Celebrating our very handsome Yellowwoods

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Outeniqua Yellowwood. Picture courtesy www.kumbulanursery.co.zaOuteniqua Yellowwood. Picture courtesy www.kumbulanursery.co.za

For Arbour Week 2018 South Africans will be celebrating our very handsome Yellowwoods

Our indigenous Yellowwoods have become firm favourites with gardeners around the world for their beauty and versatility. They can be grown as specimen trees, and the Breede River yellowwood, being the smallest of the yellowwoods, is suitable for small gardens.

 All yellowwoods can be cultivated in large containers, and Henkel’s yellowwood makes an excellent hedge or screen. Yellowwoods also make good bonsai subjects, so even if you only have a balcony, you could grow one!

Every year we also remember, and promote one of our rare or uncommon trees, and this year it’s the Shepherd's Tree, Witgat, siPhiso, Mohlôpi, Xukutsi, Muthobi (Boscia albitrunca.) SA Tree No: 122.

The shepherd's tree is the most common of the eight species in its genus, and is usually found in the drier parts of southern Africa. The conservation status of this plant is currently unknown, but due to its range of indigenous uses, studies are being done to evaluate its status. It is often called "the tree of life" as it offers sustenance to both humans and animals. This small to medium-sized tree is perfect for gardens, because although it only reaches a height of approximately 7m, it has dense, round to spreading crown. The white-grey trunk is very attractive, and distinctly smooth, with bare stems. It has a vast distribution range which covers Botswana, Limpopo, Gauteng, North-West, Swaziland, the Free State, Northern Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal. It also extends into Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.

Find excellent information and pictures at Plantz Africa

Advantages of planting indigenous trees

There are many advantages to planting indigenous trees or shrubs which grow naturally in your region. Firstly, they are adapted to their growing conditions, and especially to the frost and rainfall patterns. For example, indigenous plants from the summer rainfall regions will not need watering in winter, and those from the winter rainfall regions will not require watering in summer. Also, in our very hot and drought prone regions, selecting indigenous plants which already thrive in these regions would be most advantageous.

Non-native trees and plants can wreak havoc on the local environment, and often use more resources than native species. This is especially true when it comes to one of our most precious resources, water. Indigenous trees and shrubs have adapted to our rainfall patterns and are far better suited to coping with local conditions. Reducing your water usage in the garden can be as simple as planting only indigenous trees and shrubs. So, for gardeners who are conscious of water usage, this principle is vital. Combining some of our most popular indigenous plants from all the regions is another option, so consult with your local garden centre on which plants do best in your locality, and you will be fine.

Many gardeners prefer to mix indigenous plants with exotics, and there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to gardening, and you should plant the garden you love, but bear in mind that you need to zone your planting areas according to the watering requirements of your selected plants. For example, group plants which need very little water together in the garden, and those which require regular watering together. This ensures that all your plants will be happy, and will also save you a lot of money, and time spent on watering.
Yet another advantage of planting indigenous plants is that they will need very little, or no fertilisation. They are also less susceptible to pests and diseases, allowing you to avoid the use of fungicides and pesticides. Not only are pesticides pricey, they’re also toxic to the environment. By planting only indigenous plants, you’ll never have to expose your family and pets to dangerous chemicals again.

Even just adding a few indigenous plants to your landscape will have a beneficial impact on the environment, and help to preserve our natural habitat and heritage. South Africa has more than 1700 species of indigenous trees, so there’s really no reason to consider a non-native tree this Arbour Week. The birds, butterflies, bees, and other wildlife will also benefit greatly, so in the spirit of this week, get out into the garden and plant something indigenous - no matter how large or small!

Yellowwoods, Geelhoutbome, umkhomba, mogobagoba, muhovho-hovho, umSonti (Afrocarpus)

Description, History & Interesting Facts:

Fruit of the Outeniqua Yellowwood. Picture courtesy www.kazimingi.co.zaFruit of the Outeniqua Yellowwood. Picture courtesy www.kazimingi.co.zaYellowwoods belong to a primitive group of plants called Gymnosperms, often referred to as “conifers,” and include cycads, pines and cypresses. They belong to the group of conifers that do not produce cones, but carry their seeds in round shells with a fleshy skin. There are about 100 species in this genus, found mainly in the montane forests of the tropics and sub-tropics, and at lower altitudes in temperate regions of the southern hemisphere.

