This is certainly a shrub that every gardener should have in their
garden, not only because of its beautiful yellow flowers, but also
because of its attractive fruits. These are shiny black and berry-like,
suspended below bright-red sepals in a way that resembles the face
of Mickey Mouse, hence the common name Mickey Mouse bush.
Ochna serrulata is a small shrub of 1 to 2 m in height, but
does occasionally grow up to 6 m so it can also be referred to as
a small tree. It has a slender stem with smooth, brown bark. The
branches are covered with small, raised, light-coloured dots. The
leaves are elliptic, 13-50 mm long, but occasionally narrow with
blunt or rounded tips and a rounded base. The leaf margins are toothed
with upright pointed teeth, and the midrib and the lateral veins
are conspicuous above. The young spring foliage is a beautiful pinkish-bronze,
maturing to glossy green.
This beautiful shrub is covered with fragrant yellow blossoms
in spring (September-November), each flower about 20 mm in diameter.
Although the petals drop quite soon, they make an excellent show
while open. The
fruits are 5 to 6, almost spherical, berry-like fruits, green at
first, shiny black when mature. They are attached to the sepals,
which are persistent, and whilst the fruit has been developing,
the sepals have enlarged and turned bright red, in most cases turning
the whole bush red. In Kirstenbosch the fruits start ripening in
early summer (November) and the red sepals last until late summer
Ochna serrulata occurs on the subtropical (east) coast of
southern Africa where it is widely distributed from sea level to
altitudes of up to 1 800 m. This species can be found on the margin
of evergreen forests as well as in the forest, in scrub forests,
on rocky hill slopes, in bushveld and it is common in the grasslands
of KwaZulu-Natal and the former Transkei area. It is also found
in the southeastern part of Western Cape and the Eastern Cape, Gauteng
and Swaziland. It often forms part of the understorey in the forest,
although it grows in many different habitats.
The flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. The ripe fruits
are eaten by birds, at Kirstenbosch the Rameron pigeons in particular
seem to relish them. Seed is dispersed by birds and water.
Uses and cultural aspects
The Zulu people use a decoction of the root to treat children suffering
from bone diseases or gangrenous rectitis.
Derivation of the name
The genus name Ochna comes from Ochne, the ancient
Greek name for the wild pear, because the leaves of this genus where
thought to resemble those of the wild pear. The specific name serrulata
refers to the saw-toothed leaf margins.
Family and genus information
The Ochnaceae contains more than 30 genera and approximately 250
species that are indigenous mainly to Africa, Asia, and America.
Ochna is the one of two genera in this family that are represented
in South Africa. The genus Ochna consists of about 86 species
occurring in Africa, Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands and Asia.
There are about 12 species of Ochna in southern Africa and
they include trees, shrubs and shrublets.
Growing Ochna serrulata
serrulata grows very well in frost-free areas, but it can withstand
light frost. It enjoys full sun, but also does well in semi-shade
where it is a natural understorey plant. This beautiful shrub does
best when given good garden soil with plenty of compost and mulch
and watered regularly, but it can tolerate occasional periods of
drought. It is slow-growing until established. It is best to prune
it lightly after fruiting to stimulate new shoots and keep it compact
Ochna serrulata is a champion performer, and the texture
of the leaves and the bark makes this shrub an excellent garden
plant even when it is not in flower or fruit. It can be used as
a formal or informal hedge, because of its resistance to wind and
tolerance of clipping. It can also be used as a feature plant or
in the mixed border. It looks good and does well growing amongst
rocks. Ochna serrulata does well as a container plant and
has great potential as a bonsai plant. It can be complimented by
other plants of different texture, such as Oldenburgia grandis,
Helichrysum petiolare, Stoebe plumosa, Eriocephalus
africana and cycads. This is also and excellent plant to
grow if you want to attract birds to your garden.
serrulata is propagated by seed and cuttings. Seed must be very
fresh, it does not keep at all, not even in the fridge. Pick the
ripe black fruits, clean them and sow them immediately to achieve
best results. Germination should occur within 6 weeks. It is a challenge
to beat the birds to the fruits, and often the only ones left by
them are infertile and the seed may be parasitised.
Semi-hardwood cuttings may be taken in summer (December-February).
Cuttings should be treated with a rooting hormone and set in the
mist unit with bottom heat of approx. 24ºC.
They take 4-6 weeks to develop roots after that they may be taken
out of the mist unit and hardened off for 2 weeks and then potted
up. A fungicide may be applied on both seeds and the cuttings, but
Ochna serrulata is not highly susceptible to fungal infection.
Another way of getting new plants is to seek out, remove and pot
up the seedlings and young plants that pop up in odd places from
seed dispersed by the birds.
- POOLEY, E. 1993. The complete field guide to the trees of
Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust,
- VAN DER WATT, N. 1962. Ochna atropurpuraea. The Flowering
Plants of Africa 35: t. 1392.
- LEISTNER, O.A (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa:
family and genera, Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute,
- PALMER, E. & PITMAN, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa.
- ALEXANDER, M. 2001. Mickey Mouse Bush: Ochna serrulata.
Garden & Home June 2001: 128, 129.
- COATES PALGRAVE, K. 1977. Trees of southern Africa, edn
2. Unifoto, CapeTown.
Giles Mbambezeli and Alice Notten
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden