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Calodendrum capense

Calodendrum capense

Cape Chestnut · Wild Chestnut · Forest Cape Chestnut · Wildekastaiing · umBhaba (X) · Umemze omhlophe (Z)
First studied in the Cape, hence the common name, this is one of the most handsome and prolifically flowering of all our indigenous trees. It usually grows as a medium to tall tree, with a dense, arched to dome shaped crown of dark green leaves and smooth, pastel coloured bark, often covered with lichen in older specimens, giving the trunk an exquisite marbled appearance. The tree is attractive throughout the year, but is especially spectacular when in full bloom, as the entire tree gets covered with clusters of large and striking flowers. The tree is also a marvellous sight during the autumn months, when it transforms into a beacon of golden-yellow frondescence.


  • Rutaceae (The Citrus family)

A large family, occurring globally, but most common in warm and temperate regions, with about 160 genera and more than 2000 species of trees, woody shrubs and a few herbs, belonging to the order Sapindales. Members can be identified by the presence of aromatic oil glands on the leaves, (usually only visible as translucent gland dots when held against direct sunlight), and perfumed, bractless flowers, generally divided into 4 or 5 parts, occurring in a cyme or solitary. Most flowers are hermaphroditic, and the leaves are typically oppositely arranged, compound, and lack stipules. Several members are of economic importance, and many are planted as ornamentals.



Found in forests and montane forests, wooded ravines, riverine thicket and occasionally shrub, from the Western Cape, throughout Natal and Transkei, parts of Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Swaziland, extending further north into Zimbabwe. From the coast to about 2000 m above sea-level



Pale, greyish and typically smooth, occasionally grooved. Older trees frequently seen with buttressed boles. The main stem is most often very tall, straight, bare and branchless for most of its length in specimens from forested environments, with a diameter of between 800 and 900 mm, while those growing in open spaces are shorter and more spreading.



Large, simple and oppositely arranged, oval shaped leaves, very variable with regards to size, but usually 50-220 x 30-100 mm. They are a lovely, glossy dark green above, paler on the undersides, with a scattering of translucent gland dots and clearly defined venation. When bruised, the leaves emit a strong aroma. The leaves are hairless, with entire, rippled margins and lobular to tapered bases and pointed tips. Stipules absent, petiole 2–10 mm long



Large and striking, multi-branched and upright clusters (up to 200 mm long), of dainty, white to deep pink or mauve flowers. Each flower has 5 long and slender petals (3-4 x 0.5 -1 cm), stamens as long as petals, conspicuously dotted with dark maroon to crimson spots. Scented. The trees often bloom at irregular times. (July – March)



A large, gnarled, woody capsule (3.5 – 6 cm diameter), brown to green olive-brown. It usually split into 5 lobes, from the stalk down, to reveal up to 10 large black seeds. (January – May)



Half-spherical to pyramid-shaped (10-15 mm diameter), black.



4-20 m



4-10 m



The trees grow best in temperate climate with a good annual rainfall, but once established it can endure quite severe frosts, up to – 7 °c, but flowering will be less prolific. It will also tolerate fairly long periods of very dry and hot weather.



Slow-moderate. Under optimal conditions, just under 1 m per year can be expected. First flowering usually only after 6-8 years of age.



Plant the tree in good, fertile soil with plenty of added compost. It thrives in deep, moist soils reminiscent of its forest habitat, but is able to tolerate drier, gritty, sandy or loamy to clay soils, with a slightly acidic Ph.



The root system is non-aggressive, so it can be planted close to permanent structures, even right next to patios where it can be fully appreciated, as well as parking lots, but adequate room for expansion should be provided. The trees are highly ornamental, and are wonderful candidates for avenue and street planting, as well as large parks and gardens, particularly near the coast. As a single specimen or focal point, especially on an open lawn, it will not disappoint, and they also make fine, decortaive shade trees. Planted gregariously, they make excellent windbreaks, and the abundance of flowers make for good bee forage.



The flowers are an attraction for bees, moths and butterflies, as well as the odd beetle. The woody fruits are eaten by monkeys, baboons, squirrels and parrots, while the seeds are loved by birds such as pigeons, parrots and doves. Several butterfly species, including the Orange Dog (Papilio demodocus), breed on the leaves.



Easily propagated from seeds or cuttings. Seeds can be soaked in warm water to test viability; sterile seeds will float to the top. Sow the seeds (after removing from fruit capsule), in a well-drained, fertile mixture of compost and river sand (1:2). Place in a warm, bright area and keep the soil moist. Germination is usually good, within 2-6 weeks. Cuttings taken from active growth on the tree, then treated with a rooting hormone and placed into a similar mixture can also be used for propagation. Young plants can be transplanted easily after about 1-2 years.



Mostly the bark and seeds are used. The bark is used as an additive in skin ointments, and is said to lighten the skin. The seeds are used to extract a potent and fatty oil, also popular in skincare due to its essential fatty acid and antioxidant content, as well as sun protection properties and mild odour. The oil is also used in soap-making and has a high potential for use as lubricant and biofuel.



The wood is pale yellow to white, hard, even and straight grained, tough, moderately heavy, but works well. It is suitable for use in general carpentry, for furniture, implement handles, yokes, planks and building construction. It also makes good firewood and charcoal. The trees have a heavy leaf fall, so they are excellent providers of organic mulch.



C. capense derived its common name from William Burchell (1782-1863) who thought that the flower and fruit resembled the Horse Chestnut from his native country. It is, however, not closely related to the chestnuts. The name calodendrum means “beautiful tree”, and has its origins from the Greek language.

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