Psychotria capensis

  • Black Bird Berry
  • Bird-berry
  • Bastard Lemonwood
  • Lemon bush
  • Swartvoelbessie (A)
  • Baster-Lemoenhout (A)
  • Lemoenbos (A)
  • VoĆ«lbessie (A)
  • tshidiri (V)
  • izele (Z)
  • umgono-gono (X)


  • The genus Psychotria is one of the greatest genera of flowering plants and the largest within the Coffee and Gardenia family, with more than a thousand species distributed across the globe, many of which have been used for centuries for their healing abilities. This species has two known subspecies, and each of those have several of their own variations. These evolutionary adaptations are the result of a variety of external factors and adds to the allure of these plants. The Bird Berry is a most handsome and highly ornamental shrub or small, erect, densely foliated tree with an elegantly rounded crown of sleek, deep green leaves and a slender, pale stem. The branches are often heavily recumbent in their growth habit, and this tree has gorgeous foliage, showy yellow flowers and colourful fruits that are a magnet for wildlife.

SA Tree

  • 723.2


  • Rubiaceae (Gardenia and Coffee family)
  • A large, global family, belonging to the order Rubiales, mainly occurring in warmer, tropical and temperate zones of the world, comprising of somewhat 660 genera and over 11 000 species.
  • Members are mostly trees, shrubs and herbs, and many are renowned for their exceptionally beautiful and fragrant flowers, while others are prized economically for producing, amongst others, the coffee of commerce, Coffea arabica, from Ethiopia.
  • Members have leaves that are either opposite or in whorls, with clear ridges on the stems between them, usually bearing distinctive stipules, and entire, unbroken margins.
  • Flowers are borne singly, or in small, clustered groups, and fruits are typically crowned by the persistent remains of the calyx


  • This species occurs naturally and is most widespread in the southern and eastern parts of South Africa, from the coast to altitudes of just above 1500 m and the Natal mistbelt area.

  • It favours high rainfall areas and is most often encountered in the understorey vegetation of forests as well as their margins.

  • Is also occurs, albeit less frequently, in riverine thicket and wet grasslands, bush clumps, woodland areas, on rocky outcrops and dune forests and scrub.

  • These shrubby trees can be found throughout much of the Natal province, Eastern Cape and more eastern parts of the Western Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, parts of Gauteng and further north to Zimbabwe.


  • This species grows mostly as a large shrub but may also be an elegant small tree with a slender main stem (150-200 mm diameter).

  • The bark is pale yellowish-brown or light grey and the branches tend to spread outwards from the central trunk in a level, nearly horizontal habit.


  • Evergreen.

  • The leaves are arranged at opposite angles to one another along the stems and have a somewhat pendulous, droopy habit.

  • They are simple, broadly lance shaped to elliptic obovate and rather large (60-150 x 12-60 mm).

  • The midribs and lateral veins are yellowish-white and quite distinct against the dark colour of the leaves.

  • The leaves have a rigid or softly leathery texture and can be glabrous or faintly hairy.

  • The main lateral veins (4-6 pairs), are indented above, prominent below and have hair-tuft domatia present in their axils.

  • The leaf blades often have a scattering of inconspicuous gland dots, and the margins are entire and somewhat tucked underneath.

  • The leaf tips are shortly and broadly rounded or faintly pointed, and the bases are tapered.

  • The petioles are 15-40 mm long, with ovate triangular stipules that are shed quite early on.


  • An abundance of bright, golden or creamy yellow, smallish flowers are carried in much branched, few or many flowered trichotomously forked and rather flat-topped flowerheads (60-80 mm dimeter), that grow from the ends of the twigs.

  • The calyx-tubes are short and delicately 5-toothed, with a cup-like appendage, the corolla is shortly tubular, with a 5-parted appendage and a hairy throat, and the stamens are robust and have oblong anthers.

  • September- January.


  • Large, rather flat clusters (70-100 mm diameter) consisting of numerous, almost pea-sized, fleshy, ovoid drupes follow the flowers.

  • The fruits mature from green through yellow to black or red and all the colours are often seen on one fruit bunch at the same time.

