to hunters and is also used to protect
huts and crops from hail. Hunters use branches of this plant to
make hunting bows and fishing baskets because they are strong and
Growing Ehretia rigida
The puzzle bush is becoming very popular as a garden plant because
it is hardy and drought resistant. It can easily grow from seed
and cuttings. Use river sand or a mixture of river sand and compost
to sow the seedlings. They should be sown in a seedling tray and
be covered with a thin layer of sand. Do not sow the seeds too deeply.
If they are sown properly, the seeds will take 10-20 days to germinate.
Plants should be kept in nursery bags until the next season before
they are planted into the ground. The plant has a fast growth rate
of about 600-700 mm per year.
- CARRUTHERS, V. 1997. The wildlife of South Africa. Struik,
- COATES PALGRAVE, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of
southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
- VAN WYK, A.E. (Braam), VAN WYK, P. & VAN WYK, B-E. 2000.
Photographic guide to trees of southern Africa. Briza Publications,
- VENTER, F., & VENTER, J-A. 1997. Making the most of indigenous
trees. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens