This is one of the most beautiful and decorative of our indigenous
conifers, a tree that any plant enthusiast would be proud to have
in their garden. With its dense glossy foliage, it makes a most
elegant pyramid of green in the garden.
In its natural environment Podocarpus henkelii is a tall
to very tall, straight stemmed forest tree, reaching 20 to 30 m
in height. In time, its trunk can grow to massive proportions, reaching
over 1m in diameter, becoming fluted and spirally twisted with age.
It is an evergreen tree with a dark grey to pale grey-brown, longitudinally
fissured bark. In older trees this bark sometimes peels off in large
pieces, exposing a red-brown under-surface.
It has grey and ridged branchlets and the young shoots are pale
green and angular. The leaves are simple, short stalked, lanceolate-oblong,
9-12cm long, sharp pointed, with entire and slightly revolute (rolled
under) margins. They are spirally arranged, often crowded at the
end of the branchlets, and more or less pendulous. The longer, droopy
leaves make it easy to distinguish this species from the other yellowwoods
growing in South Africa. Podocarpus henkelii has straight
or somewhat falcate (sickle-shaped) leaves, hence it was once called
the falcate yellowwood. This name had to be dropped because it was
confused with Podocarpus falcatus, the Outeniqua yellowwood.
The leaves of Henkel's yellowwood are bright green to bluish green
and glossy above, dull green with a prominent midrib below. The
young leaves are pale green and soft.
This handsome tree is dioecious, i.e. it has male and female reproductive
organs on separate plants. Yellowwoods belong to a primitive group
of plants called the Gymnospermae. Gymnosperms, often called conifers,
are cone-bearing plants, distinguished from the other major plant
group, the Angiospermae or flowering plants, as their ovules and
resultant seeds are borne unprotected in the cone whereas in angiosperms
the ovules and seeds are protected in an ovary. Other gymnosperms
include cycads, pines and cypresses. Male Podocarpus henkelii
cones are erect, pink, and 2-3cm long and are solitary or in clusters
of up to 5. Female cones are solitary, but shortly stalked. The
seed is large and roundish and 1,5-2cm in diameter and olive green
to yellowish green when ripe.
Seed is dispersed by birds. Large old yellowwood trees form the
perferred nesting sites of the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus)
and the kernels of the seeds are a major source of food for this
Podocarpus henkelii is found from the former Transkei in
the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. It is most abundant in moist
inland forest, locally common in montane forest of the Northern
KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. The largest concentrations of Podocarpus
henkelii are found in areas between Mt Ayliff, Kokstad and Harding.
Podocarpus henkelii is moderately drought-resistant and
frost hardy. This is a highland forest species that grows best on
moist sites with high rainfall and deep doleritic soils.
This tree is protected by SA Forestry Legislation as well as Nature
Podocarpus henkelii was named after Dr JS Henkel (1871-1962)
a conservator for forests in the Cape Province and KwaZulu-Natal,
and later director of forestry in Zimbabwe. He was the first to
recognise that this is not a variety of Podocarpus latifolius
but a distinct species. The genus name is derived from Greek words
podos a foot and karpos a fruit, referring to the fleshy
fruit-stalks in some species.
There are nearly100 species in this genus, found mainly
in the montane forest of the tropics and sub-tropics and at lower
altitudes in temperate regions mainly in the southern hemisphere.
There are four species in southern Africa, distributed in Northern
Province, Mpumalanga, Swaziland, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Western
Cape and Eastern Cape. At Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
we have good specimens of all four southern African species: Podocarpus
henkelii, Podocarpus elongatus, Podocarpus falcatus and Podocarpus
South African yellowwoods
The yellowwoods in general are regarded as South Africa's
national tree, although sometimes Podocarpus latifolius is
singled out for this honour. Wood, especially that from
P. falcatus and P. latifolius is prized for furniture
making and was used extensively in the past for floor and ceiling
Growing Podocarpus henkelii
Podocarpus henkelii is a very neat decorative tree suitable
for both home gardens and large landscapes. It makes and excellent
specimen tree for lawns and is a good choice for an avenue. Podocarpus
henkelii is also suited for formal gardens, as it can be pruned
to the desired shape. It can also be left to achieve an informal
Seed collection from this tree is a struggle as the fungal disease
black coral spot destroys many of the seeds. The seed that falls
during the first 2-3 weeks is always highly infested, only the seed
collected afterwards is good. The seed is perishable and must be
kept in cold storage after collection. Under normal nursery conditions,
seed germination takes 2 months. The germination period can be shortened
by placing the seed trays on bottom-heated benches.
Podocarpus henkelii grows best in deep and moist, sandy
or loamy soil. It can tolerate less favourable sites, but then grows
very slowly. Judicious application of organic fertiliser will speed
- Palmer, E and Pitman, N., 1972, Trees of Southern Africa, A.A
Balkema, Cape Town.
- Leistner, OA, ed., 2000, Seed Plants of Southern Africa, Families
& Genera Strelitzia 10, NBI, Pretoria
- Fried & Jutta von Beitenbach, Tree Atlas of Southern Africa,
Dendrological Foundation, Pretoria
- Pooley, E. 1993, Trees of Natal, Zululand & Transkei: Natal
Flora Publication Trust, Durban
- Palgrave, 1977, KC.Trees of Southern Africa, Second Edition
, Unifoto, Cape Town
Giles Mbambezeli and Yvonne Reynolds
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden