Greetings to all our Village plant enthusiasts. Welcome to this weeks’ “Weekly Plant of Interest” (based on plants found in the Clarens Village Nature Reserve.) We’ll be looking at a woody plant species that is part of the spike-thorn family.
Gymnosporia buxifolia (commonly known as the Pioneer Spikethorn in English, Gewone pendoring in Afrikaans and Sephatwa in sisotho), is a medium sized plant of 2 – 3 m in height and is widespread throughout Africa. Gymno is Greek for naked and spora means seed. Buxifolia refers to the shape of the leaves (similar to the Boxwood Buxus). G. Buxifolia grows in a wide variety of habitats including forests and grasslands – often among rocks. This tree grows alone or in dense intermingled clumps at altitudes of up to 2100 m A.S.L.
G. buxifolia has a single stem with an angular, untidy outline formed by haphazardly upward growing branchlets. The bark of mature trees is rough, dark grey to brown and is deeply furrowed, forming regular, protruding blocks. Spines of variable length are common and leaves may grow on the spines themselves. Simple pale grey-green leaves are clustered on the end of short, stubby twigs, forming “sleeves” around them. The clusters of conspicuous, white star shaped flowers have a smell that is reminiscent of decaying meat. Tough, yellow to brown –red capsules grow in clusters and each capsule encloses 3 seeds which are covered in a fatty pulp (aril).
G. buxilfolia is evergreen and a combination of leaves, spines and bark are characteristic of the tree. Flowers are in season from February – June and the capsules from December – May. Leave size and shape is variable but always have a shallowly toothed margin. Young leaves have red-edges (10 – 90 X 4-50 mm). Flowers grow on thick twigs with male and female flowers on separate trees. Spines may be absent on some branches and from some young trees though in general young trees have more spines than older specimens, which grow from below the leaf-bud.
Even though it looks very attractive when flowering, G. buxifolia is not generally used as a garden tree and the smell of the flowers can be off-putting for some. It has however been used to make a suitable bonsai.
This irregular plant has been carved into musical instruments, used for stools, spoons as well as in making knobkerries. The fruit are edible however they will not be replacing the tastier supermarket options. There have been accounts of the use of G. buxifolia as a medicinal tree and the bark has been used to treat dysentery and diarrhoea and the roots and thorns utilised for colds and coughs. Rumour has it that the plant may be used in the treatment of snakebites.
Flies are attracted to the putrid smelling flowers which they then pollinate and the fruit is eaten by birds such as the Cape White-eye. The flowers and young shoots are often browsed by cattle and goats. This plant is therefore of some minor ecological importance in the landscapes in which they are found to occur and of great botanical interest.