Maerua cafra (DC.) Pax

Family name: Capparaceae
Common name: Common bush-cherry, White-wood, Witbos

Maerua cafra is an evergreen shrub or small tree that grows up to a height of 2-9m, depending on the local conditions. Its light-coloured trunk accounts for the common name "white-wood" or "witbos" in Afrikaans. It has alternate, compound leaves with 3-5 leaflets with a long petiole up to 60mm. The scented flowers are borne in terminal clusters and are comprised mainly of a tuft of spreading white stamens, tipped with green. As illustrated by Gill Condy in Flowering Plants of Africa.The slender stamens give the flowers a spider-like appearance. Flowering occurs in early spring from August to October. Flowers are followed by oval, plum-like fruit in October - December. These are up to 45mm long, pale green with dark green ribs and reported to be edible. The illustration (right) by Gill Condy from Flowering Plants of Africa shows the flowers, fruits and leaves.

The origin of the name Maerua is uncertain, but it may come from Arabic. Cafra is an unusual spelling of caffra, a name given in the past to many plants from the eastern areas of southern Africa. It is derived from the Hebrew kafri for "person living on the land".

Maerua cafra is very variable and can occur as a low bush on the dunes or in dry places, but also grows as a tree up to 9m. where conditions are favourable. It is a common plant in the bushveld regions, wooded grassland and along the forest margins, also occuring in rocky areas. It is widely distributed along the eastern side of South Africa from Humansdorp in the south and is also found in Gauteng and the Northern Province towards Zimbabwe.

Leaves of Maerua cafra are browsed by game and ground roots have been used as chicory substitute. When the fruit ripens it remains green, but becomes soft and strongly sweet smelling and is relished by many different bird species.

Growing Maerua cafra

The common bush-cherry can be propagated from seeds which must be sown fresh. The germination rate is often very high, but growth is reputed to be slow with reports that plants can take 3-7 years to reach 1m. Commercial nurseries cannot afford to be so patient, thus Maerua cafra is not often stocked. It is a slow-growing, drought resistant shrub. If planted in the nursery bags, root development tends to be very poor. Some writers (Palmer & Pitman) differ, and report that it thrives in cultivation under natural conditions and flowers when small. Perhaps keen gardeners will take up this challenge.

Maerua cafra is not commonly used in landscape designs as it not often available in commercial nurseries. If grown to an acceptable height, it is an ideal shrub for the mixed border. It also suitable for semi-shade or deep shade. It must be planted in a protected spot in cold gardens.

This is a large genus comprising roughly 100 species in Africa and Asia, of which about 11 species occur in Southern Africa. At the Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden Maerua cafra can be seen growing naturally in the arboretum.

List of references

  • Coates Palgrave, K. 1983. Trees of Southern Africa 2nd ed. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Pooley, E.1997. The complete fields guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Palmer, E and Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa..Balkema,Cape Town.
  • Joffe, P. 1993. The gardener's guide to the South African plants. Tafelberg Publishers Limited, Cape Town.
  • Killick, D. J. B. 1988. Maerua cafra in Flowering Plants of Africa.Vol 50 plate 1988.

Thompson T. Mutshinyalo
Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden
Added to by Y Reynolds
October 2001


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