© Geoff Nichols
This is a large attractive evergreen tree that has been used as a street tree in many towns and cities of South Africa, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is also a good ornamental garden tree and its fruits are enjoyed by birds and mammals.
Cape ash is a large evergreen tree that grows to about 15 m in height, and occurs in a number of different habitats, from high altitude evergreen forests to riverine forests, and from the sea level to about 1500 m above sea level.
The main stem of E. capensis is characterised by a rough light grey to almost black bark, with few buttress roots at the base. The large glossy green leaves that are often tinged with a pinkish patch, or pink edges are pinnate.
The small sweetly scented flowers are white, occasionally also with pink tinge. They appear in loose sprays, in the summer months (September to November). A fleshy fruit containing four seeds appears green and then turns bright red as it ripens in autumn.
Cape ash is often confused with the wild plum ( Harpephyllum caffrum ). However, the leaves of wild plum are stiff and not drooping, they are also sickle-shaped.
The Cape ash grows from the Eastern Cape northwards through KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, southern Mozambique, the Limpopo Province and into Zimbabwe. It also occurs as far north as Uganda, Ethiopia and the D.R.C.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Ekebergia was named after Captain C.G. Ekeberg, whose sponsorship, in the 18 th Century, made it possible for Anders Sparrman (the author of the tree species) to visit Africa. The specific name 'capensis ' means 'from the Cape' but is used in reference to southern Africa, since this tree occurs naturally from this region. Although it is commonly called the Cape ash, this tree is not related to the true ashes (Fraxinus sp. in the family Oleaceae).
E. capensis belongs to the Mahogany family (Meliaceae). This is a tropical and subtropical family of trees and shrubs. Members include Red Mahogany (Khaya anthoteca), African Mahogany (Khaya senegalensis) and Mahogany (Swietenia mahogany). This is a well-represented family with 51 genera and 800 species worldwide.
Uses and cultural aspects
Cape ash makes a good shade in the garden. It has been used as a stunning street tree. The light and soft wood of Cape ash is easy to work with, and with its straw colour, it makes attractive furniture. The bark is used as an emetic, and for treating dysentery. It is also used for tanning. Decoctions from roots are used to treat headaches, heartburn and for chronic coughs. Leaves are used as a remedy for intestinal worms. Unspecified parts of the tree are used magically to protect the chief from witchcraft.
Birds such as Knysna and Purple-crested louries, barbets, bulbuls, mousebirds and hornbills, eat fruits of E. capensis. Baboons, monkeys, bushbuck and nyala readily eat the fallen fruits of this tree. Leaves are browsed by domestic stock and game.
Growing Ekebergia capensis
Cape ash can be grown from seed. Soak stored seeds in water for a day and then scrub with a brush to remove the fleshy part. Sow in trays filled with river sand or normal potting soil, plant not deeper than 5mm. They germinate in 4 - 8 weeks.
The Cape ash can also be grown from cuttings. This is the fastest method of propagating this tree. Tip or hardwood cuttings can be planted in trays filled with river sand or can be planted directly into the ground as truncheons.
E. capensis grows well when it is given lots of water, but can tolerate light drought conditions and very light frost, it is sensitive to heavy frost.
- Palgrave, K.C. with editions by Palgrave, M.C., 2002. Trees of Southern Africa.Struik Publishers: Cape Town.
- Schmidt, E., Lötter, M. and McCleland, W., 2002. Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalang and Kruger National Park. Jacana: Johannesburg
- van Wyk, B-E., van Oudtshoorn, B. and Gericke, N., 1997. Medicinal Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications: Pretoria
- Venter, F. and J-A. 1996. Making the most of Indigenous Trees. Briza Publications: Pretoria.
Mhlonishwa D. Dlamini
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden