Combretum erythrophyllum is a medium to large-sized, deciduous tree with a lovely form. It has a crooked stem with attractive pale bark. In autumn/winter it often has beautiful autumnal colours.
It is a good choice as a specimen shade tree in large gardens or may be planted in groves to create a parkland effect. It is also very cold hardy and fast-growing.
Family: COMBRETACEAE (Bushwillow family)
- Combretum – a name originally given by Pliny to a climbing plant of another genus.
- erythrophyllum – ‘erythro’ red and ‘phylum’ leaves because of the leaves turn red before dropping.
River bushwillow, (Eng), riviervaderlandswilg (Afr), moduba-noka (Nso), umdvubu (Swa), mbvuva (Tso), modubu(Tsw), muvuvhu (Ven), and umdubu wehlanze (Zul).
FSA Number: 536 Zim Number: 703
Features of Combretum erythrophyllum
A tall, spreading, deciduous tree.
Size: 6 – 9 m (–12 m) by 6 – 9 m.
Stem and Bark:
- Single or multiple stemmed
- The pale, creamy-brown bark is mostly smooth but may have areas with grey flaky bark.
- The branches and stem feel soft and velvety.
Thorns: No thorns
The bark of Combretum erythrophyllum bark is a pale, creamy-brown.
The leaves are simple, elliptic, or oblong-elliptic.
Leaves around the flowers have reduced chlorophyll levels during flowering, giving trees a pale appearance.
- The simple, elliptic, or oblong-elliptic leaves are carried on short lateral twigs.
- They are opposite or whorled in threes, the margin is entire.
- Leaf veins are conspicuous.
- The new leaves are pale green and appear in Aug – Sep.
- Leaves may turn brilliant autumn colours before dropping about Jul.
- Flowers are creamy-white catkins.
- Flowers after appearance of new leaves in early spring.
- Leaves around the flowers have reduced chlorophyll levels during flowering, giving trees a pale appearance.
Colour: Creamy-white to pale yellow.
Flowering Months: Sep – Nov.
Fragrance: Not fragrant
- The characteristic four-winged fruit remain on the tree for a long time.
- Each fruit contains one wrinkled seed that looks a bit like a small walnut.
Growing Combretum erythrophyllum
In the Garden:
- A lovely shade tree that can be grown in a lawn as a feature tree.
- May be used to give definition to the seasons in a garden, with its lovely stark form in winter, soft pale green leaves in spring, darker leaves in summer and yellow to red in autumn.
- Group planting in large spaces such as in school grounds, parks, office and housing estates will create a parkland feel to the spaces.
- Combretum erythrophyllum are good trees for next to driveways and on pavements as their roots are not likely to lift paving.
- May be planted along stream and river banks to bind the soil.
- A good plant for a wildlife friendly garden, attracting insects and birds.
- Water-wise plant.
- Fast growing, up to 1.5m or more in a year.
Soil Needs: Will grow in most soil types.
A beautiful Combretum erythrophyllum planted in the Eunice School grounds in Bloemfontein.
Combretum erythrophyllum may produce dramatic autumn colours.
Combretum erythrophyllum trees are typically elegant and upright.
- A low maintenance plant.
- May be pruned up when young to form a perfect shade tree.
- Feed annually with organic fertilizer and mulch with compost.
- Protect young plants against the cold in winter.
Cold Hardiness: Semi-tender when young, mature trees are hardy
- Drought hardy, but thrives on regular summer water.
Light Requirements: Sun or partial shade.
Space Requirements: Plant 4 to 6 metres apart.
Roots: The roots are not aggressive.
Ecology of Combretum erythrophyllum
- Insect-eating birds are attracted to the insects that visit these shrubs.
- Parrots and Pied Barbets eat the seeds.
- Southern Black Tits eat insect larva that parasitizes the seeds.
- Canaries line their nests with fine fibers stripped from twigs.
- Thrushes often nest in the forks of these trees.
- Bees do visit the flowers.
Acacia Pied Barbets eat Combretum erythropyllum seeds.
Combretum erythrophyllum fruit are 4-winged, typical of their genus.
The seeds of Combretum erythrophyllum look like little, wrinkled walnuts.
Butterflies and other Insects:
- May well be host to some moth larva.
- Bees, wasps, and other insects feed off the flowers.
- Some wasp species lay their eggs on the fruits, the larvae then eat the seeds.
- The root is used as a purgative, but overdose reported to cause death.
- Roots and bark are used to protect against and to cure venereal diseases.
- Leaves are used to treat stomach pain and coughs.
- Seeds, reported by some people as poisonous, causing hiccoughs.
- Roots reported to be poisonous.
Notes of interest:
- The soft wood is easily worked and is used as a general timber.
- Bushbuck, nyala, elephant and giraffe browse the leaves.
- In the 1980’s family group of Brown-headed Parrots would visit our nursery in Broadacres to feed on the Combretum erythrophyllum seeds when they were fruiting.
- The gum has been used to tan leather, to varnish wood and as a dye.
- Found in the north-eastern EC, KZN, Swa, M, eastern FS, G, NWP, south eastern Bot, NC along the Vaal and Orange Rivers, L, western Moz and central and eastern Zim.
- Endemic to southern Africa.
- Grasslands, Nama-Karoo, savanna-bushveld, savanna-woodland and savanna-lowveld.
- Occurs along water courses and occasionally away from water in wooded grasslands.
Combretum erythrophyllum in habitat along the Klein Jukskei River.
Links to other species of the Combretum genus
To go to the “plant blog” click on the picture or the plant name below the picture.
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.
Carr, J D “Combretaceae in Southern Africa” 1988 Tree Society of Southern Africa” Johannesburg
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
Le Roux, Lou-Nita “Combretum erythrophyllum” 2003 Plantza, Lowveld National Botanical Gardens. Link: pza.sanbi.org/combretum-erythrophyllum
Palmer, E & Pitman, N “Trees of Southern Africa Volume 3” 1973 A A Balkema Cape Town
Schmidt, E, Lotter M Cleland W “Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park 2002 Jacana Johannesburg
Wikipedia “Combretum erythrophyllum” Link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combretum_erythrophyllum
© Malcolm Dee Hepplewhite & Witkoppen Wildflower Nursery, (Text and Photographs) 2012 & 2021.