  • Each fruit contains 1 seed.

  • January-July.


  • 3 – 8 m


  • 2 – 5 m


  • Several Psychotria species produce bioactive compounds, with many of these showing antibiotic and antiviral activity.
  • These plants have been used extensively and for many generations for their medicinal properties, especially by the native Amazon peoples; as emetics, stimulants and antidotes.
  • Active compounds produced by the different species include peptides, alkaloids, pigments, benzoquinones and naphtoquinones.
  • In southern Africa, the medicinal uses are currently somewhat obscure, but there are reports of different parts, mainly the roots, being used to treat gastric complaints and to act as purgatives.


  • The wood of this species, although not extensively used due to the limited size of harvested pieces, is nonetheless said to make a good general-purpose timber.
  • It has a beautiful pale golden, yellowish-brown colour, polishes well, is solid and fine grained.


  • The flowers are a magnet for insects such as wasps, beetles and ants, as well as butterflies and bees (honey and Carpenter), and this tree will always be abuzz with activity when in flower.
  • When the flowers have gone, it truly lives up to its name, as it becomes covered in clusters of colourful berries that are irresistible to fruit and seed eating birds (bulbuls, starlings, robins, mouse birds, louries, white-eyes, barbets etc.)
  • The multi-coloured fruits are thought to be an adaptation to help the tree retain the attention of many bird species over a long period of time.
  • Vervet monkeys are also known to eat the fruits, and they will occasionally eat the fresh new leaves.
  • The insects lured by the flowers will also entice insectivorous bird species to the garden.


  • Ideal as a single specimen or focal feature plant, as it has attractive, evergreen foliage, masses of colourful, picturesque fruits and showy, vivid flowers, as well as a neat growth form.
  • The foliage is highly unpalatable to insects and pests, so it will remain blemish free year-round, it is also relatively disease free and easy to grow and maintain.
  • If planted in groups, these trees make fine hedges, and they are a good choice for background foliage or a mixed shrub border.
  • A must-have for bird and wildlife gardens.
  • This species of Psychotria makes a lovely container or patio plant and is perfect for small and townhouse gardens.
  • It tolerates shade and a variety of soil conditions, making it ideal for filling a damp, shady area of the garden.


  • Although theses plants prefer moist, temperate and almost tropical conditions, they will tolerate mild frost if given adequate protection, especially when young (first 3-4 seasons).
  • In the Highveld, they will need to be planted indoors, against a north facing wall or in the wake of other larger trees.
  • Psychotria grows best in areas with a rather high annual rainfall, and only has a very slight tolerance to drought.
  • During summer or very hot, dry times it will need extra water.
  • It is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions.

Growth Rate

  • Average to fast, depending on the environment; 300-500 mm per year.
  • First flowering can be expected after 2 seasons.


  • Tolerates full sun and semi-shade.
  • In areas with moderate to high rainfall, they will grow best in a sunny position, whereas in areas with rather low annual rainfall they prefer a shay and sheltered position.

Soil & Water

  • Psychotria prefers, and will develop best in, a nutrient/ humus rich, loose, acidic, peaty or loamy soil, with ample drainage.
  • It does however accept a wide range of soil types, provided there is sufficient drainage and it is not too alkaline.
  • They will benefit from an added layer of mulch, which can be added to every few weeks, strewn around them.
  • They grow best in areas with moderate to high rainfall and will require little to no extra water in these areas.
  • If planted in low rainfall areas, mulch is essential to help the soil retain moisture, and they will need extra water during warm and dry days.


  • Easily and rapidly grown from seed sown in spring.
  • Remove the fleshy layer around the seeds, then sow them into seedling trays filled with a well-drained medium of fine, washed river sand and compost (2:1).
  • Place the seeds 3-5 cm deep in the soil and then cover with an additional but thin layer of soil.
  • Place the trays in a well-lit, warm area and keep the soil moist, but not waterlogged.
  • To prevent the seeds being infected with mildew, they can be treated with a pre- or post-emergence fungicide.
  • The seedlings should emerge within 4-6 weeks after sowing and once they have developed their first set of true leaves they can be permanently transplanted.