An iconic African tree, the stately Celtis africana is one of our few trees that reflects the seasons beautifully. It is a soft, light green with new leaves in spring, darker green in summer, yellows in autumn and almost metallic grey, and very structural while leafless in winter.
Really only suitable for larger gardens, parks, and wide pavements where there is space to reach their true potential.
Wildlife friendly, this tree has edible fruit that will attract fruit-eating birds.
Family: CANNABACEAE (Dagga family)
(previously Celtidaceae and Ulmaceae)
- Celtis – the Greek name for the Laurel tree.
- africana – from Africa.
White stinkwood, (Eng), witstinkhout (Afr), mothibadifate (Nso), lesika (Sso), umvumvu (Swa, Xho & Zul), mbholovisi (Tso) modutu (Tsw) and mumvumu (Ven).
FSA Number: 39 Zim No: 32
Celtis africana bark is grey, smooth, and often with round wart-like growths..
Features of Celtis africana
Tall, well shaped deciduous trees.
Size: 8 – 12 m (–30 m) by 8 – 12 m.
Stem and Bark:
- Usually, single stemmed, occasionally branched close to ground
- Whitish to grey, smooth bark, often with round wart-like growths.
- Young branches are hairy.
Thorns: No thorns.
Celtis africana flowers often appear with the new leaves in spring.Foliage:
- Simple leaves alternate, pale aging to darker green, with serrated margins.
- Distinctly asymmetrically 3-veined from base.
- Hairy, feel rough to touch (the exotic, Celtis sinensis, is smooth and leathery).
- The leaves become variegated with yellow at the end of summer, giving the trees a mottled appearance.
- Flowers are small, yellow-green.
- Borne in the leaf axils.
- Male and bisexual flowers occur together on the same plant.
- The flowers often appear at the same time as the new leaves is spring.
Flowering Months: Aug – Oct.
Fragrance: Not fragrant
- Small (5 – 8mm), round fruit on long stalks in leaf axils.
- The fruit is edible, sweet when ripe (brown).
Growing Celtis africana
Celtis africana leaves are asymetrical and 3-veined from the base.
The small yellow-green flowers may appear along with the new leaves in spring.
In the Garden:
- One of Africa’s most beautiful trees, different but attractive for each season.
- Pale green with new foliage in spring, a darker green shade tree in summer.
- Yellow in autumn and the pale-grey bark stark in winter.
- Not suitable for small gardens nor near paving, walls or pools.
- Where space allows it makes a magnificent feature tree.
- Very water-wise.
- In very large gardens or open spaces and parks it can be planted in groves to great effect.
- A good tree to provide shade in the hot months but allow the sun and warmth through in winter.
- A good plant for a wildlife friendly garden, attracting insects and birds.
- Popular as a bonsai subject.
- Very fast growing, up to 2m a year
- A fertile, well drained soil.
- Low maintenance
- Feed with organic fertilizer and mulch with compost.
- Protect young plants against cold.
- Cold hardy, but frost sensitive when young.
- Drought hardy but thrives on regular summer water.
- Full sun but will grow partial shade.
- Plant 5 to 6 metres apart but closer to create a thicket.
- The roots are aggressive.
- Do not plant too near pools, paving or walls.
Ecology of Celtis africana
Looking up into a Celtis africana canopy with the first flush of new leaves in spring.
A ripe Celtis africana fruit.
Celtis africana fruit are a favorite food of African Olive Pigeons
- Insectivorous birds are attracted to the insects that come to the flowers and leaves.
- The fruit is relished by most fruit eating birds.
- Provides good roosting and nesting sites while in leaf.
- Bees are the main pollinator for this tree.
Butterflies and other Insects:
- In eastern South Africa, Celtis africana is host to the Blue-spotted Charaxes and the African Snout.
- It is also the larval host to 26 moth species.
- Compounds from this tree are being researched for a possible treatment for cancer.
Poisonous: Not poisonous.
Notes of interest:
- Celtis africana as a species is under serious threat in certain parts of South Africa due to hybridization with exotic species, Celtis sinensis and Celtis australis.
- Both exotic species are often sold in retail nurseries as Celtis africana. The exotic species do not have hairy leaves!
- Flowers attract bees and other insects.
- The leaves, especially older leaves, are browsed by game and stock.
- Trees provide shade and shelter to animals.
- The fruit is eaten by monkeys and baboons.
- Although smelly while being worked, the wood is used to make furniture, shelves, and household utensils.
- Bark is considered to be an aphrodisiac (please be careful)!
- Found in the WC, EC, Les, KZN, Esw, M, FS, NWP, G, L, southern Moz, and parts of Zim.
- North of our boundaries its range extends to Ethiopia and Arabia.
- Grasslands, fynbos, Nama-Karoo, forests, savanna-bushveld, savanna-lowveld and savanna-woodlands.
- Grows on wooded rocky slopes and ridges, in woodlands and forest margins.
A Celtis africana tree in habitat in Spionkop Nature Reserve, KZN. It has been shaped by giraffes feeding on it.
A Celtis africana tree with a lovely structure in winter in North Riding.
Boon, Richard “Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa, a Complete Guide” 2nd ed. 2010 Flora & Fauna Publications Durban.
Botha, Charles & Julia “Bring Butterflies back to Your Garden” 2006 KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa. Mayville.
Coates Palgrave, K C, edited Coates Palgrave, M C “Trees of Southern Africa” 2002 Struik Publishers Cape Town
Honig, Marijke “Indigenous Plant Palettes” 2014 Quivertree Publications Cape Town
Joffe, Pitta & Oberholzer, Tinus “Creative Gardening with Indigenous Plants, A South African Guide” 2nd ed. 2012 Briza Publications Pretoria
Johnson, David & Sally & Nichols, Geoff “Gardening with Indigenous Trees” 2002, Struik Publishers Cape Town
Mbbambezeli, Giles & Notten, Alice. “Celtis africana” 2nd ed 2009 Plantza, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Link: pza.sanbi.org/celtis-africana
Palmer, E & Pitman, N “Trees of Southern Africa Volume 3” 1973 A A Balkema Cape Town
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Van Wyk, A, van den Berg, E, Coates Palgrave, M & Jordaan, M Dictionary of names for southern African trees” 2011..Briza Publications Pretoria
Wikipedia “Celtis africana” Link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtis_africana
Woodhall, Steve “Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa” 2nd ed 2020 Struik Nature Cape Town
© Malcolm Dee Hepplewhite & Witkoppen Wildflower Nursery, (Text and Photographs) 2012 & 2021.