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Brachylaena discolor – Wild Silver Oak

BOTANICAL: Brachylaena discolor
COMMON NAME: Coast Silver Oak / Wild Silver Oak / Forest Silver Oak
OTHER NAMES: Kusvaalbos / Bosvallbos (Afr); umDuli (Xhosa); isiPhaluga (Zulu); Mphahla (N. Sotho)

SA TREE NO: 724

FAMILY: Asteraceae (Daisy, Aster, Thistle family)

This is one of the largest and most widely represented plant families in the world, with just more than one tenth of all flowering plants belonging to it. Consisting of over 1620 genera with somewhat 23600 species which include trees, herbs and shrubs. Very few members teach tree size, in SA, only about 9, but over 2000 species of flowering plants and shrubs occur country-wide, from forest, bushveld to desert. Plants in this family have either simple, or occasionally compound leaves, arranged alternately, and bear either daisy or thistle like flowers. These flowers are often grouped into compact flowerheads that superficially resemble individual flowers. Each such head is enveloped by an involucre of miniscule bracts (leaf-like structures) Many garden ornamentals such as cosmos, marigolds, dahlias and chrysanthemums belong to this family, as well as weeds such as the Blackjacks.

BASIC OVERVIEW

A strikingly attractive and wonderfully hardy tree, with an uncommon silvery-blue appearance that contrasts beautifully with surrounding, darker green foliage. When in full flower, the prolific white blooms cover the entire tree and give the appearance of the tree being covered in snow. The tree will often retain its Luxurious and dense foliage all year round, A can often be seen growing in a low branching and densely spreading, shrub-like manner. They play a vital part in dune rehabilitation, and are often used to stabilise sand banks.

  • HABITAT: Particularly common and widespread along the eastern shoreline’s coastal bush and associated bushveld, also along the edges of mangrove forests and river streams. It seldom naturally grows more than 2km away from the shore

  • DECIDUOUS/EVERGREEN: Evergreen or semi-deciduous.

  • BARK: Dark to greyish-brown, fibrous, with vertical grooves. Twigs and young branches have a woolly appearance, due to the presence of fine, white hairs, and this becomes gradually less visible as the tree ages. Small white dots (lentice4ls) can also frequently be seen on immature trees. The main trunk is very often divided into several great branches that grow in an upright and curved fashion, forming arching bows as the tree develops. The main stem is usually 480 mm in diameter, and is often seen with many, low spreading branches protruding from it.

  • FOLIAGE: The leaves are simple, and arranged alternately, with elliptic or lance-like shape, and typically measure 25-120 x 13-60 mm. Thinly leathery in texture, dark, glossy green above and significantly paler below, with a fine, felt-like covering. Young leaves have a distinctly toothed margin, while on older leaves it is often obscure and irregular. The midrib and side veins are conspicuous, and the leaves have a tapering to almost rounded tip and narrow base that runs down the petiole, (leaf-stalk) which measures 20 mm long.

  • FLOWERS: Creamy-white, thistle-like flowers, (10 x 5 mm). The small flowers are grouped together in clusters of 7 – 50 individuals to form large (up to 40 cm in diameter) panicles/flowerheads that grow at the ends of branches and are carried on distinct stalks. Male and female blooms are carried on separate tree (dioecious). On male flowers, the involucres (whorl of small leaf-like structures/bracts) are widely funnel to cup shaped, and grow in rows of 7-10, while on female’s, it is round to cup shaped, and in rows of 5-9. (July – September)

  • FRUIT: A small, creamy brown nutlet or capsule, appearing soon after the flowers, from August onwards. The fruit is tipped with fine bristle like structures, called pappus, which act as parachutes to help with wind dispersal.

LANDSCAPING DETAILS

  • HEIGHT: 4-10 m in cultivation, forest versions may reach 29 m or more.

  • SPREAD: 3-4m

  • TOLERANCE: An extremely resilient tree, especially in difficult coastal conditions. Able to endure salt-spray laden and strong winds, poor, very sandy soils and extended periods of drought. Moderately frost hardy, able to survive some periods of extreme cold, especially once established.

  • GROWTH RATE: Very fast, often more than 1m per year.

  • LIGHTING REQUIREMENTS: Full sun or shade.

  • SOIL AND WATER REQUIREMENTS: Highly adaptable, it can thrive in sandy / loamy and slightly acidic soils.

  • ADVANTAGES: A ideal garden tree, with flowers that are very rich in nectar, attracting a myriad of wildlife, and a fast, easily-trained growth habit. The rounded, somewhat untidy crown brings light, dappled shade to the garden, and the roots are not aggressive, so it can be planted close to walls and other permeant structures. Planted gregariously, the trees make a sturdy windbreak or decorative hedge. Perfect for difficult coastal gardens, and makes a lovely container or boundary plant.

  • WILDLIFE: The leaves are bitter, and are occasionally browsed by antelope, while the nectar-laden flowers attract swarms of honeybees, as well as butterflies, beetles, and many insectivorous bird species.

  • PROPAGATION: Sow seeds in early summer or spring. Plant them in a well-drained and aerated medium consisting of river sand and compost (2:1) and keep in a warm, brightly lit area. Mist regularly, making sure the soil stays moist but not too wet. Once the seedlings develop at least two true leaves, they are ready to be transplanted into bigger, individual containers. Cuttings, taken from active growths on the main tree, can be treated with a root stimulating hormone and placed securely in a mixture of bark and fertiliser (equal amounts). Mist often, and new growths should appear within 6-8 weeks.

  • MEDICINAL: The leaves were used as a tonic by indigenous people and early settlers as a remedy for diabetes and kidney problems, as well as chest pains and internal parasites such as roundworm. Root infusions were administered as enemas to provide relief from dysentery and a bleeding stomach.

  • PRACTICAL: The wood is yellow-brown in colour, very hard, strong and durable. It has been used for hut building, implement handles, fence posts, spear shafts and as it lasts quite well in water, boat construction. In certain African countries, it is a very valuable wood for carving purposes, and young stems make excellent fishing rods, as well as being used as rims in winnowing baskets (used for separating grains) Good fire shades can also be made from it, and early European settlers used the ashes as a necessary alkaline additive for making soap. Zulu diviners used the roots and stems as a medium for communicating with their ancestors.

  • ADDITIONAL FACTS: The wild Silver oak genus is found in Africa and the Mascarene islands, and occurs mainly along the eastern coastal belt in SA. They bear no resemblance to true oaks, and the foliage probably reminded early collectors of the Oak trees back home in Britain. The specific name discolor, meaning 2-coloured, refers to the leaves, which are dark green above and silver-white below.

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