Elaeodendron croceum is an attractive, evergreen
tree with a neat, upright shape which can with care be cultivated
in gardens large and small.
This evergreen tree is medium to tall with a neat, upright shape.
The bark is grayish, with a conspicuous layer of a powdery yellow
pigment in the freshly exposed bark. Branches are grayish brown
with prominent, coarse black lenticels. Leaves are opposite, hard
and leathery with the venation inconspicuous, lamina elliptic,
dark green, between 15 mm to over 200 mm long; the base and apex
are sharp-pointed, the margin is prominently spine-tipped, especially
on young shoots; the petiole is 4-10 mm long with a small triangular
inflorescences are tiny; consisting of 3 to 15 flowers. Flowers
are in four parts, about 3 mm in diameter. Sepals and petals are
green and white respectively and with an ovate shape. The stamens
are erect to spreading, on a 0.5 mm short filament. A flat, prominent
disc surrounds the 2-locular, round ovary, with an inconspicuous
style and stigma. The fruit is cream-coloured, 20 to 30 mm long,
and the small seed is enclosed by a hard, pointed stone or putamen,
like that of an olive.
Distribution and habitat
Elaeodendron croceum presently occurs from near Ladismith
in the west to northern KwaZulu-Natal, as well as on the escarpments
of Limpopo and Mount Cherinda in Zimbabwe. However, it is most
frequent in the southern Cape forests. It was also once recorded
from St Helena, but this could be attributed to the establishment
of plantations of this tree by early colonists. Mellis (1875)
considered this tree (which he called wild olive) as very common
and 'one of the handsomest trees on the island'.
In its ideal habitat Elaeodendron croceum occurs
on the margins of coastal and other moist inland forests. In wet
conditions the outer portion of the bark breaks off more frequently,
exposing the characteristic yellow pigments that the species shares
with other Celastraceae such as Cassine peragua and Pterocelastrus
echinatus. The yellow bark is then remarkably conspicuous.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The Celastraceae is a large and rather diverse family distributed
in the tropical and temperate zones of the world. Most of its
species have been subject to considerable nomenclatural confusion
and name changes. Since the species was described by Carl Peter
Thunberg (1794) as Ilex crocea, it has been treated under
several species names within Elaeodendron or Cassine.
The common names have also been a source of confusion.
Thunberg encountered the species near the Grootvadersbosch
near Swellendam in October 1774. He described the species as follows:
'Yellow wood (Geelhout, Ilex crocea) is of a yellow colour,
almost like box, of a close texture, and handsome. It is used
for planks and beams in the construction of houses, for tables,
doors, cupboards, window frames, and butter churns'. His description
of the wood is entirely correct but it is probably not as widely
used as the yellowwood derived from the two species of Podocarpus
also present in the Grootvadersbosch (with the possible exception
of butter churns that have been reported as being made from wood
of Elaeodendron croceum). This forest was an important
source of timber for Cape Town at the time but Thunberg evidently
confused the uses of this yellow wood with that of Podocarpus
The common names recorded by Thunberg are reflected
in his name: croceum means 'saffron yellow'. This colour is present
as bright yellow pigment in the bark of many species of the family
Celastraceae, including Elaeodendron croceum. Ecklon &
Zeyher (1834) gave a literal translation of saffron wood when
they proposed the synonymous generic name Crocoxylon. Other
names that are synonyms for Elaeodendron croceum include:
Crocoxylon excelsum; Cassine crocea, Elaeodendron capense
and until recently Cassine papillosa.
The name of the genus Elaeodendron is derived
from the Mauritius tree, Bois d'Olive (or olive tree), after the
resemblance of the fruit to the true olive was noted by the first
scientist collecting this tree.
Uses and cultural aspects
It is difficult to establish the extent of use of the wood
of this species due to the confusion of its names with that of
Podocarpus species. But the wood is of fine quality with
a beautiful golden lustre, well suited for fine furniture. Unfortunately
it is rarely available in the timber trade. Preparations of the
root and bark have proved to be fatal to humans, presumably due
to the presence of alkaloids of which little is known. The bark
was used in dyeing and tanning by Voortrekker settlers (Watt &
Breyer-Brandwijk 1962). This is an attractive tree for horticuiltutral
use and a species with unusual variation in the leaves can be
seen in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
Growing Elaeodendron croceum
This species grows easily from seed and from cuttings,
but is usually not a fast grower. If the stone covering of the
seed is not removed or broken, germination can take anything from
12 to 30 months. Young plants tend to grow very slowly or remain
straggly for a long period, but this could be an adaptation to
forest conditions where sun and space are limited. Once a space
is created by an old fallen tree, the young seedlings can take
References and further reading
Archer, R.H. 1995. Elaeodendron croceum. Flowering
plants of Africa 54: 58-62.
Archer, R.H. & Van Wyk, A.E. 1998. A
taxonomic revision of Elaeodendron Jacq.
(Celastraceae). South African Journal of Botany 64:
Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates
Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape
Mellis, J.C. 1875. St. Helena. Reeve,
Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962.
The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern
Africa, edn 2. Livingstone, Edinburgh.
Robert H. Archer
National Herbarium, Pretoria