There are four species in southern Africa: Afrocarpus henkelii (Henkels or Drooping-leaf Yellowwood;) Afrocarpus elongatus (Breede River Yellowwood;) Afrocarpus falcatus (Small leaf or Common Yellowwood;) and Afrocarpus latifolius (Real or Broad-leafed Yellowwood.) They are distributed in the Northern Province, Mpumalanga, Swaziland, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western and the Eastern Cape. Some specimens are believed to be between 600 and 800 years old, and officially Afrocarpus latifolius is regarded as South Africa's national tree, but yellowwoods as a group are generally given this honour. All the species are protected in South Africa, due to them being exploited in the past for their valuable timber, and today yellowwood furniture commands high prices because of its rarity.

Yellowwood trees are dioecious, meaning they have male and female reproductive organs on separate plants. Male cones are erect, and when young, are creamy with a pink tinge. They may appear singly, or in clusters, and are made up of many spirally arranged scales, with each scale bearing two pollen sacs on its lower surface.  The female cones are solitary and have short stalks with only one or two scales, each bearing a single, fairly small seed, which sits on top of a conical, fleshy receptacle.

Although many birds and mammals feed on the fruits, helping to disperse the seeds of yellowwoods, fruit-eating birds like: Cape parrots; purple-crested Knysna and Ross's louries; Rameron, African green and Delagorgue's pigeons; and turacos, are especially fond of them. Their large, dense crowns provide roosting and nesting sites for various birds, but the endangered Cape Parrot especially loves to nest in large old yellowwoods. The ripe fruits are also relished by bats, monkeys, bushpigs, and sometimes even by people.

Henkel's YellowwoodHenkel's YellowwoodHenkel's Yellowwood, Henkel-se-Geelhout, umSonti (Afrocarpus henkelii)

SA Tree No: 17

Henkel’s yellowwood grows wild in the Eastern Cape, where the largest concentrations are found, thriving in the areas between Mt Ayliff, Kokstad, and Harding; right through to KwaZulu-Natal, where it is common in the high, moist, afro-montane forests of the Northern KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. In its forest habitat Henkel’s yellowwood is a tall, straight stemmed evergreen tree, reaching 20 to 40m in height; and with maturity its trunk can grow to massive proportions, becoming deeply fluted and spirally twisted.

Luckily, in the garden this tree will never reach the proportions it does in its native forests, and its eventual height and spread will be affected by the climate, and especially the rainfall of the region in which it is grown. In the garden it will generally grow fairly slowly, reaching anything from 7 to 12m, with a spread of 3 to 5m, but pruning can be done at any time to control its size and shape.

The longitudinally fissured bark is a dark grey to pale grey-brown, and in older trees it can peel off in large pieces, exposing the red-brown under-surface. The dark green, pendulous leaves make it easy to distinguish this species from the other yellowwoods, as do the branches, which grow horizontally from the base of the stem.  The new leaves are very decorative with their clusters of pale green or bronze shoots, and the large round seeds are olive-green to yellowish-green when ripe.

Real Yellowwood. Picture courtesy www.kazimingi.co.zaReal Yellowwood. Picture courtesy www.kazimingi.co.zaReal Yellowwood, Opregte Geelhout, umkhomba, mogobagoba, muhovho-hovho, umsonti (Afrocarpus latifolius)

SA Tree No: 18

The Real Yellowwood is one of South Africa’s most valued timber trees, and also our National Tree. This evergreen is large and majestic, growing slowly to between 20 and 30m in height. It grows naturally in mountainous areas and forests in the southern, eastern, and northern parts of South Africa, extending into Zimbabwe, and further north. It is also found on rocky hillsides and mountain slopes, but in these more exposed environments the tree does not get very tall, and under very harsh conditions, may not even grow more than about 2m tall, but looks very old and full of character, rather like a bonsai.

In the garden, its growth is also variable, and if cared for well it may attain heights from 8 to 13m. The bark is greyish and smooth when young, but shows the characteristic longitudinal fissures as it matures, and peels off in strips. The glossy green leaves are long and narrow, and the leaves on young trees are always larger than those on mature trees. New leaves are very decorative with their clusters of pale green or bronze shoots, and the seeds are grey-blue, turning purple when fully ripe.

Outeniqua Yellowwood, Outeniekwageelhout, mogôbagôba, umsonti (Afrocarpus falcatus)

SA Tree No: 16

The Outeniqua Yellowwood is the tallest indigenous forest tree in South Africa, and the fastest growing, with an elegant shape, forming a slender, or rounded, much branched crown of graceful and delicate leaves. This is the “Big Tree” of the Knysna forests, and its trunk can be up to 2m or more in diameter. In its natural habitat its crown is often festooned with lichen known as “old man’s beard” (Usnea barbata). A few trees, such as the King Edward VII tree at Diepwalle, and the Tsitsikamma Big Tree near Storms River Bridge, have become major tourist attractions.

This tree grows in moist forests in South Africa, from Swellendam to northern KwaZulu-Natal (in the Kosi Bay area,) and Limpopo Province, particularly the western Soutpansberg and Blouberg regions. Mature leaves are dark green, with sharply pointed tips, and the new flush of bluish-grey leaves in spring contrast beautifully against the older leaves. The large, yellow, fleshy fruits take a year to ripen, and hang from the branches in clusters. The bark is interesting, being smooth and ridged on younger stems, and peeling off in flakes on the older trees.

In the moister evergreen forests the Outeniqua yellowwood is a tall tree, which can reach a height of 45m, with a long, clear stem, but in drier open riverine areas in the Eastern Cape Province, it has a short thick stem, and wide spreading crown. Thankfully the Quteniqua yellowwood never attains these great heights in the garden. If it is watered regularly, and well cared for, it can eventually reach a height of approximately 10 to 15m in cultivation.

Breede River Yellowwood, Breederiviergeelhout (Afrocarpus elongatus)

SA Tree No: 15

This yellowwood is the only member of this family that is endemic to southern Africa, occurring naturally nowhere else in the world. It is confined to the winter-rainfall region of the Western Cape, occurring from the Van Rhynsdorp area in the north, through the Cedarberg and Bokkeveld Mountains, to Swellendam in the south, and does not occur naturally on the Cape Peninsula. It is found growing on deep, sandy soils, often along rivers and streams, and large trees can be seen on the banks of the Breede River at the Bontebok National Park near Swellendam. In fact, Afrocarpus elongatus has adapted to growing beside rivers and streams which are notoriously unstable, and can often be seen partially up-rooted, knocked over, and damaged by floods or rocks carried in the water washed downstream. It has evolved a survival strategy that the other southern African yellowwoods have not yet, the ability to re-sprout from epicormic buds (buds on the trunk of the tree.) In an undamaged tree with a full canopy, these buds lie dormant, but if the tree falls, or the crown is damaged, exposing the trunks to the heat and light of the sun, they spring to life, sending out shoots that grow into branches that eventually repair the damage.

Unlike the other yellowwoods which are tall trees with long straight boles, the Breede River yellowwood is usually multi-stemmed, and spreads as broad as it is high. It is also the smallest of the South African yellowwoods, and common in open, dry, and exposed positions, where it grows into a large gnarled bush or spreading shrub, and sometimes a small rounded tree, seldom exceeding 6m in height. Trees growing in moist and sheltered ravines, however, can reach 20m. For small gardens, this is the only yellowwood which is suitable to plant out into the ground, where it will grow approximately 3 to 6m tall.

The tough and leathery leaves taper at both the apex and base, and are green or grey-green, and the bark is smooth, grey to brown, sometimes peeling longitudinally in long narrow strips. The seeds are smallish dark blue-green to dark violet berries with a leathery shell. Trees from the Clanwilliam and Ceres districts generally have more silvery-grey leaves than those from the Swellendam and Robertson districts, and at Kirstenbosch Gardens, many of the specimens growing in the garden were selected for their greyish-blue ’bloom’ on the leaves. This species is closely related, and very similar to Afrocarpus latifolius, the true yellowwood, and they are often difficult to identify where their ranges overlap.


Wood, especially that from the Outeniqua yellowwood (A. falcatus) and the real yellowwood (A. latifolius) is prized for furniture making, and was used extensively in the past for floor and ceiling boards. The wood of the real yellowwood is yellow and quite similar to the Outeniqua yellowwood, although not as dark, or of the same quality. Although the Breede River yellowwood produces good timber, it is not of great economic importance because large straight pieces can seldom be obtained. It has a darker reddish tinge than the others, and has many more knots, thanks to its gnarled, shrubby habit. Wood-turners and chair-makers used large quantities of it in the past, as did the wagon-builders around Swellendam. The Henkel’s yellowwood produces timber which is an excellent colour and quality, and has long been sought after for the crafting of fine furniture and small household items.

The ripe fruit is edible and very resinous, and traditionally the sap is used as a remedy for chest complaints.

In the Garden:

All yellowwoods have a majestic aura about them, and keep their beautiful shape if left unpruned. They are excellent candidates for large estates, farms, office parks, schools etc. and perfect specimen trees for large stretches of open lawn, but bear in mind that they eventually cast deep shade, which will affect the growth of the lawn. If your garden is small, try growing them in large containers where their beautiful foliage will complement the garden throughout the year. They can also be trained as bonsai subjects. Container grown specimens can even be brought indoors over the Christmas season, and are a great substitute Christmas tree to replace Pine and Fir trees.

If planted together, Henkel's yellowwood is undoubtedly one of our loveliest indigenous specimen trees and is grown extensively as an ornamental garden plant for its attractive, neat, pyramidal form, and its elegant, drooping foliage. It is most effective if planted where it’s beautiful shape can be seen to full advantage; but it can also be used as a background tree where its fine foliage will contrast well with most other shrubs and trees. Because it can be easily pruned, it is ideal for formal garden designs, and a good choice for a formal avenue or walkway, or formal or informal hedging or screening plant.  

The Breede River yellowwood is tougher and more drought-resistant than the other South African yellowwoods and makes a handsome medium-sized garden tree. If planted close it also makes a good screening plant or windbreak for coastal gardens. The Outeniqua yellowwood is also an excellent garden specimen, and the Real Yellowwood, with its unusual textural appearance of the leaves, makes it a good contrast or background for other trees and shrubs, and the leaf size and interesting bark are good characteristics for bonsai.


Generally, yellowwoods can be planted in full sun or semi-shade; and thrive in deep, rich, sandy or loamy, well-drained soil. If planted in a hole in the middle of lawn it is necessary to remove at least 1.5m diameter of lawn around the plant, as lawn will stunt their growth. Although these trees have tap roots, and are generally fine to plant within a reasonable distance from buildings, pathways, swimming pools etc. they may, with age, have an impact on surrounding structures depending on their size, so site them where they can grow to their full stature; and remember that their ultimate size is variable, and influenced by the composition of the soil, and climatic conditions. The single disadvantage of yellowwoods is that they can be messy, shedding their leaves throughout the year

Henkel’s Yellowwood (Afrocarpus henkelii) is a tough evergreen once established. It grows best in the warm, moist, frost-free regions of South Africa which have a high summer rainfall, but once established, will take moderate frost. In cold regions protect it with frost cover until reasonably established. Henkel’s yellowwood is also moderately wind hardy, and makes an excellent coastal garden plant, if it is sited in a sheltered and cool position.  It is only moderately drought hardy, preferring moist conditions, so to keep it looking its best in the garden, keep the roots well mulched, and water infrequently, but deeply, during long, dry spells. Henkel’s yellowwood will tolerate far less favourable sites, but will remain stunted, and grow very slowly.

The Outeniqua Yellowwood (Afrocarpus falcatus) is a large, very hardy, evergreen tree, and the fastest growing of the yellowwoods. It is a striking tree for a seaside garden, and can even be grown very close to the sea, as it grows well in sandy soils, and tolerates salt laden winds. In the moist regions of the country it grows tall, and in more arid regions it has a short thick stem, and wide spreading crown. It tolerates light frost, but it is best to provide winter protection until the tree is established. If it can be watered infrequently, but deeply, during long, dry spells, it will look at its best, and grow quicker. In very sandy soils, adding plenty of organic material when planting, and mulching the roots regularly, will give your plant a good head-start and help to conserve water.

Breede River Yellowwood (Afrocarpus elongates) is tougher and more drought-resistant than the other South African yellowwoods, and because it has a fairly confined distribution in the winter rainfall region of the southwestern Cape, it is obviously a good choice to plant in there. However, once established it is also remarkably hardy to low temperatures, and has been recorded hardy to -2°C. It tolerates coastal conditions, salt spray, and poor soil, where it grows as a large gnarled bush, or spreading shrub, and sometimes a small rounded tree, so to get your plant off to a good start, add plenty or organic matter to the planting holes, and water regularly. Trees growing in moist and sheltered gardens will grow quicker and taller.  

Real Yellowwood (Afrocarpus latifolius) grows in the coastal, midland and montane primary forests; and where there is sufficient moisture, it grows tall, but in open coastal bushland and other arid regions it remains a stunted tree. Adding liberal amounts of organic material to the planting hole, mulching the roots, and watering regularly, will ensure a good start for your tree, and once it is established, it will only require moderate watering during long, dry spells, to look its best. Once established this yellowwood is hardy to frost, but requires winter protection until it is established, and a sheltered position in the garden.


Yellowwoods are easily propagated from seed, provided the seeds are free of the fungal disease ‘black coral spot’ which can destroy many seeds. Seed which falls during the first 2 to 3 weeks is always highly infested, so collect seed later in the season.  The seeds do not remain viable for long and should to be sown as soon as possible. Sow directly into black nursery bags or into deep seed trays, using a mixture of well-rotted compost and washed sand (1:1.) Remove the fleshy fruit that surrounds the seed, as the fleshy part contains an inhibitor, which seems to suppress germination. Cover with a light layer of soil and ensure that the soil remains most at all times until germination occurs. Germination can take up to two months, or even six months, so patience is required. Seedlings can be pricked out at a height of 50 to 80mm and planted into bags or pots. Care must be taken not to damage the taproot as this may slow the initial growth rate of the plant.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Our indigenous trees are reasonably pest and disease-free but the yellowwoods are susceptible to aphids in dry climates.