• Buffalo-thorn (E)
  • Cat-Thorn (E)
  • Blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie (A)
  • Buffelsdoring (A)
  • Haakdoring (A)
  • umPhafa (X)
  • umLahlankosi (Z)
  • Mutshetshete (V)
  • Mokgalo (T)
  • Mokhalo (S)



  • One of the most adaptable and widespread of all indigenous trees, with a rich legacy in many folk tales and a host of medicinal and culinary uses, the Ziziphus is deeply ingrained in our heritage, and has been revered since ancient times. An armed or unarmed, multi- or single stemmed shrub to medium sized tree, with sleek, elegant foliage, mottled, attractively flaking, russet-grey bark, a spreading or upright crown of beautifully weeping branches, and unconventional, zigzagging, thorny side twigs. The golden-green, minute flower clusters are rich in nectar, and the stout thorns are found in pairs, one straight, the other hooked. A most rewarding, well-shaped garden ornamental.


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  • Rhamnaceae (The Buckthorn family)
  • A large group of flowering plants, belonging to the Rosales order, with somewhat 50 genera and 950 species of woody shrubs, trees and the occasional vine. Although they occur globally, the largest concentrations can be found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Members can be classified by leaves that are simple, alternate and spirally arranged on side twigs, or opposite. Many species possess leaves that have been modified into spines, and stipules are always present. The flowers are radially symmetrical, with 4-5 separate petals and an equal number of stamens opposite the petals. The flowers are small and inconspicuous in most genera, but occasionally form striking, large clusters of flowers in others. Fruits are mostly berry-like (with a hard inner layer), but can also be fleshy drupes,) or dry capsules that shed their seeds. Certain species are valued for their timber, but their main economic use is as ornamentals or as the source of many brilliant green and yellow dyes.


  • Found in a wide variety of habitats, from semi-desert to forest, occurring throughout the summer rainfall region of sub-Saharan Africa, and in parts of Arabia, except in the central and outermost parts of the Western Cape and very high altitudes in mountainous regions. The trees frequent woodland forests and grasslands, also bushveld, open woodland, often near or on termite mounds, and can often be found in alluvial soils along rivers. They are said to indicate the presence of underground water.

Main Features


  • Rough, mottled, greyish-brown to dark grey, flaking in small, rectangular pieces. The main stem is typically twisted, either single or multi-stemmed, with drooping branches and a diameter of up to 500 mm. It is green and hairy when young and tends to retain branches close to the ground. Young stems are reddish-brown and often grow in a distinct zigzag habit.


  • Deciduous in drier, bushveld areas and evergreen in coastal, temperate forests.
  • Simple, broadly oval (30-90 x 20-50 mm), alternately arranged leaves, growing from between the thorns. They are a light, glossy green above, only slightly paler below, with short, soft, woolly or coarse brown hairs when young, or hairless. Three distinct veins can be seen running from the faintly lobed, asymmetrical base, and the ultimate venation forms a fine, grid-like pattern when held against strong sunlight. The margins are wavy and finely serrated around the upper two-thirds. The petiole is 4-7 mm long and finely hairy. In autumn, the leaves turn a deep, golden yellow. The thorns occur in pairs, the one is straight (15-20mm), the other sharply curved.


  • Small, greenish-yellow, insignificant flowers are borne in tight clusters above each leaf. They often produce abundant amounts of nectar. (October- January).


  • Semi-rounded, russet-brown berries (10-15 mm diameter), with thinly leathery skins and a sparse layer of meal-like pulp. (February – July).


  • 3-10m (occasionally reaching 20m, but never in a garden setting).


  • 2- 5 m



  • Several peptide alkaloids have been isolated from extracts of Ziziphus, and the leaves, roots or bark are used, either separately or in combination. As a remedy for pain, a poultice made from pulverized bark and baked roots is applied to the affected area, and the poultice is then eaten. A paste made of ground leaves is used to treat skin infections, boils and glandular swellings, and not only promotes healing but also eases pain. Warm bark infusions are used as expectorants or emetics to treat chest complaints, and root infusions are used to bring relief from stomach ailments such as dysentery, diarrhoea and also pain in the muscles and joints of the lower back. Roots have been used to treat snakebite wounds, and a skin purifying steam bath is made from the bark. Tinctures made from the crushed leaves are used against fever, eye infections and diarrhoea.


