Cheesewood – the perfect garden tree!

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Pittosporum viridiflorum flowers. Picture courtesy https://kumbulanursery.co.zaPittosporum viridiflorum flowers. Picture courtesy https://kumbulanursery.co.zasaflag Our indigenous Cheesewood is often described as “the perfect garden tree” because it is a versatile garden subject which grows moderately quickly. It also has non-invasive roots, and its lovely shiny, evergreen foliage does not make a mess.  The summer flowers are scented, and followed by attractive, sticky seeds.  This handsome evergreen is perfect for gardens large and small, because it can be pruned and grows easily in containers.

Pittosporum virridiflorum. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaPittosporum virridiflorum. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaThe Cheesewood is also an absolute 'must have' for all wildlife gardens and is included in what is called the “exclusion area” of the wildlife garden, and it can also form part of the “canopy area.” Members can click here to read more in our articles section - "attracting wildlife to the garden"

Cheesewood, Kasuur, umVusamvu, Umkhwenkwe, Umphushamvu, Umphushane, Kgalagangwe, Mosetlela, Mpustinya-poqo, Nkasur, Mulondwane, Mutanzwakhamelo, Umgqwengqwe  (Pittosporum viridiflorum)

In the wild, Pittosporum viridiflorum is a small to medium-sized evergreen tree or large shrub which has colonized a vast area from India to the Western Cape of South Africa. It is widely distributed in the eastern half of South Africa, occurring from the Western and Eastern Cape, to Kwazulu-Natal, Free State, Gauteng, North West, Mpumalanga ,  Limpopo, and all the way up into tropical Africa, and beyond.

Small, greenish-white flowers with a sweet honey scent are produced in early to mid-summer, attracting bees and  butterflies. The flowers are followed by small, yellow-brown seed capsules which split open to release numerous small but showy, shiny orange-red seeds covered in a sticky, resinous exudate. The flowers and fruits attract a plethora of insects, which in turn attract insect eating birds, and the seeds are sought after by many birds, including the red-eyed dove, African olive pigeons, doves, barbets and starlings; and francolins and guinea fowls will eat any fruit that has fallen to the ground.

It grows singly among other species of trees across a wide range of altitudes; and is commonly found in grasslands, growing in kloofs and on the banks of streams, as well as in forests, thickets, and in the scrub on the margins of forests.  It varies in height according to climatic conditions, ranging from about 4 to 7m tall, with a 5m spread, to a large forest tree in the tropics, up to 30m tall. 

It forms a dense crown of glossy, dark green leaves which are browsed by goats as well as game like Kudu, Nyala and Bushbuck. The bark is pale brown to greyish with distinctive white dots, and the soft white wood has little value.

Pittosporum viridiflorum. Picture courtesy https://kumbulanursery.co.zaPittosporum viridiflorum. Picture courtesy https://kumbulanursery.co.zaPittosporum undulatum from Australia is now listed as a Category 1 Invasive Plant and may not be cultivated in South Africa.

Uses:

Because Pittosporum viridiflorum is considered to be nontoxic it may be further explored today for the development of plant-based pharmaceuticals.

Traditionally it is used for the management of opportunistic fungal infections in human immune deficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) patients. The leaves are reported to possess antimicrobial properties, and the bark with its bitter taste and strong resinous smell, is also used medicinally. Decoctions or infusions are widely used to treat stomach complaints, abdominal pain, malaria, inflammation, dizziness and fever. This tree is also used as an antidote for insect bites, and to treat red water and black gall-sickness in cattle. The dried and powdered root or bark is even Pittosporum viridiflorum fruit. Picture courtesy https://kumbulanursery.co.zaPittosporum viridiflorum fruit. Picture courtesy https://kumbulanursery.co.zaoccasionally added to beer as an aphrodisiac.

In the Garden:

This evergreen was selected to be one of the South African trees of the year for 2002 because it is ideal for large or small gardens and can be allowed to grow naturally into a beautiful, low maintenance, well-shaped, medium-sized tree; or it can be clipped into a hedge or screening plant. It is safe to plant alongside paving or retaining walls, and ideal to plant in forest and bush clumps.

It can grow in full sun or light shade, and this ‘all-rounder’ is becoming increasingly popular as a street tree. It also makes an excellent subject for large containers, so even the tiniest of gardens can have one. Position it where the fragrance of its sweetly scented flowers can be appreciated in the evening when their perfume is at its strongest.

Cultivation/Propagation:

Pittosporum viridiflorum bark. Picture courtesy https://kumbulanursery.co.zaPittosporum viridiflorum bark. Picture courtesy https://kumbulanursery.co.zaThe growing popularity of this tree has ensured that it is now quite freely available from garden centres, and indigenous nurseries. It transplants easily, takes humidity, and is hardy to moderate frost once established, but young plants need to be covered in winter. Another advantage of Cheesewood is that it can be planted in full sun or light shade.

For optimal growth, mulch well and water regularly during the first year or two of growth. Cheesewood prefers well-drained soils and is reasonably drought hardy, but will respond well to regular watering during long dry spells. Once established, an occasional mulching, and feeding with an organic fertiliser will keep it in optimal condition.

Cheesewood may be propagated by means of softwood or semi-hardwood cuttings and grows easily from seed sown in trays in a mixture of river sand and compost; cover lightly with fine compost and keep moist. Seeds should germinate in 8 to 12 weeks and the seedlings grow quickly.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

The leaves are prone to attack by psyllids, causing bumps on the leaves. Although unsightly, these do not hurt the tree. You can spray regularly with a mild organic insecticide like Vegol or Neudosan.

Toxicity:

Pittosporum viridiflorum is not listed as poisonous.