Common cabbage tree has uncommon beauty

2008-08-25 00:00

Cussonia spicata (common cabbage tree or kiepersol) has an unusual form which makes it a feature in the garden as well as in its natural habitat.

The common cabbage tree is a strikingly beautiful evergreen tree reaching up to 18 metres in height. It has long bare stems and a much branched roundish-to-cylindrical crown. Cussonia spicata is a quick growing, relatively long-lived tree with striking evergreen foliage. The cabbage tree’s bark is smooth and grey on young stems, but yellowish-grey and thickly corky on old stems. The tree flowers from April to May, and fruiting takes place from June to September.

The common cabbage tree has many uses in addition to it being a very popular and decorative garden tree and useful accent plant. It is also a very important source of food for numerous species of wild life. The leaves of Cussonia spicata are eagerly browsed by domestic stock and game, especially in the predominantly shrubveld areas. Leaves of the cabbage tree are eaten throughout the year but more so during the dry winter months. It is a valuable source of fodder and shade during the hot summer months. The roots and bark are eaten by black rhino, bushpigs and baboons. Ripe fruit are eaten by many bird species, especially loeries, bulbuls, mousebirds, starlings and barbets.

The roots are succulent and edible. Mashed roots have been used in the treatment of malaria and as a treatment for indigestion, convulsions, heart pains, painful legs and dementia.

The wood is also used to make mole traps and the Highveld cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculata) was used to make brake blocks for ox-wagons. The common cabbage tree has an invasive root system and should not be planted close to buildings or paving.

The common cabbage tree is easily cultivated from fresh seed sown in flat seedling trays. Germination usually takes place from 15 days onwards and is initially erratic. Seedlings are best left in the tray for the first year and transplanted into individual containers at the beginning of the second growing season.

When planting the common cabbage tree, it responds well to a well-prepared hole with plenty of compost and bonemeal mixed with the soil. It is very successful as a container plant placed either along the edge of a swimming pool or on the patio.

Cussonia spicata occurs naturally on rocky outcrops, wooded grassland, mountainsides and in montane forests. It is distributed from the Sudan in the north to the Western Cape in the south, extending through Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and further north reaching into tropical Africa.

The species is variable depending on origin, some forms being more frost-tolerant than others. The more resistant forms may tolerate a moderate degree of frost but will require protection when young. Other forms which originate in sub-tropical areas on the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape coast will not tolerate even a mild degree of frost. The species enjoys ample water, full sun or semi-shade, especially when young.

• Sonja van der Merwe is an indigenous plant enthusiast and owner of Springvale Nursery and Gardening. She can be contac-ted at 033 212 4704 or by e-mail at Alternatively you can visit

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