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BOTANICAL: Mimusops caffra
COMMON NAME: Coastal Red Milkwood / Red Milkwood
OTHER NAMES: Kusrooimelkhout / Moepel / Rooimelkhout (Afr) umHayihayi / umNole (Zulu) umThunzi (Xhosa)
SA TREE NO: 583
FAMILY: Sapotaceae (The Milkwood and Stamvrug family)
A large family of the tropics and subtropics, consisting of somewhat 53 genera and a 1000 species of evergreen trees and shrubs, 7 genera found in Southern Africa. Members usually have simple, alternate or whorled leaves, clustered at the ends of branchlets, with entire margins. Most fruits are brightly coloured and edible, and exude a milky, non-toxic latex, which can also be found in the twigs, leaves and bark. Economically significant species of this family include the Manilkara zapotilla, from South America, from which the latex is extracted to make chewing gum, as well Palaquium gutta, from which golf balls and certain adhesives are made.
Usually a small to medium sized tree or large shrub, with a short, twisted trunk, low-spreading branches, a rounded or dome shaped crown and dense, dark greyish-green foliage. The radiantly coloured, decorative fruits are relished by birds. They are also known as “walking trees” – due to the fact that in their natural habitat (sandy soils) they are often blown over by the strong sea winds, and displaced branches touching the ground tend to take root, and so the tree starts growing anew a little distance away from its original spot.
Predominantly a coastal species, somewhat confined to dune/sand forests, where it is often the dominant species, and is found growing up until the high tide mark. It prefers the warmer eastern and northern parts of the country, and forms an important part of the dune vegetation along the coast from Port Alfred to Natal. It is found in the Eastern Cape, throughout Transkei and further north into Zimbabwe.
The main stem is most often short, gnarled, curved and low-branching, (diameter of about 700 mm), but can be tall and twisted, depending on environment. The bark is rough, dark-grey brown, rather thin, and longitudinally grooved. Young twigs and leafstalks are densely covered with velvety, rusty brown hairs.
The leaves are simple, arranged or crowded alternately along the branchlets, (30-65 x 15-40 mm), with rounded to square, often notched tips and tapering bases. Cordate to narrowly obovate, stiff, tough and rubbery, margins entire and fairly rolled under, with raised midribs on both surfaces. Dark, greyish-blue-green above, hairless, somewhat discolorous below, with silken, silvery-white or yellowish-brown hairs on the under surface which persist. The leafstalk is up to 15 mm long.
Small (8-10 mm), white to cream, drooping, star-shaped flowers, carried on slender stalks (1-3 cm) and occurring in groups of 1 – 8, budding from leaf axils. As they mature, they fade to a striking reddish-brown. (September to March)
Oval, fleshy, plum-like berries (2 x 1.5 cm), with rounded tips and the persistent remains of the calyx often visible. They are produced in great profusion, and turn from green to a lovely bright orange-red as they mature. Edible, and quite sweet. (April to September)
1-2 seeds per fruit, ellipsoid, flattish, small (1-1.5 cm), glossy, brown, often seen with a large scar. They are normally dispersed by water, and can frequently be seen washed up on beaches.
4-15 m, up to 25m (in areas where there are strong, heavily salt laden winds they often grow as a stunted, short, scraggy shrub of 5 m or less)
The tree is remarkably wind resistant, and, being a coastal species, it can also withstand salty air and soils, and can be grown in almost pure sand. Only mildly drought resistant.
Average to very slow. Under favourable conditions, growth is occasionally a bit faster, almost 60 cm per year.
LIGHTING REQUIREMENTS: Full sun.
SOIL AND WATER REQUIREMENTS:
Favours sandy or loamy, well-drained soils, ideal for seaside gardens. It does not do well in excessively dry conditions, and prefers an adequate, steady supply of water.
Mature trees provide lovely, deep shade, and are very ornamental, especially as a specimen plant. Planted in groups, they can make a good, thick screen or hedge, and they also do well in large containers. The ideal tree for difficult coastal gardens, as it tolerates extremely sandy soils and high winds, and it can make a wonderful windbreak, as well as providing shelter for sensitive plants growing in its vicinity. Adds a lovely forest element to small gardens. The species plays a significantly important role in the consolidation of sand dunes.
The flowers attract honey- and carpenter bees, insects and butterflies, as well as the occasional Sunbird. The fleshy fruits are much favoured by monkeys, baboons, as well as duiker, bush pigs, parrots, Starlings, Bulbuls, and a host of other fruit-eating bird species. The tree is also the host food-plant of the beautiful Nymphalidae butterfly family.
Best grown from seeds planted in late spring or summer. Sow the seeds in a well-drained mixture of predominantly river sand and compost. Optionally, the seeds can be treated with a pre-emergence fungicide to prevent mildew setting in. Place in a warm, sheltered area, and keep the soil moist. Cuttings should be taken from actively growing shoots on the tree, placed into a medium of milled bark and polystyrene, in a very warm area (mist unit with under-heating). After rooting, they should be removed from the soil to allow time to harden off, the potted as desired. Roots may take up to 8 weeks to develop. First fruiting can be expected from 6 years of age.
Infusions of the bark are used mainly as emetics, or to treat skin disorders and lesions.
The wood is dense, close-grained, strong and heavy. It is very durable, especially in water, as well as elastic, and is popular for boat-building. A lovely, rose-red to reddish-brown, it is also used for ornaments, hut building, various smaller household items, as well as the rims for fishing nets of local people. Exudes a milky, non-toxic latex. The fruit pulp is pleasingly sweet and quite starchy, and delicious jellies and as well as alcoholic beverages are made from them.
Mimusops caffra is protected in South Africa due to past exploitation. It may not be disturbed, damaged or destroyed, and their products may not be collected, removed, transported, exported, purchased or sold, except under licence.