It is only fitting that we start Arbor Week with the wonderful Podocarpus latifolius or yellowwood tree. Many trees may be steeped in history, but none more so than the coveted Yellowwood.
The towering giants of old have stolen the hearts of many and have become a favourite among homeowners.
Why is it our national tree?
This slow-growing tree with its golden hue is imbued with history and mysticism. The trees, left undisturbed, can reach an age of 2000 years, yet few such specimens remain today. As a result, the tree has now reached a protected status in South Africa, with several people lobbying for its reintroduction into disturbed areas.
What was Yellowwood used for?
The scentless hardwood was used for everything from tanning hides to railway sleepers however some of the gorgeous wood made it into coveted furniture pieces, coffins and boats.
Where are they now?
Though it might be hard to think that today's trains are running over centuries of trees, some examples of the artisanal use of Yellowwood can be seen in the Knysna museum.
The Outeniqua yellowwood has recently undergone a name change to Afrocarpus falcatus. It is often confused with Real Yellowwoods.
The Yellowwood Family: Or Podocarpaceae is made up of more than 100 species. South Africa is home to only a handful. P. latifolius is the most widespread and very similar to P. elongatus or the Breede Rivier Yellowwood. One with an even smaller range is Henkel’s Yellowwood (P. henkelii) found in the hills of the Drakensberg in KZN and the Eastern Cape.
The Big Tree: The oldest real Yellowwood is aptly named The Big Tree, found along the N2 as part of the Garden Route National Park.
Bird party: The fruit of the female trees attract many birds including the Cape Parrot, Woodpeckers, Green Wood Hoopoe, Narina trogon, Hornbills, barbets, bush blackcap & Toracos
Uses: The fruits from female trees are edible in jams. Note they are slightly toxic when raw but may be consumed in small amounts.
Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, Western Cape
Current Red Data List status: Podocarpus latifolius was not included in any of the four screening programs and has thus an automated tag of Least Concern (As of Aug 2021).
National tree list: No. 18
Link to tree list.
Podocarpus species can be either male (as in this photo) or female. Male trees bare cones while female trees have a receptacle.
Propagation & Care
Yellowwood trees are dioecious, which means some trees are female and others are male. The ripe fruits develop on female trees and should be harvested just before planting (as soon as possible). Seed propagation requires fresh seed to be sown immediately and not allowed to dry out at any time.
Join other enthusiastic growers:
- Tree sex identification: Males have cones, females receptacles for images see here.
- Pollination: Wind pollinated
- Seeds development: Dec-Feb, should be picked when ripe (preferably not collected from fallen fruit) and sown shallowly (3cm).
- Seed germination: 1-2 months
- Growth rate: 30-50 cm per year
- Soil medium: Sandy loam
- Sun exposure: Full sun to semi-shade. Young saplings should be shaded.
- Height: Up to 30/40m (depending on the source), but slow-growing with most reaching 2-3m in exposed areas.
- Placement: A yellowwood has a strong taproot that makes it extremely waterwise once established. It is also very versatile in its placement as the roots are non-invasive.
- Temperature: Prefers 9-19C, but will tolerate mild frost
Even old trees naturally succumb to disease and insects over time.
Share your tree story!
"My first tree was a Podocarpus latifolius sapling. I was seven years old and playing at a friend's house when I saw their Yellowwood had saplings growing underneath. They regularly weeded the area to remove the saplings and since I was familiar with the Yellowwood (from Knysna holidays), I asked if I could have one. It stayed with us for a couple of years until we parted ways. It found a new home with another enthusiast. "
What is/was your first tree? Share it in the comments below.
Boon, R. 2010. Pooley’s Trees of eastern South Africa. Flora and Fauna Publications Trust, Durban.
Foden, W. & Potter, L. 2005. Podocarpus latifolius (Thunb.) R.Br. ex Mirb. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version 2020.1.