Rare (uncommon) tree of the year 2019

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Philenoptera violacea. Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pagePhilenoptera violacea. Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr page Appelblaar, Apple-leaf Tree, Rain Tree, Mphata, Mohata, Isihomohomo, umPhanda, umBhandu (Philenoptera violacea) (SA Tree No: 238)

Our indigenous apple-leaf tree is grown around the world for its beautiful form and spectacular show of sweetly-scented, pea-like flowers in spring and early summer.

The flowers appear in pendant terminal clusters at the tips of the branches, from September through to November. The buds are covered with tiny grey hairs and the small flowers can vary in colour from bluish-pink to lilac, or deep violet.

Philenoptera violacea Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pagePhilenoptera violacea Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pageThe flowers exude copious amounts of nectar and pollen, attracting birds, bees, butterflies and other insects to the tree during this period. Large, flat pods follow the flowers, containing between one, to three reddish-coloured, kidney shaped seeds that persist on the trees well into winter.

Philenoptera is a small plant genus of 12 species in the pea (Legume) family, which includes: alfalfa, clover, beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, lupins, soybeans, peanuts, and tamarind. This family of plants is native to Madagascar, tropical and southern Africa; and South Africa boasts three species which are found in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

The apple-leaf (Philenoptera violacea) is a protected tree in South Africa and is usually found in drier areas like bushveld and open wooded grassland, where it grows mostly on sandy or alluvial soils. It also favours areas where there is seasonal water like on the banks of seasonal streams, near water courses, and on floodplains; thriving at low altitudes, from 50 to 1 250m. It grows wild in three of our provinces; flourishing in the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, and in Mpumalanga, where it occurs in the warmer, almost frost-free parts of the Lowveld.

The apple-leaf is a medium-sized to large tree which is deciduous, but the leaves only fall during spring, dropping in a very short space of time, and are immediately replaced with fresh new growth. It grows quickly, reaching anything from 10 to about 15m tall with a widely spreading, dense and rounded crown. The maximum height this tree will grow to is about 18 to 20m, and these very large specimens usually occur along water courses and drainage lines. The main stem is tall, straight and bare, but can occasionally appear bent and twisted. The bark of the stem and older branches has a mottled appearance and is grey and flaky, and the younger branches are light grey and smooth, but covered with dense hairs, and exuding a sticky red sap when cut.

The attractive leathery leaves are a green-grey above and pale-grey below, making a sound like an apple being bitten into when crushed, hence its common name "Apple-leaf/Appelblaar." While old leaves are largely hairless, the fresh spring ones are velvety with soft hairs. It is also known as the "Rain Tree" because at certain times of the year it is frequently attacked by the spittle bug (Ptyelus grossus) which causes an exudation of water from stems and branches to such an extent that it creates an impression that there is a light drizzle, and the ground around this plant becomes wet. Interestingly, the tree uses this unusually generated moisture to survive drought conditions, almost “self-watering” itself in a manner of speaking. Part of the moisture is also the spittle bug excrete so beware! The leaves and pods are browsed by many animals, especially giraffe and elephant, and the leaves are even eaten by humans as spinach in times of dire need.  

Uses:

The roots are a source of rotenone, which is widely used as an effective insecticide against a range of horticultural pests, such as aphids and caterpillars, and also against external body parasites like ticks, lice, fleas and flies. It is reported to be ineffective against bedbugs, cockroaches, scale insects and red spiders. However, this species is unlikely to produce enough rotenone to make it worthwhile for commercial production.

The hard wood is distinctly yellowish and has no heartwood. It is used to make attractive household articles, furniture, carvings, mealie stampers and even dug-out canoes. It is not suitable for firewood but is used medicinally as bark infusions to treat diarrhoea, intestinal problems, colds, snake bite, and as a remedy for hookworm. Smoke from a burning root is inhaled to treat a cold.

The roots and bark are highly toxic, and are cut into pieces and thrown into the water to paralyse fish, which are then easily netted and can still be eaten.

The apple-leaf is said to be a lucky charm and is used to resolve disputes. There is also a belief that bad luck comes to those who cut down this tree.

In the Garden:

Because of its graceful form, lovely foliage and beautiful flowers, the apple-leaf tree is a wonderfully appealing garden subject. Not only does it provide a spectacular display of flowers in spring and early summer, it also adds year-round interest to a large garden.

This tree is a good pioneer species because it is fast-growing and fixes atmospheric nitrogen in its roots, making it ideal in reforestation projects and when establishing a woodland garden.

It is a valuable asset for game farms, lodges etc. and a good mainstay for rural farmers, because not only does it provide valuable shade for humans and animals, both the leaves and pods can  be used as fodder for cattle.

Another beautiful reason to plant one of these trees is that it is the larval host plant to the enchanting Striped Policeman and the Large Blue Emperor butterflies.

Cultivation/Propagation:

Philenoptera violacea is easily cultivated in gardens, but it is extremely frost-sensitive, only tolerating a few degrees of frost, if it is properly protected during the first two to four years of its growth.

It thrives in full sun and on well-drained soils, but is adaptable to many different soil types. Prepare the planting holes well, and if the soil is very impoverished, adding some compost and bone meal will get your tree off to a good start. Immature trees require regular watering during dry spells until they are well established, and although they are reasonably drought resistant once mature, during prolonged droughts the tree will perform best in the garden if it can be irrigated.  

Propagation is by seed which must first be soaked in hot water overnight before being sown into seedling trays or small pots. Plant in river sand and cover the seeds lightly with soil. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Placing a clear glass over the seedling tray can speed up germination. Seeds usually germinate in four to six days after being sown.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

The tree is frequently attacked by the spittle bug or frog-hopper, which causes exudation of water from stem and branches to such an extent that the ground or area covered by this plant is wet.

Caution:

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.