Searsia ciliata

Licht. ex Schult.
Family: Anarcadaciaeae
Common names: sour karee (Eng.); suurkaree (Afr.)

Image of S. ciliata leaves

Searsia ciliata is one of the more modest members of this popular group of garden plants which hybridize easily. This species, like several others in the family, is a low maintenance shrub and is commonly confused with S. tridactyla. It tends to grow straggly and needs light pruning to keep it shapely.

Image of S. ciliata shrubSearsia ciliata forms an evergreen, thorny, thin and crooked-stemmed shrub from 2 to 4 m high. The bark is grey, smooth and the branches are spreading white somewhat striate (marked with fine lines, ridges or furrows), often ending in spines. The leaves are trifoliolate (has three leaflets) which is characteristic of the Searsia species. The flowers are minute, yellow-green in colour and insignificant. The fruits are drupes; shiny, light to dark brown in colour. The shape of the fruits is the main distinquishing character between this species and S. tridactyla.

S. ciliata is widespread in two widely separated areas. In Namibia it is found in the central to northern areas roughly between Grootfontein, Otjiwarongo and Windhoek. It is also widespread in the central drier parts of South Africa, such as the Northern Cape, the western half of the Free State and reaches as far south as north of Middelburg in the central Karroo. It also occurs in the southernmost part of Botswana.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Most of the species grown in southern Africa, belonging to the genus Rhus, have been placed in Searsia. Searsia was named after Paul B. Sears (1891-1990) who was head of the Yale School of Botany. Ciliata is the Latin for cilia which refers to the minute hairs along the leaflet margins (Moffet 1994).

The Anacardiaceae family is widespread in the warmer parts of the world. In South Africa there are about 111 species of Searsia. A few indigenous genera that belong to this family are wild plum, Harpephyllum caffrum, the resin tree Ozoroa species, iron martin, Laurophyllus capensis and marula, Sclerocarya caffra. Some members of the family have edible fruits such as the mango, the cashew nut, the pistachio nut and the marula. Many of these plants produce a resin, gum or latex and some have a highly toxic sap e.g. Smodingium sp., which causes a painful rash that results in blistering. The male and female flowers are often borne separately.

Fruit-eating birds are very fond of eating these fruits.

Uses and cultural aspects
The fruits are edible but not tasty and are eaten by the Sotho people. It is known as firebush in Namibia where it is used to extinquish fires.

Growing Searsia ciliata

These shrubs are best grown from seed. The seeds usually have a shiny brown colouring when ripe. As soon as the seeds are dry they can be collected. The seeds are cleaned by rubbing off the outer parts, then dried in the sun, dusted in Bexadust and stored till sowing. The seeds can be sown immediately they are sun dried or stored for one season, sometimes for two seasons, if treated correctly with Bexadust. All Searsia seeds are best sown in spring.

Sow in a medium made up of one part mountain gravel, one part compost/leaf mould, and one part red soil. Mix well until you have a very well-drained, loose mixture. No artificial fertilizers should be added. Part or parts refer to level wheelbarrows.

Seed trays must have good drainage. Scatter the seeds lightly over the prepared, damp sowing mixture. Firm them down lightly. Dust the seed with fine ashes of wood (grey powder), before covering them to keep the insects away. Place the seed tray in a cool, shady, well-ventilated house. The sun should not shine on the seed tray in the germinating stage. Seed starts germinating from 4-6 weeks; some species can take longer. Germinated seeds should be watered daily, the seedlings damp off when over-watered. As they develop into the third to fourth leaf stage, do not remove the seedlings with a dibber but rather shake the soil out of the pot, wet it and loosen it, so that you do not damage the root system. The transplanting soil mixture is as follows: one part compost/ leaf mould, one part mountain gravel, three parts red soil. Add a handful of bone meal and 3:1:5 or 2:3:2 to transplanting soil mixture. Mix well (Martin Lumley pers. comm.).

MOFFETT, R.O. 1993. Rhus ciliata and Rhus tridactyla, two hitherto confused species of southern African Anacardiaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 112: 33-42.
MOFFETT, R.O. 2007. Name changes in the Old World Rhus and recognition of Searsia (Anacardiaceae). Bothalia 37(2):165-175 COATES PALGRAVE, K., P. & M. 1985. Everyone's guide to Trees of South Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
KOK, J.C. 1999. Vrystaatse bome, struike en klimplante. Pretoria: Kontak-Uitgewers.
MOFFET, R.O. 1993. Flora of southern Africa 19, part 3: Anacardiaceae. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
MOFFET, R.O. 1994. Names of the southern African species of Rhus (Anacardiaceae) and their etymology. Bothalia 24: 67-76.
PALMER, E. & PITMAN, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa 2. Balkema, Cape Town.
VENTER, H.J.T. & JOUBERT, M. 1987. Climbers, trees and shrubs of the Orange Free State. P J De Villiers. Bloemfontein.

Shireen Harris
Free State NBG
September 2003
Updated July 2008