Alberta magna E. Meyer
Common names: Natal flame bush (Eng), Breekhout (Afr) uMabophe, isiQalaba (Xhosa), iGibampondo, umCumane (Zulu)
SA Tree No: 701
This is a very impressive indigenous shrub or tree, especially when in flower or fruit. Alberta magna is not only treasured by tree collectors and gardeners for its beauty, but also because it is a protected tree in the family Rubiaceae.
At maturity Alberta magna has grey, rough bark on the stems, the branches are green or brown. The crown of shiny, evergreen foliage makes a foil for the large sprays of brilliant red, tubular flowers which form at the end of the branches in late summer/autumn (February-June). Individual flowers are about 2.5 cm long and are bright red with a hairy calyx. They are followed by small, ribbed fruit with large scarlet "wings" formed from the elongated calyx lobes. These remain colourful for a longtime.
Leaves are simple and oppositely arranged. They are 7.5-13 cm long and up to about 5 cm broad, oblong or oval. The leaf margins are untoothed and rolled inwards. The leaves are glossy dark green above and paler below, with a yellowish midrib. Lateral veins are sometimes conspicuous on the underside of the leaf.
It is a protected tree.
Distribution and habitat
Alberta magna comes from forests, kloofs and valleys of the former Transkei in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Alberta magna grows very well at the coast to altitudes of 1 800 m, and can form a medium-size tree of 13 m high.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Alberta magna was named by Ernst Heinrich Meyer, who was a lecturer in medicine at the University of Gottingen and an associate professor of botany in Koningsberg. He named the genus Alberta and one species,magna in honour of Albertus Magnus, whose real name was Graf von Bollstädt, a famous German philosopher or theologian who lived between the 12th and 13th century and wrote De vegetabilus, a botanical work in seven volumes.
Alberta is a small genus of few species centred mainly in Madagascar with 1 species occurring in the moist warm parts of South Africa. Many species in the family Rubiaceae are cultivated for their showy and sometimes sweetly scented flowers, particularly those in the genera Gardenia, Pavetta and Rothmannia. Other plants of economic value in this family include Cinchona, the tree from which quinine (used to treat malaria) is derived.
The bark of this tree is used in traditional medicine, but the wood of Alberta magna is almost useless. It breaks readily, hence the common name "breekhout".
Growing Alberta magna
With its glossy leaves and brilliant flowers and fruits, this is an aristocrat in the garden. But like some aristocrats, it can be difficult to please. It grows best in areas with moist climates and it does not like dry heat and cold. It is suited to coastal areas, with good specimens found in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth gardens, as well as in the Wildflower Garden at Paarl Rock. Inland gardeners may find it difficult to cultivate. Young shrubs sometimes die back after a few years for no apparent reason, even in coastal gardens.
Alberta magna is grown from seed and cuttings, but is not an easy tree to propagate, and even under good conditions it is usually slow growing, but it does flower while still small.
Various methods have been proposed to aid seed germination. Seed is often damaged by insects and not viable. Unless viability is checked, it is best to sow heavily. In nature the seeds normally stay on the tree for at least a year before being shed. One school of thought is that seeds require this period of ripening on the tree for at least one year in order to reach full maturity. They will not germinate without this period of "after-ripening".
Others prefer to sow seed densely soon after it ripens and let after-ripening take place underground. Some people have had success by refrigerating fresh seed for two to three weeks before sowing. Another method advocates cleaning the fresh seed and soaking it in a weak solution of 1% sulphuric acid for 24 hours before planting.
Seed does best if planted in a porous, absorbent medium e.g. a riversand/bark/vermiculite mix. Some form of scarification or excision of the pericarp (seed coat) aids germination. Seedlings have a long juvenile period and should not be transplanted until well developed.
Trees can also be propagated from cuttings (from mature wood) and by tissue culture.
- BEN-JAACOV, J. et al. 1991. Vegetative propagation of Alberta magna by tissue culture and grafting. Hortscience 26,1: 74.
- COATES PALGRAVE, K. 1983. Trees of southern Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
- FARNSWORTH, K. 1993. Further Alberta magna (demystified). Plantlife 8: 3.
- JEPPE, B. 1975. Natal wild flowers. Purnell, Cape Town.
- MATTHAEL, G. 1996. Meeting Albertus magna. Veld & Flora 82: 124.
- MENNE, W. 1992. Alberta magna de-mystified. Plantlife 7: 19.
- PALMER, E. & PITMAN, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa. Balkema, Cape Town.
- POOLEY, E. 1993. Trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Trust, Durban.
- VAN STADEN, J. et al. 1990. Dormancy and germination of Alberta magna. South African Botanical Journal 56: 542-545.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
with additions by Yvonne Reynolds
Plant Type: Tree
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal
Soil type: Loam
Flowering season: Spring
Flower colour: Red
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Challenging