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

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