A tree for all seasons
The river bushwillow (combretum erythrophyllum) is a common sight along the water courses of Southern Africa from Zimbabwe down to the Eastern Cape. It is by no means restricted to these environments though, and is hardy enough to survive wherever there is sufficient ground water to sustain it. There have even been fine specimens found tucked away in the gardens of the Karoo.
The normally reddish hues of its autumnal tones are even more enhanced by difficult conditions and they make a handsome and colourful addition to any autumn landscape. The name, erythrophyllum, which is Greek for 'red leaf', was bestowed upon this tree by Burchell because of this magnificent display.
Most altitudes and a variety of soils from heavy black loam, sandy riverine alluvium and granite sand are no problem to this species and they grow quickly, reaching a height of 4 – 6m within three years.
The bark of the bushwillow is pale brown and smooth but flakes off with age to reveal greyish patches which give the tree a mottled appearance.
During spring, shiny yellowish leaves appear, followed by pale yellow flowers which occur from September to November. The foliage matures to a bright mid-green colour and the fruits are small with four wings and a greenish-brown colour.
The yellow hues of the ripe fruit attract wasps which lay their eggs inside. In turn, the freshly hatched larvae of the wasp attract the attention of birds such as the southern black tit, which tap open the fruit to get to the grubs inside. Although the seeds are said to be poisonous and cause hiccups, they are enjoyed by pied barbets with no ill-effect to the birds.
Elephants and giraffe are partial to the leaves of the bushwillow tree and it is a useful source of shade to many creatures during the heat of summer.
Mankind has found their own uses for the bushwillow. The gum is non-toxic and elastic, producing a tough varnish which does to crack; the roots are used as a wormer for dogs, and the wood is used to produce cattle troughs, ornaments and mortars for grinding grain.
A rich brown dye is extracted from the roots which are also used as a purgative, to produce a worm remedy for dogs, and as a treatment for venereal disease.
This tree is a survivor, with a hydrophilic root system capable of retrieving moisture from deep within the earth and thick bark which resists dehydration as well as forest fires. It is drought deciduous, which means it will shed its leaves during dry periods to reduce its water intake.
With its fast-growing, frost resistant, conservative ways, hardy nature and attractive looks, the bushwillow is a useful addition to any garden, and an asset to the ecosystem in the areas where it occurs in nature.