Combretum erythrophyllum is a medium to large, deciduous tree with lovely form, crooked stem with attractive pale bark and, often, beautiful autumn colours. 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.
Combretum erythropyllum, River Bushwillow, is an attractive medium to large tree that is both drought and cold hardy.
Family:               COMBRETACEAE        (Bushwillow family) Name Derivation:
  • Combretum – a name originally given by Pliny to a climbing plant of another genus.
  • erythrophyllum  – ‘erythro’ red and ‘phylum’ leaves because of the red leaves in autumn.
Common Names:          River bushwillow, (Eng), riviervaderlandswilg (Afr), moduba-noka (Nso), umdvubu (Swa), mbvuva (Tso), modubu(Tsw), muvuvhu (Ven), and umdubu wehlanze (Zul). SAF Number:                  536                         Zim Number:                  703
Form:                                A tall, spreading, deciduous tree. Size:                                   6 – 9 m (–12 m) by 6 – 9 m. Flowers:
  • 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 leaves of Combretum erythrophyllum surrounding the flowers may lose their chlorophyll, turning almost white, while the tree is in flower.
The leaves are simple and opposite or whorled in threes.
The fruit of Combretum erythophyllum are the typical four-winged fruit of the genus Combretum.
  •   Deciduous.
  • The simple, elliptic or oblong-elliptic leaves are carried on short lateral twigs.
  • They are opposite or whorled in threes, 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.
Thorns:                          No thorns.     Fruit:
  •   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.
  •  The pale, creamy-brown bark may be mottled or smooth.
  • The branches and stem feel soft and velvety.
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:       Most soil types.
A fine example of a Combretum erythophyllum planted in the gardens of the Eunice Girls School in Bloemfontein.
Water Requirements:
  • Drought hardy, but thrives on regular summer water.
  • Water-wise.
Roots:               The roots are not aggressive.
Combretum erythophyllum often gets stunning autumnal colours.
  • 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.
Insects and Butterflies:
  • May well be host to some butterfly and moth larva.
  • Bees, wasps and other insects feed off the flowers.
  • Some wasp species lay their eggs on the fruits.
  • The root is used as a purgative but overdose may cause death.
  • Roots and bark are used to protect against and to cure venereal diseases.
  • Leaves are used to treat stomach pain and coughs.
Poisonous:                       Seeds reported by some people as poisonous, causing hiccoughs. Notes of interest:
  • The soft wood is easily worked and is used as a general timber.
  • Elephant and giraffe browse the leaves.
  • The gum has been used to tan leather, to varnish wood and as a dye.
Natural Distribution:
  • 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.
Natural Habitat:
  • Grasslands, Nama-Karoo, savanna-bushveld, savanna-woodland and savanna-lowveld.
  • Occurs along water courses and occasionally away from water in wooded grasslands.
A lovely Combretum erythophyllum tree in the Ezemvelo Nature Reserve near Bronkhorstspruit.
Links to other members of the COMBRETACEAE family (Bushwillow family). To go to the “plant blog” click on the plant name below the picture.

© Malcolm Dee Hepplewhite & Witkoppen Wildflower Nursery, (Text and Photographs) 2012 & 2018.