Friday, 28 March 2014

Forest Toad Tree Tabernaemontana ventricosa an ideal tree for a small garden

Forest Toad Tree

Tabernaemontana ventricosa

Umkhahlu, Ukhamamasane (Zulu)

Belongs to the plant family Apocynaceae.

Natural Distribution and Habitat

Tabernaemontana ventricosa  has a disjunct distribution from Ghana, eastern Nigeria, western Cameroon, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa in the coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal where it grows in riverine forests and the forest under storey.


This small to medium-sized tree can reach a maximum height of 15 m, but averages between 4 and 8 m. Tabernaemontana ventricosa can have one or more straight trunks with smooth greyish-brown bark. The tree is low branching with smooth, dark green young branches turning a pale brown when mature. The leaves are large oblong and shiny dark green in colour, the flowers are salver-shaped, white and sweet smelling. The unusual fruits have two pods joined at the base they are dark green and smooth, sometimes with wrinkles and light green speckles or markings they split open to reveal fleshy orange pulp with embedded seeds in June to August.

Use in the landscape

Tabernaemontana ventricosa with its small size, clean tidy growth habit, glossy dark green foliage, attractive sweet smelling white flowers and unusual fruits, is excellent for the landscape designer of gardener to plant in any garden or landscape design. For those wanting to plant it to bring nature back into their indigenous garden it is an excellent choice because apart from being an ideal landscape feature plant it also attracts birds, insects and small mammals into your garden.
Although Tabernaemontana ventricosa grows naturally mostly as an under story plant and prefers shade to partly shady conditions it will grow in the full sun in a garden if it is sheltered from the wind and it gets plenty of water, where it will flower much more profusely than if grown in shade.
Tabernaemontana ventricosa is frost sensitive, preferring more tropical areas with mild winters.
Tabernaemontana ventricosa will happily grow in wet places where many other plants may not grow.

Ecological importance

Birds, animals such as fruit bats and monkeys eat the fruit. The leaves are browsed by game in particular bushbuck, the sweet smelling flowers attract various insects.

Propagation and Growing

Tabernaemontana ventricosa can easily be grown from fresh seed and grows relatively fast under favorable conditions.
Tabernaemontana ventricosa seedlings grows best in humus rich well drained sandy soils.
Plant in a large hole and mix in a good amount of compost, well rotted manure, and a balanced fertiliser. Mulch well and water regularly, especially during the first year or two for optimum growth.

Cultural Uses 

The bark of this tree is said to be used for bringing down a fever, the latex is applied to wounds and sore eyes to promote healing and in KwaZulu-Natal the seeds, bark and roots are used to treat nervous complaints and high blood pressure.
The pulp of the ripe fruit is edible.

Michael Hickman
28 March 2014

Indigenous Landscape Design Specialist

Talking Plants: One part lion’s fat, one part python’s fat and the roots of an upside-down wisteria*

Talking Plants: One part lion’s fat, one part python’s fat and the roots of an upside-down wisteria*

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Umzimbeet a small tree for every Garden


Millettia grandis

Umsimbithi; Umsimbithwa (Zulu)

Millettia grandis belongs to the pea and legume family Fabaceae

 Photo taken at Mount Moreland 11 September 2013

Distribution and Habitat

Millettia grandis occurs along the coast from eastern South Africa from north of East London in the Eastern Cape Province into KwaZulu-Natal as far as southern Mozambique. Millettia grandis is particularly abundant in the Pondoland area. Millettia grandis has been planted occasionally outside this region, for instance in Mauritius.


Millettia grandis occurs in coastal forest and open lowland forest up to an altitude of 600 m. It can be found as a pioneer tree along forest margins. Millettia grandis tolerates light frost. Millettia grandis often occurs on sandy soils, but also on shale, where trees are often gnarled. Millettia grandis grows best in deep rich sandy soils where ample water is available. Where it occurs Millettia grandis is locally common.

Landscape value

Millettia grandis is a small to medium sized tree the suits every garden whether exotic or indigenous, whether landscaped or natural
Millettia grandis has a compact crown which is particularly suitable for planting in limited spaces like small urban gardens it makes an attractive decorative shade tree with glossy dark green leaves, grey bark, copper red coloured young leaves and flower buds, purple flowers and velvety golden seedpods.
The attractive flowers which occur in from early spring to summer are pea-shaped, mauve to purple and held in an upright inflorescence on the ends of the branches. The seed pods split open 6-8 months later when dry with a load bang to release the flat, oblong seeds.

Millettia grandis comes from a sub-tropical habitat and if grown in drier areas it will need ample water for it to do its best.

Despite its tremendous landscape value Millettia grandis is only occasionally planted as an ornamental shade and street tree this very beautiful and valuable local tree with sculptural and seasonal interest for the garden is clearly undervalued and planted far too infrequently.

