The African holly has attractive bark and berries. It grows throughout
the country, making it suitable for colder, frosty gardens too.
evergreen tree, between 10 and 25 m tall, with a straight trunk
and a rounded canopy. Stems are normally round. Bark on the young
tree is a pale grey-brown with patches of white, smooth with fine,
transverse ridges and yellow- brown corky specks. As the tree becomes
older it becomes evenly whitish grey with dark, and rough spots.
Young twigs are a reddish purple colour. The lance-shaped, simple,
alternate leaves are a shiny dark green and are carried on plum-coloured
stalks. They are between 70-100 x 19-25 mm, with pointed, sometimes
curled tips and wavy, sometimes slightly toothed margins. The plum-coloured
leaf stalks help to identify the tree. The midrib is sharply impressed
above and prominent below.
small flowers are borne in spring or early summer in bunches between
the leaf axils. They are white and sweetly scented. Male and female
flowers are borne on separate trees. The forest floor below the
trees become carpeted with tiny, white flower petals that are shed
as the fruit begins to develop.
Fruits ripen on the female trees in autumn, turning bright red,
and as these are densely packed along the stems, they provide bright
splashes of colour, attracting many kinds of birds. There are several
seeds in each fruit that is small and round with a sharp point.
Fruiting trees are conspicuous when viewed from above.
The wood is close-grained, medium-hard and medium-heavy. It is whitish
to grey-green in colour that is easily worked.
There are three genera and over 500 species in the holly family,
most growing in Asia and tropical America. More than 200 evergreen
tree and shrub species belong to the Ilex genus and occur
mainly in temperate and subtropical forests. There is only one species
in South Africa, Ilex mitis. It is very widely distributed
in Africa, growing on the banks of rivers and streams and moist
spots in woods and forests. In South Africa it grows in all the
provinces as well as in Swaziland and Lesotho.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Ilex is the Latin name for the Holm oak, and mitis
means unarmed, alluding to the leaves which are not prominently
toothed, unlike some other species in the genus which have sharply
spiny leaves, such as the traditional holly, Ilex aquifolium,
used in Europe and North America for Christmas decorations.
A tree of woods and forests, from sea level to high mountains, often
found overhanging streams along which it grows. It is variable in
size depending on where it is growing. In the forests of Knysna
it easily reaches a height of 18 m and may have a trunk diameter
of 0.6 m. Brilliant red fruits in autumn attract birds. In the Knysna
forests elephants show a particular liking for the leaves.
When the leaves are rubbed together they give a lather and this
was once used by the Knysna woodcutters to wash themselves in the
streams of the forest. The Zulus are also aware of this use. This
is reflected in their name iPhuphuma which means, 'it foams
out'. The Venda name when translated means 'milk-pail washer'. The
wood was once used in the construction of wagons for buckboards
and occasionally for spokes. It was also in demand for the heels
of ladies shoes. It is still used for implement handles and furniture
as well as fuel.
Growing Ilex mitis
Fresh seed grows easily. Seed collected from the tree, or those
fallen below the tree should be allowed to dry. Trees can be very
tall, making collecting off the tree very difficult. They should
then be sown into a tray containing a 1:1 mixture of river sand
and compost. Seedling mix obtained from nursery centres is also
suitable. Seed should be covered lightly with the soil mix and then
kept damp. Although germination can be erratic, seeds usually begin
to germinate 8-20 days after sowing. The seedlings need to be transplanted
into a mix of sand and compost in bags at the two-leaf stage.
It is a fairly fast-growing tree, 0.8 m a year being possible.
It transplants well, but needs protection whilst young. It grows
best when planted alongside a running stream. It is one of the few
indigenous evergreen trees that can cope with frost, making it especially
suitable for cold areas. To be sure of fruit, plant a small grove
of these trees and remove extra males later.
Pests and diseases: None known.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, K. 1983. Trees of southern Africa. Struik,
- Dyer, R.A. 1975. The genera of southern African flowering plants,
vol. 1, dicotyledons. Flora of southern Africa. Botanical
Research Institute, Pretoria.
- Johnson, D. & Johnson, S. 1993. Gardening with indigenous
trees and shrubs. Southern Book Publishers, Halfway House.
- Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa,
vols 1 & 2. Balkema, Cape Town.
- Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs
of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35. Department
of Agricultural Technical Services, Pretoria.
- Venter, F. & Venter, J-A. 1996. Making the most of indigenous
trees. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Von Breitenbach, F. 1974. Southern Cape forests and trees.
The Government Printer, Pretoria.
Harold Porter NBG