The exotic leopard tree grows fast and provides light summer shade

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Leopard Tree - Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pageLeopard Tree - Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pageThe exotic leopard tree which is native to South America, and especially to Bolivia and east and north-eastern Brazil, has nothing to do with the elegant African predator of the feline family from which it got its common name, except for its patchy, dappled bark that looks like leopard print. However, there's something about its feathery foliage that makes you think of Africa.

Even its large clusters of sunny-yellow, bell-shaped flowers which appear in spring and are followed by dark seed pods, are reminiscent of our indigenous thorn trees. Therefore, the leopard tree is often mistakenly thought of as being indigenous to Africa.

In the wild it favours Atlantic rainforests as well as the dry inland forest of northeast Brazil and Bolivia. It can commonly be found growing in the bottom of valleys which are subject to seasonal flooding, as well as in dry lowland areas, and dryer inland forests.

The popularity of this semi-deciduous tree in South Africa continues to grow because although it looks like a thorn tree it does not produce thorns, and this elegant addition to the garden can even be grown in large pots, making it suitable for gardens large or small. The leopard tree really stands out in a garden with its upright trunk, and open, spreading crown of small, delicately thin leaflets, providing light to moderate summer shade. New leaf growth is reddish brown to copper in colour, contrasting beautifully with the older fresh green foliage. The trunk is certainly one of the tree’s best features with its smooth, ivory-coloured bark, which peels off leaving mottled brown or grey patches.

This tropical beauty varies greatly in height and spread, depending on where it is grown. In our subtropical regions it can grow very large, +-10 to 15m tall with a spread of 6 to 8m, and a very aggressive root system that mirrors the size of the tree above the ground. However, in our colder inland regions it will remain a lot smaller. Bear this in mind when planting your leopard tree, and select the right spot in the garden, because this beauty can live to be 200 years old!

Leopard Tree Flowers - Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pageLeopard Tree Flowers - Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pageUses:

The wood varies in colour from red through brown to almost black. It is very heavy, hard, rigid, compact, and very durable. A high quality timber, it is used for various external purposes including construction, fence posts, pillars, beams etc. The wood may also be used for flooring, fancy furniture, general joinery, tool handles, and handgun grips.

Its high quality wood is also often used for making fingerboards for electric basses, guitars and violins, because it has similar tonal attributes to rosewood.

The hard wood also makes a very good quality fuel, as well as excellent charcoal with a high calorific value. Calorific value is the amount of heat generated, from one kilogram of a specific substance.

The inner bark contains tannins, and is astringent and anti-inflammatory. The roots are also astringent and are known to reduce fevers. Both the roots, and the bark from the stems is used in the treatment of diabetes.

A decoction of the wood is anti-catarrhal, helping to remove excess mucous from the body. Catarrh is inflammation of the mucous membranes in one of the airways or cavities of the body, usually with reference to the throat and paranasal sinuses. This wood decoction, like sandalwood, is also known to be a “cicatrizant” - a product that promotes healing through the formation of scar tissue.

Pharmacological studies have shown antitumor activity in this species.

In the Garden:

It goes without saying that the leopard tree is ideal for a tropical-style garden. It is fast growing, and the light shade it provides allows lawn and other shrubs to grow underneath it, and a few planted together make a pretty mini-forest in an expansive lawn or with ground covers planted between them. It is a wonderfully elegant addition to the garden, and because it can even be grown in large pots, is suitable for gardens large or small. It will even handle root pruning, and together with its fine foliage and its attractive trunk, the leopard tree is often used for bonsai.

This species has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria, and these bacteria form nodules on the roots and fix atmospheric nitrogen. Some of this nitrogen is utilized by the growing plant but some can also be used by other plants growing nearby.

Leopard trees have been planted extensively as street trees in many regions of the world, and especially in Australia. However, the trees have been deemed a nuisance because of their tendency to spread roots beneath concrete and into pipes. Also, their fallen seed pods present a significant trip hazard to pedestrians. Also, in the garden this tree must not be planted close to structures, underground cables, drains, sewerage, and water pipes. An ongoing cleaning schedule is also necessary as they will drop leaves all-year round, and especially in autumn. Their flowers fall, as well as their hard black seed pods, which can also damage equipment if the pods are run over by mower blades and weed-eaters.

Leopard Tree Fruits - Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pageLeopard Tree Fruits - Picture courtesy Tatters - see her flickr pageCultivation:                                           

In South Africa this tree favours our humid, subtropical, summer rainfall regions, where it grows very large. However, although it is considered a tender tree, once established, it is hardy to moderate frost and cold temperatures. In colder regions the tree will shed all its leaves over winter, and will remain a lot smaller in stature.

Although the leopard tree thrives in coastal regions, it doesn’t like very windy conditions, and is better planted a little inland, or where it is sheltered. In the winter rainfall regions it will require extremely well-drained soil, and regular watering during the dry summer months. The leopard tree thrives in sandy, well-drained soil, enriched with compost, but will adapt to most soils with excellent drainage. If you are planting into pots, use a good potting soil, mixed with some compost and a generous amount of washed river sand to facilitate drainage.

Although the trees are known to be drought resistant once they are established, young saplings will need regular watering, and once established, moderate watering during dry spells will keep them looking at their best.  Potted plants will need more frequent watering, so check them regularly.

Most leopard trees sold in garden centres are fairly well established and have been trained with a single leader trunk, but if you have purchased a very small tree, or have sown your own seeds, a helpful tip for shaping your tree involves pruning. The crotch angles are narrow, so early pruning is useful to help the tree develop a single leader trunk.


Seed will remain viable in excess of 8 months if it is stored in a cool, dry place, and propagation from seeds is easy if it is done in early to midsummer (September to January.) You will need to hammer the very hard pods apart first. After that, pour hot, but not boiling water over them, and allow them to soak for 12 to 24 hours. By this time the seed should have imbibed moisture and swollen - if not, carefully make a nick in one side of the seed coating with a nail clipper, or you can abrade them with a bit of sandpaper, being careful not to damage the embryo, and soak for a further 12 hours before sowing.

For large sowings, sow the seed in a partially shaded position in a nursery seedbed, or for smaller plantings, sow into individual small pots, or biodegradable pots. Plant the seed about 3cm below the soil, water in, and keep in a warm, shady place. Ensure that the soil remains moist but not soggy, and if your seed is fresh, a germination rate in excess of 60% can be expected, with the seed sprouting within 7 to 15 days.

It is often best to sow individual seeds into small pots or biodegradable pots, because, once they start growing, the seedlings do better if their roots are not disturbed. If grown in nursery beds, carefully transplant into bigger pots to grow on, once the seedlings are about 4 to 5cm high, and gradually move them into full sun. The saplings should be ready to plant out 8 to 9 months later.

You can also propagate leopard trees from cuttings.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Leopard trees are generally problem free.


The wood from leopard trees can present as an instant allergen to a number of people who have previously been unexposed.

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.