Schotia is a small family of plants that belong to the bean family. It is restricted to southern Africa, and can be found growing nowhere else in the world. Its northernmost extent is just south of the Zambezi valley in Zimbabwe and extends southward and eastward into Mozambique, Swaziland, and the eastern parts of South Africa; the Northern Province, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, where it thrives in the midlands. Its southernmost extent is southwest of East London in the Eastern Cape.
Schotia favours the warm, sub-tropical regions of the country, growing in bushveld, scrub forests and deciduous woodlands; it is often found growing on the banks of rivers and on termite mounds. Generally it does not grow very close to the coast, but rather a little further inland in the hills, where it is protected from the coastal winds. There are only 4 species: Schotia afra, Schotia capitata, Schotia latifolia and Schotia brachypetala. Schotia is quite common and not threatened in the wild.
The weeping boer-bean is a handsome, rugged-looking; medium to large growing tree, with a widely spreading rounded canopy that is densely branched. It has a single trunk that sometimes branches low down. Its eventual height and spread is largely dependent of rainfall, climate and soil. It commonly grows 10 to 16m tall with a spread of 10 to 15m, but under ideal conditions it can reach 22m tall. In poor soil or in dry regions the trees will tend to be smaller, about 5m tall and 5m wide. The tree gets its showy, new bright red leaves in spring, and they mature to a glossy dark green. This tree makes an ideal bonsai specimen.
Schotia trees will start blooming when they are still quite young. The abundance of rich deep red flowers are produced straight after the new leaves during September and October, but exact flowering times will vary from tree to tree. This irregularity in blooming times is of value to the nectar feeding birds, and ensures a longer feeding season. The flowers produce such copious amounts of nectar that it literally 'weeps' from the flowers, and may be the origin of the common name, huilboerboon.
The fruit is a small, hard, woody pod that splits on the tree, releasing the seed contained inside. The name boer-bean was given because the seeds resemble the domestic broadbean. The seeds are edible after roasting, and although low in fat and protein, they have high carbohydrate content. Both the indigenous Bantu people and the early settlers are said to have learnt this practice from the Khoikhoi.
The bark of younger trees is smooth and grey to light brown and as the tree matures it becomes darker and rougher. The bark can be used for dyeing, producing an earthy-red-brown colour. The timber is of a good quality and the hard heartwood is a dark walnut colour, and termite resistant. In the past it was used for wagon making, and today it is still used for making furniture. In traditional medicine a decoction of the bark or roots is taken to treat many ailments from heartburn and hangovers, to diarrhoea and nervous heart conditions. It is also believed to purify the blood.
Schotia brachypetala is an exceptional ornamental tree for gardens and parks and looks wonderful as part of a larger landscape, or planted singly as a specimen tree. Do not plant it near paved areas or car parks etc, where the dripping nectar could become a problem. When in bloom it will attract a wide variety of birds, animals and insects. The nectar will attract nectar-feeding birds like sunbirds, the nectar will also attract many insects, and therefore insect-eating birds. Monkeys and baboons eat the flowers and seeds and the leaves are browsed by game. In game reserves black rhino is known to eat the bark.
Schotia is easy to grow in warm frost-free areas, where it remains evergreen and grows surprisingly fast. In colder, dry, inland regions it is slower-growing and deciduous, losing its leaves for a short period in winter or spring. It is semi-hardy to moderate frost if it is planted in a protected part of the garden and young trees are covered in winter, until they are more established. An established tree can withstand minimum winter temperatures of about -5°C. It is remarkably hardy in dry regions with poor soil, but for best results in the garden, plant in deep very well-drained soil, to which generous quantities of compost has been added and a dressing of bonemeal. A general purpose granular fertiliser can be used during the growing season. It loves in full sun and will respond well to judicious watering in the garden, especially when young, and during prolonged dry periods.
Schotia brachypetala grows easily from fresh seed, sown in spring to early summer; ensure that the soil mix drains very well. Truncheon cutting can be taken and planted in winter to early spring, when the tree is not actively growing. Place the cuttings in well-drained soil in a cool spot and keep them moist but not wet.