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.

This magnificent Celtis africana grew on a pavement near the N1 highway in Irene, Centurian. It died and was felled in about 2015.
Family:               CELTIDACEAE        (White stinkwood family)    (previously Ulmaceae). Name Derivation:
  • Celtis  – the Greek name for the Laurel tree.
  • africana  – from Africa.
Common Names:          White-stinkwood, (Eng), witstinkhout (Afr), mothibadifate (Nso), lesika (Sso), umvumvu (Swa, Xho & Zul), mbholovisi (Tso) modutu (Tsw) and mumvumu  (Ven). FSA Number:                   39                  Zim Number:                  32
Form:                              Tall, well shaped deciduous trees. Size:                                   8 – 12 m (–30 m) by 8 – 12 m. Flowers:
  • Flowers are small, yellow-green
  • Borne in the leaf axils.
  • Male and bisexual flowers occur together on same plant.
Colour:                                  Yellow-green. Flowering Months:              Aug – Oct. Fragrance:                        Not fragrant.
Celtis africana flowers are yellow-green and rather insignificant.
Celtis africana leaves are simple, asymmetrical and alternately arranged along the stem.
  • Deciduous.
  • Simple leaves alternate, pale aging to darker green, with serrated margins.
  • Distinctly asymmetrically 3-veined from base.
  • Hairy, feel rough to touch (the exotic, C. sinensis, is smooth and leathery).
  • The leaves become variegated with yellow at the end of summer, giving the trees a mottled appearance.
The small, round fruit of Celtis africana are on long stalks in the leaf axils.
  Thorns:                          No thorns. Fruit:
  • Small (5 – 8mm), round fruit on long stalks in leaf axils.
  • Fruit is edible, sweet when ripe (brown).
  • Whitish to grey bark, often with round wart-like growths.           
In the Garden:
  • One of Africa’s most beautiful trees, different but attractive for each season.
  • Pale green with new foliage in spring, 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.
Given enough space, Celtis africana, the White Stinkwood, is a magnificent feature tree.
Even while without leaves, Celtis africana is a stately and beautiful tree.
  • 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.
 Soil Needs:                         A fertile, well drained soil. Care:
  • A low maintenance plant.
  • Feed with organic fertilizer and mulch with compost.
  • Protect young plants against cold.
Cold Hardiness:                  Very cold hardy, but frost sensitive when young. Water Requirements:
  • Drought hardy, but thrives on regular summer water.
  • Water-wise.
Light Requirements:         Full sun but will grow partial shade. Roots:                                    The roots are aggressive.
  • 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.
  • In Gauteng (and elsewhere) C. africana is host to the larva of Foxy Charaxes.
  • Elsewhere it is also host to the Blue-spotted Charaxes and the African Snout.
  • It is also the larval host to 26 moth species.
The Crested Barbet is one of many birds that relishes the fruit of Celtis africana trees.
Medicinal:                     Not recorded as a medicinal plant. 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, C. sinensis and C. australis.
  • Both exotic species are often sold in retail nurseries as C. africana. The exotic species do not have hairy leaves!
  • Flowers attract bees and other insects.
  • The leaves are browsed by game and stock, as well as providing shade and shelter to animals.
  • The fruit are 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)!
The leaves of Celtis africana are eaten by most browsers, this one in the Spionkop Nature Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal has been neatly pruned by giraffe.
Natural Distribution:
  • Found in the WC, EC, Les, KZN, Swa, M, FS, NWP, G, L, southern Moz and parts of Zim.
  • North of our boundaries its range extends to Ethiopia and across into Arabia.
Natural Habitat:
  • Grasslands, fynbos, Nama-Karoo, forests, savanna-bushveld, savanna-lowveld and savanna-woodlands.
  • Grows on wooded rocky slopes and ridges, in woodlands and forest margins.
© Malcolm Dee Hepplewhite & Witkoppen Wildflower Nursery, (Text and Photographs) 2012 & 2018.