Tree profile: African Wattle

Lab Note #4
Apr 11, 2014
   African wattle, the toilet paper tree

(note: it seems all my formatting and coding options are now gone, so we'll see how this goes. It's probably for the best, I waste too much time on that stuff anyway.)

Scientific name: Peltophorum africanum
Peltiphorum: small shield-carrier, a reference to the stigma shape;   africanum: from Africa
Family: Pod-bearing family (Fabaceae)
Indigenous names: Huilboom (Afrikaans), Mpungankomo (Siswati), Mosese (North Sotho), Ndzedze (Tsonga), Musese (Venda)


Peltophorum, or African wattle, is Maria's all time favorite tree. Why? Because the seed pods take forever to open and inevitably when they do open they're filled with fat larva. Many a happy evening has been spent with Maria's exclamations of disgust and horror in the background. The only explanation is Stockholm Syndrome. 


But Maria is objecting now, no no, that's not all, also the seeds are beautiful (This is a direct quote, emphasis included). I once saw her stand for a whole minute in absolute rapture over a premature, unparasitized Peltophorum seed. True story. (Absolutely adorable)

In all seriousness, the African wattle is quite a lovely tree. It's nickname, toilet paper tree, comes from the large, soft, almost downy leaves, which would be just perfect for, er... you get the idea. And before you ask, no I have not employed the Peltophorum in this way, if only because crouching down while distracted in the veld is one of the most idiotic things I can imagine doing, and I can imagine (and have done) some pretty idiotic things. It's a medium sized tree, on average growing to 4-9 meters, occasionally up to 14. Leaves, new stems and twigs are covered in rusty-brown hair, which adds to its downy texture. In appearance, Peltiphorum closely resembles an acacia, except without the thorns. 


The African wattle abounds with creative and interesting uses. Apart from providing fodder for cattle, goats, elephant, black rhino, giraffe, kudu, impala and grey duiker, the tree is also beneficial for beekeepers, as it produces high quality nectar and pollen. The flowers come in large showy sprays of yellow blossoms and attract bees and other pollinating insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds (birders take note). Like the mopane tree, the leaves of Peltophorum support charaxes larva, including VanSon's charaxes, satyr charaxes and Braine's charaxes. The wood hosts entire colony's of spittle bugs (Ptyelus grossus <-- haha), which suck up the sap and exude almost entirely pure water, causing the tree to look like it's raining or "weeping". Medicinally, parts of the tree are used to hasten wound healing, relieve colic and stomach disorders, and to get rid of intestinal parasites. Steam produced by a hot decoction is used for treating sore eyes or inhaled to treat toothache. It is also known to relieve diarrhea, dysentery and venereal diseases. The wood is used for furniture, implement handles, and for carving.

Maria, if you could say one thing about Peltophorum, what would it be?
"Highly parasitized, beautiful larva." several minutes later "It's amazing how it survives, taking into account how parasitized it is. Even though you think the seed is fine, no holes, and it looks fine, you check again two weeks later, you find a big fat larva in the middle of it, super annoying... (etc etc)"

Peltophorum is an ideal shade tree. It grows and germinates quickly, has a non-aggressive root system, and attracts butterflies and birds to the garden. It also makes an excellent bonsai subject, achieving an adult shape and thick, corky bark in two to four years with cute little reduced leaves. To cultivate, fresh seed is submerged in hot water overnight. The following morning, seeds are sown in a mixture of sand and compost (5:1) and kept moist. It takes 3-10 days for seeds to germinate and seedlings can be transplanted at any time. It grows quickly, 1-1.5 me a year, and it can withstand frost if protected for the first two-three years. Like most South African trees, it is highly resistant to drought.

Want an African wattle of your very own? A $25 donation will make you the proud owner of this beautiful indigenous tree!

  1. Making the most of Indigenous Trees, Fanie and Julye-Anne Venter
  2. Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park, Ernst Schmidt, Mervyn Lotter and Warren McClealand
  3. Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa, Braam van Wyk and Piet van Wyk

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