Cordia caffra Sond.
Common names: septee saucer-berry (Eng.); septeeboom (Afr.); mududa (V)
SA Tree No: 652
Why this breathtaking tree is so rarely used in the horticultural and landscape trade is a mystery. It possesses almost all the qualities of the ideal city garden tree; very attractive with or without its leaves, small to medium in size, interesting, smooth, light brown bark, its showy deep orange fruit can be eaten by both humans and birds alike and it is relatively frost hardy. What more could you ask for!
This tree is usually small to medium but sometimes, in the wild, given optimum conditions, can reach heights of up to 20 m or more. Although it sheds its leaves in winter, the tree is still attractive, displaying its light brown trunk and branches majestically. The bark is smooth with patches flaking off, leaving behind interesting natural scars. The stem resembles that of the lekkerbreek, Ochna pulchra and also the smooth-barked guava tree.
The thin leaves are alternate, with a slightly toothed margin, shiny dark green above and paler green below. The scented, cream-white, bell-shaped flowers are borne in clusters at the end of the branches in spring/early summer. The fleshy fruits are deep orange drupes and look attractively appetizing to both humans and birds when ripe. They are edible, but not very tasty. Birds, especially the coucal, feast on them. The large calyx forms a saucer around the base of the fruit and may account for the common name.
Distribution and habitat
This forest margin dweller occurs along the KwaZulu-Natal and Transkei coastal belt, in southern Mozambique, curving slightly northwest into Limpopo. The tree occurs naturally in coastal and riverine forests and bush. Although this tree thrives in semishade, it can also be planted in full sun where it grows almost equally well.
Although it is found growing in warm climates, this tree can tolerate mild frost. It is advisable to protect the stem of a newly planted tree against frost for the first few winters, or until the stem at ground level reaches at least 80 mm in diameter. Long veld grass can be cut and tied against the stem which can be removed once the season warms up. The Pretoria Botanical Garden has beautiful specimens of this septee/saucer-berry tree growing in full sun as well as in full shade in different parts of the garden.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Cordia is so called after a German student, Euricius Cordus who lived in the 1500s and the epithet caffra is derived from Kaffraria, an old name for part of Eastern Cape. This tree belongs to the Boraginaceae or forget-me-not family, which also includes the herbs comfrey and borage. Although Cordia is a large genus of about 250 species, only five are found in South Africa.
Insects are attracted to the sweetly scented white flowers and help pollinate them and birds enjoy eating the fleshy fruit.
Parts of this tree are used medicinally to treat sore eyes, fever and wounds. The sapwood is used to build huts, and dry sticks rubbed together are used to make fire caused by friction heat. The durable pinkish heartwood is used to make attractive furniture. It polishes nicely and is easy to work with, as it does not chip when cut and planed.
Growing Cordia caffra
This tree lends itself to various situations in the landscape and is relatively fast-growing.
The seed with its pleated cotyledon germinates fairly quickly. Use a mixture of 50% sieved river sand and 50% sieved compost as the germination medium. The seedlings grow quickly, resulting in mature, flowering trees after only seven years. The tree should be planted in a large hole containing a sprinkling of super-phosphate and generous amounts of compost. It can be used as a focus plant, in full sun or even in semi-shade under existing mature trees. Protect young stems from frost for the first couple of years if planted in cold areas by wrapping them with veld grass or hessian. This tree can be pruned successfully into any shape desired.
- Pooley, E. 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Schmit,E., Lotter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and the Kruger National Park. Redhotmoondog Communications and Jacana, Johannesburg.
Pretoria National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Tree
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer
Flower colour: White
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy