This tree is an upright tree with a rounded crown suitable for a courtyard or gardens with limited space. It was selected as one of the South African Trees of the Year for 2005.
Schefflera umbellifera is a semi-deciduous tree of 6-20 m in height. It has a tall, straight, usually unbranched main stem, 0.6 m in diameter, and a much-branched, rounded crown. The stem has a rough, longitudinally fissured and grey-brown bark.
The leaves are clustered at the ends of the branches. The leaves are compound, digitate (leaflets arranged like a hand), with 3-5 oblong leaflets, leathery, glossy dark green above, paler beneath. The midrib is flat above and raised beneath. The leaf margins are very wavy, entire or serrated in the upper part, with a broadly pointed or notched tip. The leaf stalk is up to 200 mm long.
Small, pale yellow flowers are borne in large, branched, terminal heads of up to 180 mm in diameter. The tree is very attractive when in flower, as the heads stand out well above the leaves. It flowers between January and May. The fruits are dark red, small, about 3 mm in diameter and round, appearing from June to August.
© Geoff Nichols
Name derivation and historical aspects
The genus Schefflera which has about 650 species, was named in 1776 by J.R. and G. Foster in honour of J.C. Scheffler of Danzig. This is the only South African member of the genus which occurs mainly in warm and tropical regions. It is closely related to Cussonia ; the Xhosa and Zulu common names are the same for Cussonia. According to Palmer & Pitman (1972), the specific epithet umbellifera refers to the umbellate arrangement of the flowers in which the flower stalk springs from the same point like the ribs of an umbrella.
This tree is found in tall, moist, warm forest and in dry forest and on grassy hills, from the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It also thrives at the coast up to an altitude of 1 200 m above sea level.
The flowers are visited by a number of insects that pollinate the flowers. The fruits are eaten by birds and this helps in seed dispersal.
Uses And Cultural Aspects
The wood of Schefflera umbellifera is white, soft and light and was used for making matches. The leaves are used medicinally to treat a wide variety of ailments such as insanity, rheumatism, stomachache, and malaria.
Growing Schefflera umbellifera
Schefflera umbellifera is a beautiful tree for gardens large and small. Its tall stem and round crown make it ideal for a shade tree. This is not a tree for very dry areas and as it has large thick roots, it should not be planted too close to buildings, pools or paving.
The tree is best grown from seeds. According to Elsa Pooley (1993), the seed that has been eaten by birds germinate best, as the acidic juices within the digestive system of the bird promote germination. Seeds are sown in a sandy loam soil mix in a seed tray. The tray should be kept moist and placed in a warm place for better germination. The seeds should take 4 to 6 weeks to germinate. The seedlings have simple leaves. Protect seedlings and young trees from frost. The adult trees should survive moderate frosts.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3, Struik, Cape Town.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa : families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa. Balkema, Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand, and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Van Wyk, Braam & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden