Ochna serrulata (Hochst.) Walp.
Common names: Mickey Mouse bush, small-leaved plane, carnival bush (Eng.); fynblaarrooihout (Afr.); Umbomvane (Zulu); iliTye (Xhosa)
SA Tree No: 479.1
This is certainly a shrub that every gardener should have in their garden, not only because of its beautiful yellow flowers, but also because of its attractive fruits. These are shiny black and berry-like, suspended below bright-red sepals in a way that resembles the face of Mickey Mouse, hence the common name Mickey Mouse bush.
Ochna serrulata is a small shrub of 1 to 2 m in height, but does occasionally grow up to 6 m so it can also be referred to as a small tree. It has a slender stem with smooth, brown bark. The branches are covered with small, raised, light-coloured dots. The leaves are elliptic, 13-50 mm long, but occasionally narrow with blunt or rounded tips and a rounded base. The leaf margins are toothed with upright pointed teeth, and the midrib and the lateral veins are conspicuous above. The young spring foliage is a beautiful pinkish-bronze, maturing to glossy green.
This beautiful shrub is covered with fragrant yellow blossoms in spring (September to November), each flower about 20 mm in diameter. Although the petals drop quite soon, they make an excellent show while open.
The fruits are 5 to 6, almost spherical, berry-like fruits, green at first, shiny black when mature. They are attached to the sepals, which are persistent, and whilst the fruit has been developing, the sepals have enlarged and turned bright red, in most cases turning the whole bush red. In Kirstenbosch the fruits start ripening in early summer (November) and the red sepals last until late summer (January to February).
Distribution and habitat
Ochna serrulata occurs on the subtropical (east) coast of southern Africa where it is widely distributed from sea level to altitudes of up to 1 800 m. This species can be found on the margins of evergreen forests as well as in the forest, in scrub forests, on rocky hill slopes, in bushveld and it is common in the grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal and the former Transkei area. It is also found in the south-eastern part of Western Cape and the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Swaziland. It often forms part of the understorey in the forest, although it grows in many different habitats.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Ochna comes from ochne, the ancient Greek name for the wild pear, because the leaves of this genus were thought to resemble those of the wild pear. The specific name serrulata refers to the saw-toothed leaf margins.
The Ochnaceae contains more than 30 genera and approximately 250 species that are indigenous mainly to Africa, Asia, and America. Ochna is the one of two genera in this family that are represented in South Africa. The genus Ochna consists of about 86 species occurring in Africa, Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands and Asia. There are about 12 species of Ochna in southern Africa and they include trees, shrubs and shrublets.
The flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. The ripe fruits are eaten by birds, at Kirstenbosch the Rameron pigeons in particular seem to relish them.
Seed is dispersed by birds and water.
The Zulu people use a decoction of the root to treat children suffering from bone diseases or gangrenous rectitis.
Growing Ochna serrulata
Ochna serrulata grows very well in frost-free areas, but it can withstand light frost. It enjoys full sun, but also does well in semi-shade where it is a natural understorey plant. This beautiful shrub does best when given good garden soil with plenty of compost and mulch and watered regularly, but it can tolerate occasional periods of drought. It is slow-growing until established. It is best to prune it lightly after fruiting to stimulate new shoots and keep it compact and shapely.
Ochna serrulata is a champion performer, and the texture of the leaves and the bark makes this shrub an excellent garden plant even when it is not in flower or fruit. It can be used as a formal or informal hedge, because of its resistance to wind and tolerance of clipping. It can also be used as a feature plant or in the mixed border. It looks good and does well growing amongst rocks. Ochna serrulata does well as a container plant and has great potential as a bonsai plant. It can be complemented by other plants of different texture, such as Oldenburgia grandis, Helichrysum petiolare, Stoebe plumosa, Eriocephalus africana and cycads. This is also and excellent plant to grow if you want to attract birds to your garden.
Ochna serrulata is propagated by seed and cuttings. Seed must be very fresh — it does not keep at all, not even in the fridge. Pick the ripe black fruits, clean them and sow them immediately to achieve best results. Germination should occur within 6 weeks. It is a challenge to beat the birds to the fruits, and often the only ones left by them are infertile and the seed may be parasitised.
Semi-hardwood cuttings may be taken in summer (December-February). Cuttings should be treated with a rooting hormone and set in the mist unit with bottom heat of approx. 24ºC. They take 4-6 weeks to develop roots after that they may be taken out of the mist unit and hardened off for 2 weeks and then potted up. A fungicide may be applied on both seeds and the cuttings, but Ochna serrulata is not highly susceptible to fungal infection. Another way of getting new plants is to seek out, remove and pot up the seedlings and young plants that pop up in odd places from seed dispersed by the birds.
- POOLEY, E. 1993. The complete field guide to the trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- VAN DER WATT, N. 1962. Ochna atropurpuraea. The Flowering Plants of Africa 35: t. 1392.
- LEISTNER, O.A (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: family and genera, Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.P
- PALMER, E. & PITMAN, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa. Balkema, CapeTown.
- ALEXANDER, M. 2001. Mickey Mouse Bush: Ochna serrulata. Garden & Home June 2001: 128, 129.
- COATES PALGRAVE, K. 1977. Trees of southern Africa, edn 2. Unifoto, CapeTown.
Giles Mbambezeli and Alice Notten
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Shrub, Tree
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape
Soil type: Loam
Flowering season: Spring
PH: Acid, Alkaline
Flower colour: Yellow
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy