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Heteropyxis natalensis – Lavender Tree

BOTANICAL: Heteropyxis natalensis
COMMON NAME: Lavender Tree
OTHER NAMES: Laventelboom (Afr); inkunzi/uhuzu/umkhuswa (Zulu); masepha (Northern Sotho)

SA TREE NO: 455

FAMILY: Myrtaceae (Eucalyptus and Guava family)

A very large and diverse family, with somewhat 3000 species, growing mainly in tropical zones, but occurring globally. In Africa, we have very few members, but in America (numerous Guava trees) and Australia (Gum trees) they are much more common. Many trees from this genus contain oils borne in special gland in the fruit, twigs and flowers.

BASIC OVERVIEW

A shrub or small tree, with a slender, upright form, multi-stemmed, rounded crown, and drooping foliage. A visual marvel, with glossy leaves, whitish stem often mottled in orange patches, and lovely, golden-yellow and rich red autumn colours, which often remain on the tree throughout winter. The leaves are strongly aromatic, evocative of lavender, hence the common name.

  • HABITAT: The tree is often found growing on stony hills, near termite mounds, in bushveld and along the margins of evergreen forests, from Natal to Zimbabwe.

  • DECIDUOUS/EVERGREEN: Deciduous

  • BARK: Pale-grey to almost white, and due to its habit of regularly flaking, the tree has a mottled appearance. In older trees, large pieces of bark often peel away to reveal a nearly white, sometimes light orange-brown under bark. As the tree ages, it frequently develops apricot coloured patches around the stem, which is often observed growing in a crooked and grooved fashion.

  • FOLIAGE: Simple and alternately arranged. The leaves have an almost waxy appearance, are dark-green above and paler below, and are often tinged red when young. Narrowly elliptic to oval, usually measuring 2.5-9 x 1-2.5 cm, they are set in a spiral fashion along the branchlets, usually in a drooping habit. The margin is entire, with a narrowly tapering apex and base, and mature leaves are more or less hairless. The midrib is prominent and grooved above, and the leaves have little glands that form pockets in the axils of veins (hairtuft-domatia) on the undersides and small bumps on the upper surface. Net-veining is distinct, with visible gland dots. When crushed, they have a strong herby aroma, very similar to lavender, and the scent lingers, even after they are dry. The petiole is up to 1cm long, and tinged pinkish towards the base.

  • FLOWERS: Miniscule, (3mm) bright yellow-green blooms with a strong, delightfully sweet scent that cluster together in multi-branched, flowerheads. December to March.

  • FRUIT: A small, shiny, light-brown capsule, round to oval shaped, generally 4 x 2.5 cm in diameter, grouping into dense clusters from March to May. Gland-dotted, and often covered more than halfway by the remains of the flower calyx. As it develops, it splits into 2-3 valves, and releases the seed. Old capsules may remain on the tree for many months after splitting.

LANDSCAPING DETAILS

  • HEIGHT: 4-10m

  • SPREAD: 2-7m

  • TOLERANCE: Moderately frost hardy, but young and unestablished trees should be protected from extreme frost for at least the first two seasons. The tree can withstand drought, and can survive up to 6m with little or no watering.

  • GROWTH RATE: Average-fast, about 1m per year.

  • LIGHTING REQUIREMENTS: Favours full sun, but will tolerate light shade.

  • SOIL AND WATER REQUIREMENTS: Loamy, well-drained soil. Water moderately, increasing the amount slightly during warm, summer months. Prefers to grow in summer rainfall areas.

  • ADVANTAGES: The root system is not aggressive, so it can be planted within 3m of structures such as paving, driveways, pools and walls. A relatively neat tree, as the leaves remain on the tree for most of the year, with a tidy growth habit. Versatile, can be trimmed to make a picturesque container specimen, and perfect for small, courts yard or townhouse gardens. Planted in a cluster, in rows along street avenue or as a boundary plant it offers diverse, year-round beauty, and it also makes for a wonderful, aesthetically pleasing accent/feature plant for ornamental or large gardens and parks.

  • WILDLIFE: The leaves and bark are browsed by Black Rhino. Various bird species love to nest in amongst the dense foliage, as it offers protection and shelter year-round. During the day, wasps, beetles, bees, butterflies and insects are attracted to the tree, while moths flock towards it at night. Insectivorous birds will be lured by the myriad of insect live it entices, and from February to March masses of harmless Net-wing Beetles have been known to gather the trees.

  • PROPAGATION: Propagation from cuttings is difficult, but achievable. Plant the hardwood cutting, taken from active shoots/twigs from previous seasons growths, into a sand mixture and treat with an adequate rooting hormone. Keep the soil moist. Seeds germinate readily, and the seedlings grow rapidly. Sow seeds into a well-drained mixture of compost and river sand (equal parts) and cover them with a thin layer of mulch to help retain moisture. Keep in a warm, bright area, and keep moist, but not wet, allowing time to dry out between watering’s.

  • MEDICINAL: The leaves contain a volatile, aromatic, essential oil, which is known to have clear antibacterial and antifungal properties. Mainly the leaves are used, sometimes also the roots. A preparation of the roots is ingested to treat menstrual disorders, and steam from boiled roots is inhaled to check nosebleeds. Powdered leaves are given to livestock to eradicate intestinal parasites, and a decoction thereof is used against toothache, bleeding gums and mouth/ gum infections in people. A strengthening, medicinal tea is made from the young twigs and leaves, and is given to the elderly, sickly, travellers and new mothers. It also apparently offers relive from colds, colic, and flatulence.

  • PRACTICAL: The wood is brown to pale pinkish-brown, very fine-grained and remarkably hard and tough. It makes good fence poles, as well and providing reasonable quality firewood and charcoal. The aromatic leaves are perfect for potpourri, and are also used to scent tobacco. Boiled leaves and twigs are used to make a fragrant body wash, or invigorating and cleansing additive to a bath. For tired, swollen or cracked feet, crushed leaves are blended with mutton fat and applied daily.

  • ADDITIONAL FACTS: In drier regions the lovely autumn colours seem to develop best.

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