plant of the month the cabbage tree

The Cabbage Tree – Cussonia spicata (Gewone Kiepersol, uMsenge, Motshetshe)

An ideal tree for small to medium gardens with it’s (usually) upright stems, the cabbage tree is found occurring naturally in a wide range in the wetter areas in South Africa.

No two cabbage trees are exactly the same.  This is a quirky tree with a multitude of forms.

With an almost palm like appearance, with the tips of branches with large dark green, vaguely pawpaw shaped leaves, a long succulent somewhat corky trunk, the trees are an attractive addition as an accent plant, and is perfect for any rocky areas in the garden!

The tree attracts butterflies and pollinating insects, and the fruit are a favourite with a variety of birds, (it will take around 8 years for the tree to start bearing fruit).
Once established this is a quick growing tree, reaching a height of between 4m to 10m tall, (Climate and location of the tree will influence its eventual height), with a canopy which can reach up to 4m.

The Cabbage tree is susceptible to frost, and prefers warmer climes.
It will however tolerate light frost as long as it is planted in a protected position.

Easily propagated from seed, with germination in summer taking up to 4 weeks, and in winter months up to 7 weeks in moist not waterlogged soil. They can be transplanted at around 4 months, but great care should be taken not to damage the roots which are fleshy and vulnerable. Damaging the roots could initially stunt the growth of the tree, or kill it completely.
The trees do best in full sun, watered regularly in well drained composted soil. Take care not to plant near buildings, walls, paving etc as the roots can be quite invasive.

In traditional medicine the plant has a variety of uses, being used as medication against malaria, venereal disease and indigestion.
In times of drought, the roots are used as a source of moisture.
The roots and bark are favoured by baboons, black rhino and bushpigs, and provide food for livestock. (The Zulu name for the tree refers to its use as goat food)

With soft corky wood, dead branches are often used by barbets and woodpeckers as nesting sites.

Because the wood is very soft and decays easily it is used to make mole traps.
There are reports that the wood of the Highveld cabbage-tree was used to make brake blocks for ox-wagons. The name Cussonia is named after the Professor of Botany at the University of Montpellier. Prof. Pierre Cusson. (1727 – 1783).
The specific name spicata means spike-like in reference to the arrangement of the flowers.    
Authors note:

My cabbage tree was planted some 5 years ago and had many a setback.
After its initial planting out, I decided that it was in the wrong position and moved it.
Our local monkey troop then decided that the 30 or so cm young tree was a plaything and broke it completely in half.

I didn’t hold out much hope for it.

Little did I know…

The sapling soon bounced back with a few quirks of its own. Rather than growing straight up, the break caused it to branch out at a very early stage. As a result, the tree has grown into a more “rounded” shape, (not unlike a conventional tree), although in the last growing season it has started to gain height.
The branches can be very brittle – Even when thick they are still corky and fibrous and can be broken easily if you apply enough force. This however allows each tree to take on its own unique shape. Although mine hasn’t reached the fruiting stage yet, (we wait with bated breath), it attracts an inordinate amount of birdlife.

As I have a comparatively small garden, this was an ideal choice for me – Any other tree would have over shaded all the plants.