The family Heteropyxidaceae, or lavender tree family as it is commonly
known, is a small family with only two species in southern Africa.
The local genus, Heteropyxis, is characterized by alternate,
entire, simple leaves with secretory cavities. These emit a pleasant
smell when crushed. The flowers are small and inconspicuous.
The genus name of this plant (Heteropyxis) is made up of
two words. Hetero is a Greek word meaning 'different' and
pyxis is a Latin word meaning 'the container with the lid'.
This refers to the capsule (a fruit) that is sometimes called the
pyxidium, because it looks like it has a lid. The species name natalensis
refers to its place of origin, KwaZulu-Natal.
is a medium to large deciduous tree that grows to about 10 metres
high. It occurs naturally on the coastal and inland regions of the
KwaZulu-Natal Province. It is also found growing in Mpumalanga,
Gauteng, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
The lavender tree has drooping foliage. The leaves are narrowly
elliptic and are arranged spirally. They are shiny dark green above
and paler green below, slightly hairy to hairless when mature. When
crushed they produce a strong lavender scent. The leaf petiole is
slender and pink over the lower half.
main stem is crooked and sometimes fluted. The bark is distinctively
pale grey, often almost white and is flaking on the old stem. The
flowers, which are yellowish green, appear in summer (December -
March). They are very small, about 3 mm in diameter, and are borne
in branched terminal clusters. They are sweetly scented. The fruit
is a small oval capsule that is up to 4 x 2.5 mm. It appears between
March and May. Its colour is shiny brown and it bears numerous seeds.
When ready, it splits into 2 to 3 valves releasing the seeds, after
which the old capsules may remain on the tree for months.
This tree has several economic uses. Bark and leaves are browsed
by black rhino. Leaves are also used in herbal tea and potpourri.
The wood is hard, very fine grained and is pale pinkish brown in
colour. It is suitable for use as fencing posts and charcoal. The
leaves and roots of this plant are used medicinally and to treat
worms in stock. African healers prescribe inhaling the steam from
a decoction of the roots to heal a bleeding nose. The roots are
also used in the treatment of mental disorders and fresh leaves
are used during weaning. The leaves are also used to scent tobacco.
Growing Heteropyxis natalensis
The lavender tree can be grown from seeds. They germinate easily
and the young plants are relatively quick growing. Sow the seeds
in well-drained moist soil and cover them with a thin layer of compost.
Make sure they are kept in a warm area as this promotes rapid germination.
This plant can also be propagated by cuttings, although the success
rate using this method is very low. Fresh cuttings may be taken
and rooted in pure sand. Rooting hormone may be used to help promote
Heteropyxis natalensis is a very decorative tree for small
gardens. With its glossy green leaves and a whitish stem, it makes
a very good focal point. The leaves develop rich red autumn colours,
adding to the tree's attractiveness. The flowers attract bees, wasps
- Palgrave, K. C. 1997. Trees of Southern Africa, C. Struik
Publishers: Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 1993. Trees of Natal Zululand & Transkei,
Natal Flora Publication Trust: Durban.
- Van Wyk, B. and Van Wyk, P., 1997. Field Guide to Trees
of Southern Africa, Struik Publishers: Cape Town.
- Hutchings, A. 1996. Zulu Medicinal Plants, University
of Natal Press: Pietermaritzburg.
Mhlonishwa D Dlamini & Andrew Hankey
Witwatersrand National Botanical Gardens