South African plants are set to receive their share of the limelight! A new television series will uncover the secrets of our indigenous flora, by describing stories of plant evolution and diversity! I can’t wait to tune in, especially because the first episode is on Fynbos.
The aim of this post is to establish where we stand in terms of being able to identify the trees of Southern Africa. Thus far we have covered the top seven tree families: the Rubiaceae (coffee family), Fabaceae (the legumes), Celastraceae (the spike-thorns), Euphorbiaceae (Euphorbs or spurges), Anacardiaceae (mango family), Proteaceae (Proteoids) and Combretaceae (Bushwillows or Cluster-leafs). By my calculation this means we have covered families containing approximately 870 species, or just over 41% of all trees in Southern Africa! So we’re well on our way to meeting the challenge of identifying two thirds of the trees of the region.
Here is a quick (and pretty simple) breakdown of what we have covered and where we are going:
Number seven on our list of the largest families of trees in Southern Africa is the Combretaceae, commonly referred to as the Bushwillows. Globally, the Combretaceae is a large family of about seventeen genera containing more than 500 trees, shrubs and woody climbing plants, most of which occur in the tropics or warm subtropical areas. In Africa the richest variety of species occur in the tropics, but this diversity tends to decline as one moves southwards. By the time one reaches Southern Africa there are six genera containing just over 50 tree species. The vast majority of these species belong to only two genera: Combretum (thirty-four species) and Terminalia (twelve species). The four other lesser known genera occurring in the region contain five species between them: Pteleopsis has two species (P. myrtifolia and P. anisoptera), while the other three genera have a single species each (Meiostemon tetrandrus, Quisqualis parviflora and Lumnitzera racemosa).
Members of the Combretaceae, particularly Terminalia and Combretum, can be dominant species of certain vegetation types in Southern Africa. One of the more unusual species is Lumnitzera racemosa which forms a component of the mangrove forests on the east coast of Southern Africa and is one of the few species of mangroves extending as far south as South Africa. Overall the occurrence and diversity patterns within Southern Africa tend to mirror those of the family throughout Africa: both abundance and species diversity declines as one moves southwards. Only a handful of species occur in the sheltered coastal forests and riverine habitats of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province – notably the Cape (C. caffrum) and River Bushwillows (C. erythrophyllum).
The leaves of all Combretaceae are simple and entire (in a few species they may sometimes be slightly toothed). In Combretum the leaves are usually arranged opposite or semi-opposite, and as a result these species can be mistakenly identified as members of the Rubiaceae. However, Combretum species lack the stipules characteristic of that family. Terminalia leaves are usually found in densely packed groups at the tips of the twigs and are sometimes referred to as Cluster-leaf trees (like the Lebombo Cluster-leaf, T. phanerophlebia, above ).
Combretum species have four to five winged fruits (one species, C. bracteosum, has a wingless nut and may very well be described as a new genus in the near future as a result of this oddity). The aptly named Large-Fruit Bushwillow (C. zeyheri; see image below) is the South African species with the largest fruit, and is easily recognized by this. Terminalia fruits (like the fruits of T. sericea below) tend to be flattened and have only two wings .
 The beautiful color plate was created by renowned botanical artist and botanist Elise Buitendag, of the Lowveld National Botanic Gardens in Mbombela. Much of the inspiration for this post came from her notes on Combretaceae made over four decades ago in the March 1974 Veld and Flora!
Interestingly, the plate shows a lesser known member of the Combretaceae, Terminalia phanerophlebia. In addition to the leaf clusters the image also shows another feature of the Combretaceae: species tend to have small flowers borne in bunches, of which the stamens are often the most noticeable part. Apart from a few Combretum species with red or light red or orange flowers, all South African species have white to yellow or greenish flowers. Occasionally, the flowers may spread a pleasant aroma, such as the flowers of Terminalia sericea.
 For this article I leaned on three excellent sources: Braam and Piet van Wyk’s Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa (that I have mentioned in a previous post); Keith and Meg Coates Palgrave’s Trees of Southern Africa; and an article on the Combretaceae written by Elise Buitendag (see above).
If you are keen to learn more about Southern African trees (much more than I can provide) I highly recommend purchasing a copy of the two guides. Here is the cover of the Trees of Southern Africa:
Although the Proteaceae is instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the flora of southern Africa, few people would consider this family to be among the top ten tree families. Of the 330 or so species in the region, approximately 75 species (~22%) can be (somewhat generously) classified as trees, with the rest being small or large woody shrubs. But, for the Proteaceae, we will be accommodating with our definitions.
I have written about the Proteaceae previously, commenting on the derivation of the name from the greek god Proteus (the sea god of ever changing form), and how wonderfully diverse the different plant forms can be. In spite of this diversity of form, there are, of course, some underlying similarities among the Proteaceae species in southern Africa: All species have simple, alternate, entire, leathery leaves (naturally, there is one exception, which we will get to); and the flowers are collected in showy heads or spikes. Each flower has four stamens, which are often fused to the sepals, leaving only the anthers free. If you have ever looked closely at a single flower (by zooming in on one of the impressive inflorescences) you may have noticed the long style pushing through the closely formed sepals. This feature serves a very important function: by brushing up against the anthers and then extending through the sepals, the style presents pollen to pollinators. Large beetles and birds (e.g. the sugarbird, Promerops caffra) obligingly collect the pollen (although they are more interested in the nectar) by sitting on top of the inflorescences.
The two great subfamilies: Proteoideae and Grevilleoideae
There are two major subfamilies in southern Africa: the Proteoideae and the Grevilleoideae . Most people are familiar with the former subfamily, due in no small part to the ecological, cultural and economic importance of Protea species from South Africa’s south-western region (these species constitute a major part of the Fynbos flora) . Some Proteoideae species, like the silver tree (Leucadendron argenteum), even form genuine trees.
However, very few South Africans will be familiar with the other major subfamily of the Proteaceae: the Grevilleoideae. Most of the species in this subfamily are found in Australia and south east Asia and South America (e.g. Grevillea, Banksia and Macadamia). However, one of the Proteaceae species most deserving of “tree status” is in the Grevilleoideae subfamily: Brabejum stellatifolium. Brabejumstellatifolium is a small tree (<15m) found in moist habitats throughout the southern Western Cape region of South Africa. It has small spikes of white flowers, which when pollinated produce clusters of rusty-brown, velvet fruits. Brabejum is the only representative of the Grevilleoideae subfamily on the African continent, although Macadamia is commonly planted for it’s nuts (and apparently there are native species related to Macadamia on Madagascar!). Members of the Proteoideae and Grevilleoideae can be separated by their floral form: Proteoideae species have flowers borne singly in the axil of a bract, but in the Grevilleoideae each bract subtends two flowers. Thus, if a flowering spike of Brabejum is examined, it will be seen to have two flowers in the axil of each bract! Another feature of the Grevilleoideae is that the leaves are whorled and toothed, as you can see from the picture below:
Part of our unique heritage
Culturally and economically, the proteoids are a highly important group. The cut-flower industry uses many proteoids (e.g. proteas, pincushions, blushing brides, conebushes). Proteoids are a popular – and stunning – choice for bouquets for wedding couples. Stylised proteoids also adorn many cultural artifacts, including Protea cynaroides on South Africa’s 20c coin, and form the basis of institutional emblems, such as the Protea repens used for South Africa’s Botanical Society.
Rounding off the top five (or is it six?) largest tree families in southern Africa is the Anacardiaceae or mango family. The Anacardiaceae contains about 80 native tree species, and most have either simple or compound, imparipinnate (i.e. pinnate with a single leaflet at the apex) leaves, and a watery or milky latex, which can cause irritation to the skin. The crushed leaves usually smell like turpentine or resin.
The largest and most familiar genus is Searsia (previously known as Rhus). Searsia species are trifoliolate (meaning that there are three leaflets) with small spherical or ovoid fleshy fruits (called drupes). The genus is named for Paul B. Sears (1891–1990), an American ecologist, who was head of the Yale School of Botany. Sears worked on the flora of North America, notably Ohio, where several Rhus species are found. In southern Africa there are approximately 47 described species, with many of these being very difficult to tell apart. Searsia burchellii (shown below) is named after William John Burchell (1782–1863), an English naturalist who traveled in southern Africa and collected thousands of plant specimens, including this species.
Another notable native genus in the Anacardiaceae occurring in southern Africa is Ozoroa, the resin trees. This genus of shrubs or small trees currently contains 14 species, some of which are very rare (e.g. O. namaquensis). Several other native genera are mono-specific, including Protorhus (the red beech), and Heeria (rockwood).
Many trees of the Anacardiaceae are often delicious! The most delectable native fruit is certainly that produced by the marula tree, Sclerocarya birrea. Although the marula is most commonly associated with an alcoholic drink (the fruits are often fermented and incorporated into a rich, creamy synonymous drink), the raw fruits are richly scented and taste delicious! I recall being initially skeptical when offered some of these fruits by my MSc supervisor (Prof. Jeremy Midgley from the University of Cape Town). But once I tasted the fruits, I could not get enough of them! A bonus is that they contain about four times as much vitamin C as an orange!
Many of the other culinary delights are produced by trees introduced into southern Africa from elsewhere. There are some really great nuts: pistachio nuts from the pistachio tree (Pistacea vera) and cashew nuts from the cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale). The latter nuts contain approximately 45% fat and 20% protein, which explains why they are so tasty. Pistachios were introduced from the middle east and the cashew was originally from tropical America. The most famous fleshy drupe is of course the mango from the mango tree (Mangifera indica). Mango trees were introduced from tropical east Asia and are now grown extensively in sub-tropical areas.
So the Anacardiaceae is the most delicious family. But beware! Not all species are palatable; some are highly toxic. The “pain bush” (Smodingium argutum) and “agony tree” (Trichoscypha ulugurensis) can both cause severe allergic rashes if touched (similar to the dreadful species that I encountered many times during field work in California: Toxicodendron diversilobum, otherwise known as poison oak). Smodingium has also been refered to as “the terrible tovana plant of Pondoland” (tovana is of Xhosa or Zulu derivation).
The Euphorbiaceae is one of my favourite plant families. Not only are many Euphorbia trees instantly recognisable by their candelabra-like growth form, but they also form unique and characteristic components of the Subtropical Thicket Biome in the region where I spent my childhood. These trees – especially Euphorbia triangularis – remind me of my original home!
The Euphorbiaceae contains approximately 90 native southern African tree species. Most of the species have succulent stems with (often absent) simple, alternate or spirally-arranged leaves. The flowers are usually small, yellow and bird pollinated. Although Euphorbia species (the largest genus in the family) are often cactus-like in growth form, Euphorbs and cacti are quite unrelated, being an example of remarkable convergent evolution to arid environments. True Euphorbias can be distinguished by the paired spines and poisonous, corrosive milky latex-like sap. I recall one incident from my childhood where I was dared by a friend to taste the sap from one of these plants growing on our school’s premises. I was tempted, made a gash in the side of one of the plants and licked some latex from my finger. A human would have to drink large quantities of the stuff to notice serious effects, but I can still remember the horrible taste and the way it left my mouth dry for a few hours.
Su Abraham’s beautiful illustration (above) shows quite clearly the characteristic traits of a true Euphorbia, including the succulent stem, paired spines, and reduced yellow flowers (with three-lobed fruit capsules).
Not all Euphorbiaceae species are succulent. In fact, most Euphorbs are non-succulent: only two out of the thirty nine genera have succulent trees (in addition to Euphorbia, the other genus containing succulent trees is Synadenium). Some of the remaining thirty-seven genera contain some familiar trees, such as Tambotie (Spirostachys africana) and several Clutia species. I have a stink-ebony tree (Heywoodia lucens) growing in my garden.