Ecological importance

At least four species of butterfly larvae feed on the leaves. Larvae of the butterfly Orange –barred Playboy Deudorix diocles are commonly found in the pods. The larvae of Pondo Charaxes, Charaxes pondoensis feed on the leaves. Termites sometimes utilize the flaked bark on the stems.

Giant Carpenter Bee Xylocopa flavorufa

Bees and bumble bees collect nectar and pollen when the tree is in flower

Commercial uses

The heartwood is dark brown and distinctly demarcated from the yellowish sapwood. The grain is straight, fine textured and very heavy and hard. The wood has an oily surface, it is very durable and resistant to insect attack.
The wood is locally important for building poles, durable furniture, walking sticks, knobkerries and Ugqoko traditional meat platters

Ugqoko traditional meat platter below

Millettia grandis has several features which gives it tremendous agro-forestry potential for rural community development. It does not compete vigorously with other crops and being a Legume, it enhances soil fertility through its nitrogen fixing ability.

Propagation and Growing

Fresh seed is used for propagation, soaking in hot water for one night improves germination. Young trees transplant well grow fairly fast: 80–100 cm/year under favourable conditions.

Millettia grandis seedlings rows best in humus rich well drained sandy soils.

Plant in a large hole and mix in a good amount of compost, well rotted manure, and a balanced fertiliser. Mulch well and water regularly, especially during the first year or two for optimum growth.
The Millettia grandis trees in my area are covered with nearly ripe seed at the time of writing this article so take the opportunity to obtain seed and grow your own this season.

Michael Hickman
27 March 2014

Indigenous Landscape Design Specialist

Sunday, 9 March 2014

No proudly South African home should be without a Begonia dregei

Baobab-Begonia, Maple-leaved begonia
Zulu: iDlula
German: Baobab-Begonie

Begonia dregei plant with flowers

Begonia dregei is a South African endemic occurring naturally from
East London to Durban.
Begonia dregei is rare occurring in forests, on rocky, mossy cliffs and steep banks, from the coast to 1 219 m. According to the IUCN listing Begonia dregei is endangered.

Begonia dregei is a spectacular evergreen shade loving perennial that makes an excellent indoor or outdoor pot plant.

Begonia dregei caudex

Begonia dregei is a tuberous, fleshy perennial that grows with a swollen stem base known as a caudex. The caudex is usually mostly out of the soil. The stems grow from the caudex. During long dry periods Begonia dregei can loose all of their foliage or even die down to the caudex to recover quickly after the first rain or watering. 
The leaves are generally small (50–80 x 20–35 mm), asymmetrical, lobed often with large white spots when young and widely toothed. The 40–90 mm long leaf stalks are green or reddish, there is however a very large variation in leaf size and form from population to population.
The leaves look much like those of the Maple Tree Acer spps. which gives it one of it´s common names the Maple Leaf Begonia.

The far more spectacular male flower of Begonia dregei

The flowers of Begonia dregei are fragrant and produce a delightful show. In cultivation Begonia dregei flowers for almost the entire year producing small white to pinkish flowers with a bright yellow centre.

The male and female flowers occur separately on the same plant which are inter fertile so if one only has one plant it will still produce large amounts of fertile seed. The male flowers can be recognised because they have two petals and the female flowers have five.

The far less spectacular female flower of Begonia dregei

I have grown Begonia dregei for many years having found the first specimen growing in the Kloof area about 25 years ago. The plants that I am now growing were propagated from a single specimen that I found growing at scary cliffs at Mount Moreland in December 2007
Over the years I have found Begonia dregei to be very easy to grow and quick-growing from seed or cuttings.
Seed is best sown in early spring or summer in a moist well drained medium, plant sparingly because the seed is very fine and germinates readily coming up like hairs on a dogs back. The fine seed from my plants is distributed by the wind and seedlings pop up on a regular basis in the pots of other plants that I am growing in particular my orchid plants where they germinate well on little or no soil. Cuttings are far easier to grow for the average gardener they do better in the warmer months but can be grown just about any time of year by the more experienced grower.

Begonia dregei seed capsules the one on the right has already split and has released much of the seed

Begonia dregei grows well in light shade but will also grow in deep shade as well as where they get. a moderate amount of sun for part of the day. Plants grown under brighter conditions flower far more profusely.

I have found Begonia dregei rewarding and easy to grow as a pot plant where I have usually grown them in hanging pots together with my orchids they will also grow well in the ground
The large caudex makes Begonia dregei look a lot like a miniature baobab tree Adansonia digitata.

Begonia dregei is mostly pollinated by bees.

The caudices of Begonia dregei are used for traditional medicine.

