The Transvaal red milkwood has gained its popularity with people, birds as well as monkeys and baboons through its tasty fruit which are sweet and high in vitamin C.
It makes large, neat, deep green canopies, which offer shade to weary hikers in the African savanna as well as provide cool shade in the home garden.
Mimusops zeyheri is potentially a large, evergreen tree with a rounded crown which may reach up to 15 m under ideal conditions. It is, however, often encountered as a shrub or small tree in its natural range and only reaches its full potential in protected valleys and forest margins where moisture is more available.
The leaves are glossy, dark green and carried on a spreading crown, which could easily be as wide as the tree is high. It has the potential to make an excellent evergreen garden specimen for larger gardens, parks and golf courses. This tree casts a deep shade, which offers a cool escape from the hot African sun. It is possibly overlooked as a horticultural subject due to the erroneous perception that it can be somewhat slow growing and consequently takes many years to reach its full potential.
Small, white, sweetly scented flowers are borne in October to February. Fruits are oval with a pointed tip ripening yellow or orange from April to September.
Distribution and Habitat
This tree occurs across a wide range including the four northern provinces of South Africa as well as Kwa-Zulu Natal, Swaziland and Mozambique . It also extends northwards into Zimbabwe and tropical Africa . It occurs naturally on rocky outcrops, wooded hillsides, riverine and forest fringes as well as in open, dry woodland and bushveld. The wide range of natural occurrence suggests that it would be ideally suited to cultivation in summer rainfall areas of meduim to lower altitude areas where frost is minimal or absent. Experience at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden indicates that it is tolerant only of a moderate degree of frost.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The botanical name is derived from the Greek mimo meaning ape, and ops meaning resembling an ape. Some authors have speculated that this may be in reference to the colour of the flowers or the shape of the corolla. (Schmidt et al. 2002). The specific epithet honours C.L.P. Zeyher (1799-1858), a German botanist and collector of plants particularly in southern Africa .
The milkwoods are represented by four species in South Africa . The genus Mimusops is a member of a large family of mainly tree species predominantly from tropical climates. Members of this family include the South American tree Manilkara zapotilla from which the latex is extracted for the manufacture of chewing gum. As well as Palaquim gutta which is used to make golf balls and some adhesives.
Nymph as well as Commodore butterflies breed on trees belonging to the milkwood family. The Pied False Acraea breeds specifically on this tree (Venter & Venter 1996). Certain caterpillars are known to spin webs around the branches in autumn under which they devour the leaves, often defoliating the tree. Baboons, frugivorous birds as well as people favour the sweet fruits while antelope and elephants browse the leaves. Vervet and Somango monkeys climb eagerly in the tree in search of sweet, ripe fruit and knock many to the ground in the process.Fruit which falls to the ground will be eaten by bushpigs, and other mammals which cannot climb the tree such as small and large antelope. The tree relies upon these animals to eat the fruit and carry it some distance for effective seed dispersal.
Growing Mimusops zeyheri
The Transvaal red milkwood is easily cultivated and best utilized in larger gardens and open spaces. They may be used as individual specimen trees or groupings of several specimens where space permits. It is the ideal tree under which to create an entertainment area due to its wide canopy and dense shade created by the evergreen leaves. However, while the tree is in fruit it may not be ideally suited for this purpose as the birds and other animals may create a mess under the tree. It is well suited to cultivation in the medium to lower altitude regions of the summer rainfall areas of southern Africa and in protected valleys of the highveld areas. It is a popular bonsai subject and may also be attractive as an indoor plant, it is said to have a root system which is safe for planting near swimming pools, buildings and paving (Venter & Venter 1996).
The seed should be extracted from the fleshy fruit and sown fresh for best results. Seed have a high viability and germination begins within two weeks of sowing. The seedlings may be left in the seedling trays until the following spring or pricked out at the two-leaf stage into individual containers.
Growth rate of seedlings is fast and saplings of a metre or more can be obtained within three to four years of sowing. Rapid development under nursery conditions can be promoted by the use of balanced horticultural fertilizers. During this time the plants should be promoted to progressively larger containers to prevent root bounding.
Saplings are usually ready to be planted out after four or more years from sowing, at which time attention should be given to the planting hole. Mix good compost with the back filling soil and add bone meal or tree planting tablets to the bottom of the hole. Saplings can be watered well for the first year, gradually reducing irrigation over the ensuing two to three years to ensure the development of a deep root system.
In higher lying areas young trees should be protected against frost for the first three years while the tree becomes acclimatized and attains some height to offer more resistance to mild or moderate frost; this species will not survive any extreme degree of frost.
Mimusops zeyherii is not prone to disease, but may attract scale insects on the young stems and growth tips, which should be monitored on smaller specimens to ensure the damage is not unsustainable. If it becomes necessary, they may be sprayed with a product registered for use on scale. Mineral oil can be effective and is harmless to the ladybird beetles and spiders as well as the environment, in extremely stubborn cases mineral oil can be alternated with products containing chlorpyrifos at 750g/kg.
The trees may attract caterpillars at certain times of the year which should be left alone as they will pupate into beautiful butterflies and the damage they do to the tree will quickly be replaced with new growth. If such damage occurs on young saplings, caterpillars can be removed by hand or by using a strong spray of water.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3 . Struik, Cape Town .
- Pooley, E. 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei . Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban .
- Schmidt, E., Lötter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park . Jacana, Johannesburg .
- Venter, F. & Venter, J. 1996. Making the most of indigenous trees . Briza Publications, Pretoria .
Author: Andrew Hankey
Photo: Ernst van Jaarsveld
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden