Two of our most beautiful indigenous trees have recently started flowering. Firstly there is the Cape Chestnut or Calodendron capense. The Swedish botanist and physician, Carl Peter Thunberg, gave this tree its name when he found it flowering and covered in butterflies, in the Grootvadersbosch near Swellendam in December 1772. Calodendron literally means beautiful tree in Greek (kalos meaning beautiful and dendron meaning tree). No doubt these trees had also been flowering in the Knysna forests when Thunberg and his two fellow travellers passed through, but they were probably too shaken after being attacked by an old male buffalo near the Goukamma River to record any botanical observations!
A good example of Calodendron capense can be seen alongside the N2 shortly after crossing the White bridge on the way into Knysna. From a distance the whole canopy of the tree looks pink, but on closer examination the pale pink petals are spotted with purplish glands. The fruit is a 5-lobed woody capsule containing large smooth black seeds. This is what led people to think it was related to the horse chestnut, but surprisingly it is actually a member of the Rutaceae family which includes buchu and citrus. The leaves have a faint citrus scent when crushed and the larvae of the Citrus and Green-banded Swallowtail butterflies breed on the foliage as they do on other citrus trees. There is another example of this lovely tree at the top of Wilson Street in Hunters Home where one can get close enough to examine the flowers.
Calodendrum capense is a stunningly beautiful tree and deserves to be used more in parks and as a street tree. In the open it grows to 7 metres, whereas in a forest environment it can reach 20 metres, so it is probably rather large for today’s average garden!?
Another beautiful indigenous tree that is suitable for most gardens is the Dais cotinifolia or Pompom tree. When in flower this small tree becomes a cloud of soft pink balls. Its name Dais means torch in Greek as the stalk and bracts holding the flowers look like a torch about to be lit. The tree is fast growing and fairly drought resistant once established. It prefers a sunny spot and should flower from its second year and reach its full height within 4-5 years. Prune lightly after flowering. It has a non-aggressive root system so can safely be planted near paving and buildings. Its bark contains tannin which was apparently used by the Voortrekkers for tanning hides.
Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones