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Forest Potato-bush

Phyllanthus polyanthus - was known as P. cedrelifolius; Forest Potato-bush, Feather-leaved Phyllanthus; Bosaartappelbos (Afrikaans)


By the time you read this, Spring will have arrived, hopefully with some rain. In 1992, I helped layout the garden of Rob and Jane Crankshaw in Cowies Hill, and we planted one of these trees. It has matured into a small tree, about 7 metres tall, and has developed into a very attractive garden specimen. (Rob now grows many of these plants and distributes them to deserving causes in KZN. He has kindly donated this month’s "Giveaway" plants.)

This is an endemic species found in a few of the coastal forests in the Transkei and in the Ngoye Forest in KwaZulu-Natal. My first plants were grown from seed that Keith Cooper collected while he was surveying the Transkei forests in the late 1980s. Twenty years later this small tree has supplied me with my first seeds.

This is a tree of stream edges in forests where there is a certain amount of slanting sunlight. In the Ngoye Forest, it favours clearings that have developed where a giant forest tree has fallen - the logic I imagine is that there is now more sunlight, and any dormant seed in the ground will respond to the light and germinate. This cycle probably repeats itself in all the clearings where we find species that need the light to begin life, and in the case of this species, it probably gets shaded out after about 40 years when other larger, darker-canopied trees eventually occlude the light from the leaves.

From a distance this tree resembles a miniature Indian Mahogany tree -Cedrela ciliata - which is huge tree that was planted in KwaZulu-Natal, probably as a timber tree, but it is now found mainly in very old gardens and as a street tree in Durban. Although the leaf clusters at the ends of branches of our tree are smaller than that of the Indian Mahogany, they have a similar outward appearance and hence the original scientific name of cedrelifolius.

The small greenish flowers appear in inflorescences directly off the mature stems, like many of other members of the Euphorbia family. The three-lobed seed capsules hang off these flowering stalks like turquoise-green hanging lanterns that glow when backlit by the sunlight angling in under the canopy.

For a garden, I’d use this tree to give that horizontally branched look with a delicate, very oriental feel, much like that of a Japanese garden that would use a maple to add a delicate light touch to the edge of a planting. The fine texture of the compound leaves also adds to the attraction of using this species. It is an ideal tree for small gardens.

In the Ngoye Forest the Red Tree Squirrel and Samango Monkeys were seen to be eating the hollow capsules to get at the very handsomely marked seeds. 


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