Begonia dregei is another one of our floral gems that is very well known, treasured and grown in very large numbers abroad but is hardly known or grown here in South Africa which is rather disgusting of us Eurocentric South Africans for us not to treasure and be proud of that which is South African.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Sun hibiscus no garden should be without one

Hibiscus calyphyllus, Sun hibiscus, lemon-yellow rosemallow 
German: Sonnen-Hibiskus

Hibiscus calyphyllus flowers are bright sulphur yellow with a deep maroon centre.

Hibiscus calyphyllus occurs naturally from southern East Africa up the East African coast to Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen. Hibiscus calyphyllus also occurs in tropical Central Africa, Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands.

The natural habitat of Hibiscus calyphyllus is open bush, thickets and forest edges where it is often found along rivers.

Hibiscus calyphyllus is a local medium sized shrub that has large, bright green, soft and velvety leaves, giving it a lush tropical appearance with 12 cm flowers which are bright sulphur yellow with a deep maroon centre. 
Hibiscus calyphyllus grows to 1-1.5 meters tall and is often prostrate and straggly in the wild.

Hibiscus calyphyllus is a very rewarding showy garden plant for both the exotic tropical garden as well as in the indigenous garden that I have grown in my own gardens in Durban for at least the last 30 years. Unfortunately as is the case with so many of our magnificent local plants it is still hardly known and grown in South African gardens although it is very well known and widely grown garden ornamental throughout the tropics and subtropics.
Hibiscus calyphyllus has been in cultivation abroad for a long time having been first offered for sale in England in 1883 under the name Hibiscus chrysanthus with Port Natal, Cape Colony identified as the source. In addition Hibiscus calyphyllus seeds were sold in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century under the name Hibiscus Giant Yellow.

 Hibiscus calyphyllus has large, bright green, soft and velvety leaves

Hibiscus calyphyllus grows best in fully sun to light shade. Hibiscus calyphyllus is a relatively fast-growing plant, providing that it is planted in fertile, rich and well-drained soil well enriched with organic material. The soil pH should range from mildly acidic to neutral.
Although Hibiscus calyphyllus is very drought resistant and can grow under very dry conditions, to do well in the garden it needs a moderate amount of water on a regular basis.
In cultivation it is good cultural practice to prune Hibiscus calyphyllus back after the main flowering season to encourage bushiness, light pruning during the summer growing period encourages flowering.

In South Africa the leaves of Hibiscus calyphyllus have been traditionally used as toilet paper which could be a good thing to remember when hiking out in the bush.

In East Africa, the leaves of Hibiscus calyphyllus are eaten as a vegetable
and in the Okavango Delta the flowers are cooked and eaten.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Justicia betonica, White shrimp plant, Squirrels’ tails

Justicia betonica is a very variable plant in the family Acanthaceae with a large distribution range
which extends from the east coast of South Africa along the coast of tropical east Africa and on through Arabia, India and East Asia. In many areas in particular where it is cultivated as a garden and landscape plant it is known as the white shrimp plant or squirrel's tail.

Justicia betonica in flower

The plants that I have growing are medium sized 1-1.5 m glossy brilliant green plants that
have blooms that are held in slim upright showy, terminal or axillary spikes which are comprised of papery, green bracts enclosing small white flowers. The flowers which are produced in late summer into the early autumn are followed by club-shaped seed capsules which open explosively when ripe to scatter the seeds.

Justicia betonica flower

Justicia betonica needs to be cut back hard in late winter after flowering and tip-pruned as it grows through spring and early summer, to promote a compact tidy shape, otherwise it can become leggy. Justicia betonica grows best in partial shade but will also grow well in full sun. This attractive, fast-growing plant grows best in rich moderately wet areas in the garden and spreads rapidly by seed, forming dense stands.
Although Justicia betonica grows best in shaded wet conditions in loose sandy soil well enriched with organic material I have found it in my own garden to be very drought tolerant growing on dense dry clay soils being one of the very last plants to wilt during times of drought.

If you do not want Justicia betonica to spread throughout the garden it would be advisable to remove the seed heads before they ripen and scatter the seed far and wide.

Black striped hairtail Anthene amarah amarah

Justicia betonica is an asset to any natural indigenous garden because it is always a pleasant refreshing bright shining green colour and it attracts large numbers of insects in particular wasps, solitary bees as well as butterflies in particular species belonging to the family Lycaenidae and a rage of other colourful bugs.

Juvenile Stink Bug Caura rufiventris

Justicia betonica which is not well known here in South Africa is well known and is widely cultivated in most of the warmer regions of the world in particular in the United States of America as a bedding plant in private gardens and public landscapes.

Justicia betonica grows very easily from seed, transplanted seedling or large cuttings that are simply planted in situ and watered until they have rooted.