Schotia brachypetala is a handsome, medium to large tree
with a wide-spreading, densely branched, rounded crown. It has a
single trunk that sometimes branches low down. Trees can reach a
height of 22 m, but most commonly grow 11 to 16 m with a spread
of 10 to 15 m. The bark is rough and brown or grey brown. The leaves
are compound, with 4 to 6 pairs of leaflets, each with an entire,
wavy margin. The foliage is reddish to coppery when young, turning
bright green and maturing to a glossy dark green. In warm frost-free
areas this tree is evergreen, but in colder regions it is deciduous,
losing its leaves for a short period in winter to spring.
flowers are rich deep red, and are produced in masses, in dense
branched heads on the old wood during spring (Aug.-Nov.). The
flowering time is somewhat irregular in that a tree in bloom may
be a few metres away from one that has no sign of flowers. This
irregularity is of value to the nectar feeding birds, and ensures
a longer feeding season.
The fruit is a hard, flattened, woody, dark brown pod containing
flattened, pale brown approx. 20 mm diameter seeds with a conspicuous
yellow aril. The pods split on the tree, maturing during late summer
to autumn (Feb.-May).
Schotia brachypetala occurs in warm dry areas in bushveld,
deciduous woodland and scrub forest most often on the banks of rivers
and streams or on old termite mounds at lower altitudes from around
Umtata in the Eastern Cape, through KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Mpumalanga,
Northern Province and into Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
The genus Schotia was named by Nikolaus Joseph Jacquin (1727-1817) after Richard van der Schot (1733-1790). Van der Schot was originally from Delft, Holland, and was head gardener at the Schonbrunn Imperial Garden in Vienna, Austria. He went to Vienna in 1753 to tend the new Dutch Garden at Schonbrunn Palace created by Emperor Franz 1 Stephan in 1753. In 1754 he travelled with Jacquin to the West Indies on a plant collecting expedition sponsored by the Empress Maria Theresa and Franz 1 Stephan, returning to Vienna in 1756. He was the Director of the Menagerie at Schonbrunn Palace, today the Schonbrunn Zoo, from 1789-1790. Jacquin was a botanist and chemist, and studied medicine. He was Professor of Botany and Chemistry and Director of the Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna 1768-1797.
The specific name brachypetala means 'having short petals' in Greek and refers to the flowers which are unique among Schotia species in that the petals are partly or completely reduced to linear filaments. The beauty of the flowers is in the brightly coloured calyces (sepals), stamens and pedicels (flower stalks). The flowers produce copious amounts of nectar, which over-flows and drips or 'weeps' from the flowers and may be the origin of the common name, the weeping boer-bean, or huilboerboon in Afrikaans. The name could also be derived from the spittle bug, Ptyelus grossus, a small insect that parasitises Schotia brachypetala, sucking up the sap which it then excretes as froth that collect and drips down the branches, but as it also parasitises other trees, the dripping nectar is the more likely, and attractive, origin. The boerboon / boer-bean (farm bean) part of the name was earned by all the species of Schotia, because of their edible seeds, and their resemblance to the original boerboon, Vicia faba, the domestic broadbean.
Schotia is a small genus endemic to southern Africa which
proved itself difficult to classify, as the members are variable
and hybridise with each other where their ranges overlap. A revision
of the genus undertaken by Dr. L.E. Codd in 1956 reduced the 15
described species to four. All four species are restricted to Africa
south of the Zambezi River. The other three species are as follows:
- Schotia afra, the Karoo boer-bean or Karooboerboon which
has two distinct varieties Schotia afra var. afra
which occurs in the coastal districts of the southern and eastern
Cape, and Schotia afra var. angustifolia which occurs
inland in Namaqualand and Namibia
- Schotia capitata, the dwarf boer-bean or kleinboerboon
which occurs along the coast from KwaZulu-Natal, through Swaziland
and into Mozambique
- Schotia latifolia the bush boer-bean or bosboerboon
which occurs from Riversdale in the Western Cape to near Umtata
in the Eastern Cape and in Mpumalanga.
Growing Schotia brachypetala
Schotia brachypetala grows easily, transplants well and
blooms whilst still relatively young. On heavy soils in colder climates
it can be quite slow, but in warm, frost-free areas in deep sandy
soil with plenty of water in summer, it is surprisingly fast, and
has been known to reach a height of 12 m in 17 years. For best results,
plant in a warm sunny position, in deep, well-aerated sandy soil,
add plenty of well-decomposed compost (humus) and water liberally
in summer. A general purpose granular fertiliser can be used during
the growing season. It is half-hardy to frost, and young plants
require protection, but a well-established tree in a protected spot,
should be able to withstand a winter minimum of down to -5C (23F).
Propagation is by seed or truncheon cuttings. Schotia brachypetala
grows easily from seed, which should be sown in spring to early
summer, in a well-drained general-purpose potting soil, placed in
a warm but shaded spot and kept moist. Soaking the seed overnight
in warm (not hot) water is not necessary for germination to occur,
but should hurry things along. Dusting the seed prior to sowing,
or drenching after sowing, with a fungicide that combats pre-emergence
damping off, although not essential, will increase the percentage
germination. Truncheon cuttings can be taken in winter to early
spring while the tree is not in active growth, and should placed
in well-drained sandy soil in a cool shady spot and kept damp but
Schotia brachypetala with its decorative foliage, showy
flowers and symmetric shapely habit is an excellent tree for gardens
and parks, but it is not advisable to plant it over paved areas,
car parks etc, because of the dripping nectar in the spring. It
nevertheless makes a good shade tree and although it looks good
in a large landscape or standing alone as a specimen tree, it is
also suitable for smaller gardens.
Schotia brachypetala attracts a wide variety of birds, animals
and insects and is a noisy, hive of activity while in flower. Nectar-feeding
birds, particularly sunbirds, bees and insects feed on the nectar.
Insect-eating birds feed on the insects attracted by the flowers.
Starlings, monkeys and baboons eat the flowers, monkeys eat the
seeds, birds eat the aril on the seeds and the leaves are browsed
by game and black rhino also eat the bark. The latter visitors of
course are only expected in game reserves.
Not only is Schotia brachypetala an exceptional ornamental
tree, it also has a number of other uses: A decoction of the bark
is taken to treat heartburn and hangovers. Bark and root mixtures
are used to strengthen the body and purify the blood, to treat nervous
heart conditions and diarrhoea, as well as for facial saunas. The
seeds are edible after roasting, and although low in fat and protein
they have a high carbohydrate content. Both the Bantu-speaking people
and the early European settlers and farmers are said to have roasted
the mature pods and eaten the seeds, a practice which they learned
from the Khoikhoi. The bark can be used for dyeing, giving a red-brown
or red colour. The timber is of good quality, suitable for furniture
making. The sapwood is pinkish-grey and not durable unless treated.
The heartwood is a dark walnut, almost black, hard, fairly heavy
and termite resistant with a dense fine texture and has been much
used for furniture and flooring blocks. It is also said to be excellent
for all kinds of wagon wood and was chiefly in demand for wagon
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Giles Mbambezeli & Alice Notten
& January 2014