© Geoff Nichols
Elaeodendron transvaalense is an attractive, small to medium tree that fits perfectly in a small garden. Those gardening for biodiversity will find this an ideal specimen to have, as it attracts a number of wild fauna.
Bushveld saffron is a small to medium-sized, bushy tree that grows up to 6-8 m. In other areas the tree may reach 18 m. It has a conspicuously pale grey, smooth bark that is sometimes finely fissured horizontally. Its dwarf spur-branchlets are characterized by a cluster of leaves at the tips. The leaves are often arranged in threes, but can alternate or are arranged spirally on longer stems. They are narrow and linear to narrowly elliptic, light green to dull grey-green. With the entire to finely toothed margin, the leaves are characterized by conspicuous net veins on both sides.
The flowers that are borne in summer (December to April) are small, greenish white and are borne in clusters of 20-30 heads, with slender stalks. Flowers give rise to yellow, edible fruits that are somewhat elongated, broadly tapering to both end, up to 20 mm long, and are formed in autumn.
Distribution and habitat
Bushveld saffron is widespread but not common. It grows from KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and through the northern parts of South Africa into Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia ; it also extends westwards to Botswana, Angola and Namibia. It favours soils rich in lime, grows in various soils and is found in forests, bushveld, scrub, thornveld and woodland, along streams and often on termite mounds.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Elaeodendron traanvalense is a member of the Celastraceae family which is large, rather diverse and is distributed in the tropical and temperate zones of the world. Most of the genera within the family have been subject to considerable confusion and name changes. The family has about 60 tree species in southern Africa, and thus counts as one of the ten largest tree families in the region. The largest genus of this family in the region is Gymnosporia.
The generic name Elaeodendron is derived from the Mauritius olive tree (Bois d'Olive), due to the resemblance of the fruit to the true olive, as noted by the first scientist that collected the tree. The species name transvaalensis means of the Transvaal.
This tree formed part of the genus Cassine, but flowers of Eleaodendron transvaalense have three petals and three stamens, which is unusual for the genus Cassine that is characterized by four to five petals and five stamens. This is the reason why it was changed to Eleaodendron.
Uses and cultural aspects
The wood of bushveld saffron is pale whitish and brittle. It has been used to make cattle troughs, spoons, ladles, headrests and tobacco pipes. The local people regard the bark of this tree as one of the best medicines for stomach problems and fever. An infusion made from the bark is drunk as a general stomach conditioner. The same infusion is also used as an enema to relieve stomach-ache and fevers. The bark has a faint aromatic scent and is said to brew tea with a pleasant flavour, and this tea improves appetite. Bark is commonly sold by herbalists as uMgugudo or iNgwavuma. It contains more than 13% tannin, and therefore is used for tanning. AmaZulu believe that a small piece of the bark placed in a gourd of curdled milk improves the quality of the milk.
Leaves and young shoots of bushveld saffron are browsed by elephant, kudu, giraffe and impala; the fruits are eaten by birds such as hornbills and monkeys.
The district of iNgwavuma in KwaZulu-Natal is named after the IsiZulu name of the tree; the two specimens in Zimbabwe near Bulawayo, known as Mzilikazi's Tree and Baden-Powell's Tree, are both Elaeodendron transvaalense.
Growing Elaeodendron transvaalense
Elaeodendron transvaalense does not grow easily from cuttings, but it grows well from seed. However, if the seed coat is not broken first before sowing, the seeds may take up to twelve months to germinate.
For effective seed germination, soak seeds overnight in warm water to soften the seed coat. The coat can also be removed by lightly rubbing the seeds with sandpaper.
Heap the container with well-sifted and aged potting soil. Press firmly with the presser board to ensure that there are no air locks and that the soil is spread evenly. Sow seeds evenly on the surface, and then cover lightly with the same sifted potting soil. Water well with a fine spray. Keep the container in shade and moist at all times.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
- Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G. & Cunningham A. 1996. Zulu medicinal plants: an inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
- Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa. Balkema, Cape Town.
- Schmidt, E., Lötter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park. Jacana, Johannesburg.
- Van Wyk, A. (Braam) & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
Mhlonishwa D Dlamini
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden