Common National Tree of the Year 2020

Ekebergia capensis. Picture courtesy Bernard DUPONT - see his flickr pageEkebergia capensis. Picture courtesy Bernard DUPONT - see his flickr pageCape Ash, Dogplum, Essenhout, Mutovuma, Umnyamathi, Mmidibidi, Nyamaru (Ekebergia capensis)

SA Tree No: 298

The Cape Ash is a magnificent tree, but may be far too large for your space, or unsuitable for your region. If so, click here to find articles on the importance of trees in the garden and how to select the right ones for your space, as well as a list of suitable trees for small gardens, and a handy list of indigenous trees.

However, if it is suitable, the Cape Ash is truly well-worth planting.

In South Africa the Cape ash is a protected tree which grows from the Western Cape, all along the coast to the Eastern Cape, from where it extends more inland and northwards through KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces. The species extends beyond South Africa into Swaziland, southern Mozambique and into Zimbabwe. It also occurs as far north as Uganda, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ekebergia capensis Ekebergia capensis The Cape Ash is very variable in its growth habit across its vast range, occurring in both high altitude evergreen forests and riverine forests, from sea level to 2 500m.  Generally it develops into a large impressive tree +-15 to 20m tall, and trees that grow in the open have a rounded crown. However, if found in high rainfall riverine forests it can reach a majestic 35m tall with a spread of up to 8m. On the other extreme, when growing on rocks or in dryer regions, the tree is stunted and remains a dwarf. Although it is evergreen over much of its range, in regions which experience cold or dry winters it is briefly deciduous, and the leaves turn yellow to red just before they fall.

The sprays of small white flowers are occasionally tinged with pink, and have a sweet scent, rather like orange blossoms.  Flowers can appear anytime during spring and summer (September to November), and are pollinated by bees and ants. Male and female flowers occur on separate trees, and only the female trees will bear fruits. Although the fruits are edible they taste surprisingly of onions!

The fruits, which appear in late summer, are round and fleshy and contain four seeds. They start out green, ripening to pink and then bright red in autumn and winter, attracting a multitude of birds and mammals who love to feast on the ripening fruits. Birds such as the Knysna and purple-crested louries, barbets, bulbuls, mousebirds and hornbills, flock to these trees when they are fruiting.  Baboons and monkeys are also frequent visitors, and bushpigs, bushbuck and nyala readily eat the fallen fruits.  The leaves are also browsed by game, and on farms, in times of drought, domestic stock can safely graze on the leaves and fruits as fodder.

The beautiful Cape ash also attracts butterflies and is the larval host plant for the White-barred Emperor butterfly, the fastest flying butterfly in Southern Africa. Nine moth species also utilise this tree.

Part of its beauty is its large glossy leaves that are often tinged with a pinkish patch, or pink edges. The rough bark of the main stem is an attractive light grey to almost black, with buttress roots at the base.

Its common name “Cape Ash” can be misleading because it is not at all related to the true ashes in the genus Fraxinus.

Ekebergia capensis belongs to the beautiful Mahogany family (Meliaceae), a family of tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs with about 51 genera and 800 species worldwide. Well known members of this family include Red Mahogany (Khaya anthoteca), African Mahogany (Khaya senegalensis) and Mahogany (Swietenia mahogany).

Ekebergia capensis fruitEkebergia capensis fruitUses:

The light wood is a straw colour and because it is  soft, it is excellent for making  attractive furniture. The bark is used for tanning, and medicinally it is used locally for treating dysentery. Decoctions from the roots are used to treat headaches, heartburn and a chronic cough, and the leaves are used as a remedy for intestinal worms. Unspecified parts of the tree are used magically to protect tribal chiefs from witchcraft.

In the Garden:

The Cape ash is an invaluable, fast growing, evergreen shade tree which is ideal for farms and game farms, and a ‘must-have’ for wildlife gardens. It is planted in parks around the world for its great beauty, and has been used for years as a street tree in many of the towns and cities of South Africa. Plant it at least 4 meters from a building or swimming pool.


The Cape ash grows best in the warm, frost free regions of South Africa which have good summer rainfall, and in drier regions it will remain smaller. Because it can only tolerate light to moderate frost once established, it is only suitable for warmer Highveld gardens. In colder regions with dry winters it is briefly deciduous, and young saplings will need protection with a frost cover.

This tree is fast growing and easy to cultivate in well-drained soils, and although it thrives in full sun it can also be grown in light shade. It loves lots of water so water well until the tree is well established, after which it has more drought tolerance.

The fastest method of propagating this tree is by taking tip or hardwood cuttings, which can be rooted in trays filled with river sand. Larger truncheons can be planted directly into the ground.

The tree can also be grown from seed which has been soaked in water for 24 hours, and then scrubbed with a brush to remove the fleshy part. Sow in trays filled with river sand, and do not sow deeper than 5mm. Water well, and then keep the soil moist but not soggy until germination occurs within 4 to 8 weeks.

Find beautiful photographs and more information on Ekebergia capensis at PlantZAfrica. Click here to read more