Invasives and Natives: Trees with tales to tell

The red-stemmed corkwood is particularly striking in winter when it loses its leaves.

AFTER baring its branches throughout the winter months, one of my favourite garden trees is starting to come into leaf.

Not that I mind it going leafless for a while as this highlights the beauty of the bark of the Commiphora harveyi or red-stemmed corkwood tree. The trunk and branches are a pretty shade of green but the bark peels off in coppery, paper-like pieces.

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It really is one of our most eye-catching trees, both in winter when its unadorned outline is so striking and in summer when it is covered in its bright green compound leaves.

I obtained mine from a friend who was keeping it in a container as a possible bonsai subject. When it was given to me I immediately set it free.

I think it must have been grateful for it has grown at an amazing rate and brings great beauty to the wooded area in my garden where it has settled and spread itself out so happily.

The first spring leaves on th red-stemmed corkwood

There are about 35 different Commiphora species, many of which have a similar type of peeling bark. They are generally tough, rugged, easy-to-cultivate trees that often occur in inhospitable places. Their Afrikaans name, kanniedood trees (can’t die trees), says it all.

The Commiphora genus belongs to an interesting family, the Burseraceae or Myrrh family. In her field guide to the Trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei, Elsa Pooley points out that this tropical family of trees is famous for producing frankincense and myrrh, made from the gums and oils extracted mainly from Commiphora species of North Africa and Arabia. These valuable substances have been traded since the earliest of times.

In south east Africa, the Commiphora genus is the only representative of the Burseraceae family.

In her tree book, Elsa lists eight species that occur naturally in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. These include the Commiphora harveyi that grows in my garden and the very similar Commiphora neglecta, whose name tells an interesting story. Although widespread it was overlooked – or neglected, as its name says – as a distinct species.

Although the names are similar the camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) is not related to trees in the Commiphora genus in any way.

However, the camphor tree is a massive tree and it is an alien invader, so it is a good tree to take out of your garden should you wish to make space for a Commiphora species or two, plus some other lovely indigenous plants.

The peeling bark is coppery against the green trunk.

It was introduced from Asia for ornamental purposes, as a shade tree and because of its timber. According to the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa handbook of Invasive Alien Plants in KwaZulu-Natal, camphor is a natural insecticide so the tree’s camphor scented wood is sought after for the making of chests for linen.

Like so many foreign floral imports, however, this useful tree has become a pest. Its abundance of viable seeds enables it to invade forest margins, coastal bush, grasslands and river banks.

The handbook tells us that the tree’s root system can grow to 50 percent greater than its canopy. For this reason it poses a threat to building foundations, walls, roads and piping, so it is not a tree well-suited to suburban living.

The alien invasive camphor tree – Invasive Species SA.

Furthermore, if you have one in your garden, chances are it is spreading its seeds throughout your neighbourhood. You really do need to remove it even though, unfortunately, you will probably need to call in a professional tree feller to do so.


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Judi Davis

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