  • The seeds are sometimes used for rosary beads, and can be roasted, then crushed, and used as a coffee substitute. The fruits, although not very palatable, are very nutritious, and are fermented to make a beer-like alcoholic beverage or pulverized and mixed with other grains to serve as a porridge. Young leaves are sometimes cooked and eaten as a spinach alternative, and although not very tasty, are rich in nutrients. The flowers are used as a fish poison. The wood is yellowish-pink, with a pale brown heartwood, and is relatively hard, tough and fine-grained, but is not very durable, although it is resistant to attacks from termites. It has been used to make rudimentary hunting weapons, handles, carvings, poles, fences and in general carpentry. Young, flexible stems make good bows and whips, and it is good for fuel and charcoal.


  • Leaf extracts have shown possible genotoxicity (chemical agents that damage the genetic information within a cell causing mutations, which may lead to cancer).



  • The trees provide food and shelter for a host of mammals and birds. In the wild, and on reserves, the leaves are a favourite of giraffes, rhino and many other antelope, both big and small, including warthogs. The highly nutritious fruits are also eaten by antelopes and rhino, as well as monkeys, baboons, guineafowls, coucals, parrots and a host of other bird species. It is the ideal bird attracting tree as it attracts insectivorous, frugivorous, and nectar eating species, and is also a preferred nesting site. The flowers, being rich in nectar, lure a vast array of insect life, especially bees, and it is also the host food plant to many butterfly species in the subfamily Lyncaeninae (blues).


  • Highly adaptable and hardy, able to thrive in a variety of soil type and habitats, and not too water loving. The trees do not have aggressive root systems, so they can safety be planted in close proximity to permanent structures and are suitable for small gardens and as bonsai subjects. They have been used to stabilize soils along the banks of rivers, and mature specimens are said to be indicators of underground reservoirs. Ziziphus provides food and shelter for many animals, and is the ideal bird attracting tree for any garden. As the trees respond well to trimming and pollarding, they can be shaped into thick, thorny security hedges or privacy/ wind screens. They provide light, dappled shade, and can also be made into dense boundary plants or added as a focal feature in a rock garden setting or bush clump, adding height, texture and form.



  • A remarkably hardy and adaptable tree, able to survive in nearly all soil types, including slightly saline, but preferring a pH in the range 5.5 – 9, and withstanding temperatures of up to 36°c. Established plants are drought tolerant, but only tolerates moderate, occasional frosts. The trees can withstand salt-laden, coastal winds.


  • A slow-growing tree, under ideal conditions able to grow between 300 and 500 mm per year.


  • Full sun or very light, semi-shade.


  • Highly adaptable with regards to soil types, accepting sandy, slightly saline, clayish, loamy and peaty, compost rich soils. Moderate water requirements.


  • Easily grown from fresh seed or hardwood cuttings. Seeds need to be stripped of their hard and fleshy outer layers, then soaked in water overnight (6-8 hours). Sow the seeds in a mixture of fine river sand and compost (2:1), then place in a warm, bright area and keep moist. Seeds usually germinate in 2 – 3 weeks at a rate of 75%. Once they have reached the two-leaf stage, they can be transplanted, but be very careful not to damage the long taproot, as this will severely stunt development.


  • The tree has a rich legacy in southern African culture and history, featuring in traditional medicine, faith and magic, and has inspired many wonderful folktales. Traditionally, the Zulu people planted a Buffalo Thorn on the grave of a deceased Chief, and, even today, a branch is used to retrieve the spirit of a deceased person from the place of death and bring to its final resting place. It is believed that the trees are immune to lightning, and any person sheltering underneath it will not be harmed. Another belief is that if the trees are felled after the rains, a drought will certainly ensue. The Victorian sweet, ‘jujube’ was made from the dark red, edible fruits.