This small shrub found in the wild from the Cape through tropical Africa to Asia, is a tough plant with attractive foliage and fruit, attracts birds and is suitable for most gardens.
The slow-growing, evergreen shrub with a rather stiff and upright shape when old, can reach 1 to 2 m high over time. From the few, woody, upright stems, many short and thinner side branches shoot, all pointing upwards. The small oval-shaped leaves are a glossy dark green colour. Typical of this species, the upper half of the leaf edge is slightly cut with fine teeth. The older leaves are tough and leathery, whereas the new growth is soft with a lovely deep red colour.
The cream-coloured flowers formed in groups at the base of the leaves in spring (September to November) are is very small, but interesting, as the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. The male flowers with their much-exserted red anthers, are more conspicuous than the female flowers. It is, however, the female plants that are covered with the attractive purple-coloured fruits after flowering (November to March). The fleshy, round fruits each with one seed, are formed in abundance tight against the stem and remain on the plants for many months.
Myrsine africana has a wide distribution from the Himalayas, China, and the Azores to eastern and southern Africa. It is found throughout South Africa, common in the summer and winter rainfall areas, growing naturally on rocky krantzes, in fynbos and forests.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Myrsinaceae or the Cape myrtle family is a large family of woody plants with leaves that are gland-dotted and the fruits are a berry. The small genus Myrsine has about ten species that occur from Africa to China. Two species, Myrsine africana and M. pillansii are indigenous to South Africa. The name Myrsine is derived from the Greek name for myrtle, myrtus.
Myrsine africana was introduced from the Cape into England in the late seventeenth century where it was cultivated at Hampton Court in 1691 (McClintock 1994).
Birds love the fleshy fruits of Myrsine africana, helping to disperse the seed.
Uses and cultural aspects
Myrsine africana has many interesting and different uses. Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) recorded the following: in 1962 " The Southern Sotho administer it to rams to prevent their covering the ewes before the proper time. The Tswana and Kwena use a decoction of the leaf as a 'blood purifier'. The seed has sometimes occurred as an adulterant of powdered pepper".
Very adaptable, Myrsine africana is suitable for the formal garden, clipped into low hedges and features, tough enough for the water-wise garden, attracts birds, and is one of the best small shrubs for the shade garden.
Growing Myrsine africana
At Kirstenbosch, Myrsine africana grows well in dry, semi-shade under trees as well as in the full sun between fynbos plants and in a rockery. M. africana, planted with Knowltonia africana and Asparagus densiflorus, makes a tough water-wise combination, while creating interesting foliage contrast for texture throughout the year in the semi-shade.
Propagation is best from seed, as cuttings are slow and difficult to root. Plant the seedlings into pots to grow on until well established, before planting out into the garden. A regular, light pruning of the tips will encourage a bushy growth. Before planting, beds should be well prepared with compost and should be mulched after planting. In the winter rainfall areas of the Cape, plants should be planted in the winter to give the young plants the time to establish before the dry summer months.
Myrsine africana is slow growing, but long-lived and certainly worth the patience to give it a place in the garden.
References and further reading
- Killick, D.J.B. 1969. Myrsine africana. The Flowering Plants of Africa 40: t.1564.
- McClintock, E. 1994. African Box: Myrsine africana, Pacific Horticulture 56,2: 46.
- Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Pooley, E. 2003. Mountain flowers. Field guide to the flora of the Drakensberg and Lesotho. Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. Medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. Livingstone, Edinburgh.
Liesl van der Walt