Mimusops obovata


Family : Sapotaceae (Milkwood family)
Common names : Red milkwood (Eng.); Rooimelkhout (Afrikaans); amaSethole-ehlathi, umNolwe, umPhumbulu, (isiZulu); umTunzi wehlathi (isiXhosa)

Fruits: Image Geoff Nichols
© Geoff Nichols

An evergreen tree with sweetly scented whitish yellow flowers to which bumblebees are attracted. Flowers are follwed by edible fruits.

Mimusops obovata is a medium to large evergreen tree, up to 20 m tall with fairly upright stem. Bark is pale to dark grey, rough and cracks into squares.

Trunk bark .Image Geoff Nichols

© Geoff Nichols

Young branches are slender with fine hairs. Leaves are spirally arranged along the stems, alternate, dark-green, usually obovate, rarely oblong or elliptic, apex broadly tapering, base slightly tapering, margin entire, about 18–70 × 10–40 mm. Leaf stalk often short, about 4–10 mm long. Flowers are produced singly or in pairs in leaf axils. Flower stalks are slender, 30 mm long with reddish hairs; flowers whitish yellow, 10 mm in diameter, with a sweet aroma. Flowering time is from September to December.

Flowers and leaves. Image Geoff Nichols

© Geoff Nichols

Fruits are oval with narrow tips, 3.5 × 25.0 mm, shiny yellow to red when ripe. Fruiting time is from October to February.

Conservation status
Mimusops obovata is Red Listed as Least Concern.

Distribution and habitat
Mimusops is a small genus of about 40 species. Approximately 20 species are found in Africa with four of them occurring in and confined to South Africa.

Mimusops obovata occurs from the lower regions of eastern tropical Africa south to southern Africa. In South Africa, it is found along the coastal belt, in the eastern regions from the Eastern Cape through KwaZulu-Natal, extending further north through Swaziland to Mpumalanga, the border of North-West and Gauteng, and stretching over to Limpopo Province.

Mimusops obovata occurs at altitudes of 3–1 435 m, in coastal areas, near dune forest, on loamy or sandy soils. These trees are usually found along the edges of swamp forest, in open woodland, valley grassland and disturbed areas.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name, Mimusops , is a combination of the Greek words mimo , meaning ‘ape', and ops meaning ‘face', in reference to the common name (monkey's face) of several Mimusops species. The specific epithet, obovata, is derived from obovate (egg-shaped) alluding to the leaf-shape with the widest point directing away from the stem.

The flowers attract bumblebees, carpenter bees and sunbirds. Many creatures enjoy the fruits

Uses and cultural aspects
Mimusops obovata is used by some African tribes for traditional medicine and as a source of food. A root decoction is used for the treatment of gonorrhea and schistosomiasis. The stem bark is used in traditional medicine as an emetic, where bark maceration is drunk . Inner bark is steeped in water and the liquid is drunk for the treatment of stomach pain. The hardy wood is used for hut building. Fruits are edible and enjoyed by people, monkeys and birds.

Tree growing in habitat. Image Geoff Nichols
© Geoff Nichols

Growing Mimusops obovata

The plant is easily propagated from seed. Only fresh seed is used and treated with a fungicide to prevent damping-off disease. Sow seeds in flat seedling trays in a mixture of river sand and compost (1:1). Seeds should not be planted deeper than 5 mm. Seed usually germinate after 6–14 days, with a germination percentage of 60–80%. Once first true leaf emerges, the seedlings can be transplant into black nursery bags. After they attain a height of 250 mm, they can be planted out into the open ground.

The plant grows well in both sun and shade. It has a growth rate of 800 mm per year. The red milkwood is drought-resistant and can take a certain amount of could, however, it is frost-tender.

References and further reading

  • Boon, R. 2010. Pooley's trees of Eastern South Africa . Flora & Fauna Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Germishuizen, G., Meyer, N.L., Steenkamp, Y. & Keith, M. (eds). 2006. A checklist of South African plants. Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report No. 41. SABONET, Pretoria.
  • Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G. & Cunningham, A.B. 1996. Zulu Medicinal Plants. An Inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
  • Leistner, O.A. 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
  • Leistner, O.A. 2005. Seed plants of southern tropical Africa: families and genera. Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report No. 26. SABONET, Pretoria.
  • Neuwinger, H.D. 2000. African traditional medicine: A dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific Publishers, Stuttgart.
  • Pooley, E. 2003. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand & Transkei . Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Schmidt, E., Lötter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park . Jacana Publishers, Johannesburg.


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KwaZulu-Natal Herbarium
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This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website www.plantzafrica.com.