Cunonia capensis L.
Common names: red alder, butterspoon tree (English); rooiels (Afrikaans); umqwashube (Xhosa); umlulama (Zulu)
SA Tree No: 140
Cunonia capensis is a beautiful evergreen garden tree which attracts insects to its flowers.
The showy, scented flowers appear in late summer, from February to May and are carried in dense, creamy spikes which have a bottlebrush-like appearance, and attract insects. The fruits are small, brown, two-horned capsules which release very fine, sticky seed. Seed is dispersed in two ways; firstly by visiting birds which fly off with the seed clinging to their feathers, legs and bills, and then by the wind which blows the fine seed away.
One of the most striking characteristics of the tree is the pair of stipules which enclose the growth tip. They are large and pressed together forming a spoon-like shape, hence the name "Butterspoon" Tree. The leaves are dark green and glossy with contrasting reddish leaf-stalks.
The Butterspoon tree does not grow well in very hot and dry or windy conditions, preferring a more temperate climate. Some frost is tolerated so it may be grown on the Highveld in a sheltered spot, preferably near water. It is apparently one of the fastest growing of South Africa's forest trees.
Distribution and habitat
Cunonia capensis may be seen in forests and moist areas, especially along watercourses. It is found along the coast and adjacent inland areas from the Western Cape eastwards to Mozambique. In forests it may reach up to 10 m in height but where it is growing out in the open it may only reach 5 m. We have only one species of Cunonia in South Africa. If you wished to see other Cunonia species in their natural habitat you would have to travel to the Pacific Ocean island of New Caledonia (near Australia), as this is the only other place where members of this genus also occur!
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Cunonia is named after John Christian Cuno who in the 18th Century published a book of verse about his garden in which many exotic plants were growing. The specific name, capensis, means "of the Cape".
The Afrikaans common name Rooiels (meaning Red Alder) is derived from the resemblance of the wood to the true Alders (Alnus spp.) of the Northern Hemisphere.
The Butterspoon tree is reportedly used for treating nervous complaints. The wood has been used to make furniture, has a fine grain, and is relatively hard and heavy.
Growing Cunonia capensis
Cunonia capensis may be grown from seed in deep seedtrays filled with seedling mix. The seed is very fine and can be covered very lightly with finely sifted seedling mix. The young plants will need plenty of water and a sheltered aspect.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Tree
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Late Summer
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Cream
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Average