The Phyto-Philes: Cape Rothmannia

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Cape Rothmannia

Cape Rothmannia by Willem.

These lovely flowers belong to a tree, the Common or Cape Rothmannia, also known as the Wild Gardenia, Rothmannia capensis. 'Gardenia' is not a very appropriate name for it, since it is in a different genus than Gardenia, which includes a number of other trees and shrubs in South Africa. The two genera are quite closely related, though, both being members of the Rubiaceae, the Coffee family. Gardenias are more shrubby, while Rothmannias tend to be more tree-like. In Afrikaans the tree is called a 'Wildekatjiepiering' or 'Wild kitty-saucer' although the flowers are more like deep bowls than saucers!

This is not a very common tree, although it is widespread in South Africa (also growing in Swaziland and extending into a small patch in the southeast of our neighbour country of Botswana). It mostly grows in densely wooded ravines along rivers and streams, on rocky hills, on moist mountain slopes or in evergreen forests. It is itself evergreen, its simple leaves leathery and glossy, dark green. It is medium-sized, mostly reaching a height of around 10m/33', but in moist forests can grow to 20m/67'. At the other extreme, in the dry bush of Sekukuneland, this tree seldom grows taller than 2 m/7'. It has a dense but not very spreading crown. Its leaves themselves are quite attractive, but its flowers are what's most attractive about it. They are bell-shaped with petals spreading at the mouth of the tube. They reach 8 cm/3.2" in length and 7 cm/2.8" in diameter. They are white to creamy yellow, with fine purplish-red speckles and streaks on the inner surface of the tube. They are also pleasantly and sweetly fragrant.

The flowers are followed by the fruit. These are most interesting to wildlife! They are also quite large as fruit go, round and up to 7 cm/2.8" in diameter. They have a smooth, greenish surface and a thick, hard rind. Inside the pulp is brownish, and scattered through it are numerous small, flat seeds. The Rothmannia reckons on something eating the fruit, so that the seeds can pass through its digestive system, which will weaken the seed coating enabling them to germinate more easily. As well, when the seeds are deposited by whatever ate the fruit, they are given a nice dose of fertilizer to get them started in life!

The fruit of this tree is mostly eaten by animals like baboons and monkeys. Fruit-eating birds can generally not penetrate the tough rind. They will peck at fruit already opened by the monkeys. Fruit that drops to the ground are eaten by antelopes like Bushbuck and duikers, as well as bushpigs.

Humans also make use of the wood of this tree. It is hard and strong and used for making tool handles, household utensils, spoons and ladles, or support poles for huts. Large pieces of wood can be made into engraving blocks used in printing. It can also be used for firewood, dry wood burning quite hot. The fruit is edible but not tasty. Its juice is used medicinally: heated and applied to wounds and burns it is said to hasten healing. The powdered roots are used against rheumatism and leprosy.

Gardenia Gardening

All right so inappropriate name or not, I had to use that! This is a great plant for the garden. It is neat in shape and doesn't grow overwhelmingly big. A group of them can be planted close together, spaced a metre/yard or two apart, to give shade in a small garden. The root system is not aggressive or invasive. This tree can be grown from seeds, collected from the fruit when it turns brown. Plant the seeds in a well-draining soil mix with lots of sand and a little compost. Cover them with a thin layer of sand and keep them moist until germination, which should start at around two weeks. Carefully plant out in individual bags when the seedlings make their first true leaves. Young plants should be given protection against frost and shaded against full sun, but adult trees can grow in sun or light shade, and can tolerate some frost. This is not a very drought-resistant species and should be given a bit of water over the course of a dry winter. The Cape Rothmannia has a medium rate of growth, putting on 70 cm/28" of height per year under good conditions. The tree starts to flower in its second or third year.

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