The fissured stem of this tree, popular for its medicinal properties, has been admired by many gardeners.
Prunus africana is a medium to large, handsome evergreen tree with a spreading crown of 10 to 20 m when mature. It can become quite huge under frost-free conditions, but is usually medium-sized in gardens. The main stem is straight, with dark brown bark, cracking in a characteristic oblong pattern.
The leaves are smooth, shiny dark green above, paler beneath, with prominent midribs, shallowly serrated margins, pinkish petioles, and when crushed, have a faint smell of almonds.
The white flowers are scented, small, and borne singly or in sprays up to 70 mm long in the axils of the leaves (Oct. to May). The fruit is spherical, dull purplish brown, about 10 mm in diameter, in branched bunches (Sept. to Nov.).
This species is protected in KwaZulu-Natal because of its bark which is very popular in the medicinal trade. The species has been over-exploited and is becoming rare in most areas. The Durban Municipality and the KZN Nature Conservation Services are engaged in teaching traditional doctors how to propagate and care for most of the plants that are used medicinally in South Africa.
Distribution and habitat
Prunus africana is confined to evergreen forests from near the coast to the mist belt and montane forests in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Swaziland, Mpumalanga, Zimbabwe and tropical Africa. This It is a moderately fast-growing tree which is sensitive to heavy frost, preferring areas where there is regular rain; it will tolerate moderate frosts.
Derivation of name
The genus name Prunus is derived from the Latin word which refers to the plum family, and the specific name africana refers to the species' African origin. The prunus family is very important in agriculture as it includes peaches, plums, cherries and apricots.
Birds enjoy the tree for its fruit and good sites for nesting. The seed is spread by birds and this is shown by the sprouting seedlings under big trees on the forest floor.
Uses and cultural aspects
The bark is exploited in Africa on a large scale for its medicinal value. In South Africa the bark is used to treat chest pains. The bark extracts have become popular in Europe for the treatment of benign prostate hypertrophy (Van Wyk et al. 1997). It is also reputed to be very poisonous and to have magical properties. The close-grained, reddish brown wood is occasionally used for furniture, although it does not season well and splits and twists, so its use is limited.
The species is used as an ornamental tree in parks and large gardens and for avenues.
Growing Prunus africana
The tree is easily propagated from seed which is placed in a well-drained growing medium (bark mixed with double-washed river sand) in trays or in well-prepared seedbeds.
The growth is rapid, up to a metre per year if the climate is temperate and the rainfall is good.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, K. 1977. Trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
- Johnson, D., Johnson, S. & Nicholls, G. 2002. Gardening with indigenous trees and shrubs. Struik, Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Scott Shaw, C.R. 1999. Rare and threatened plants of KwaZulu-Natal and neighbouring regions. KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service, Pietermaritzburg.
- Van der Spuy, U. 1971. South African shrubs and trees for the garden. Keartland Press, Johannesburg.
- Van Wyk, B-E., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden
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