Black Bird-berry

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman Jones

During last year’s Open Gardens on Leisure Isle I encountered, for the first time, an attractive evergreen shrub with small golden-yellow flowers, contrasting with its shiny dark green leaves. This was the Psychotria capensis or Black Bird-berry, apparently much loved by birds as the name indicates. Deciding that it would be an excellent addition to our bird garden we eventually managed to track one down. It has settled in well and put on good growth but so far no flowers have appeared.

Blackberry Photo: Margaret Richards
Black Birdberry
Photo: Margaret Richards

During a recent visit to Umngazi River Bungalows near Port St John’s  I was delighted to see numerous specimens of this shrub or small tree  all covered in flowers and some with the ripening yellow, red and black berries much loved by fruit-eating birds. In the wild it grows on forest margins or the banks of rivers from Knysna northwards along the east coast up to Zimbabwe. It grows well in shade or sun and looks attractive most of the year with flowers from spring to midsummer and berries from late summer to winter. It loves generous amounts of compost and plenty of water during dry months. Apparently it is also a successful container plant and can be grown easily from seed. Remove the flesh from around the stone of ripe fruits and sow in spring.

Ripening fruit of Black Birdberry Photo: Margaret Richards
Ripening fruit of Black Birdberry
Photo: Margaret Richards

The name Psychotria comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to give life to’ and refers to the healing properties of some of the over 1,400 species which occur in warm tropical regions throughout the world. Only two species occur in southern Africa, the other being Psychotria zombamontane, a rare species found in the north of the country and named after  the Zomba Mountains in Malawi, where the type species was originally found.

It is surprising that this rewarding, quick-growing shrub does not appear to have been planted in more Knysna gardens.  It is easy to grow, undemanding once established and a delight to gaze at.