A Weeping Boer-bean's toast to Spring
The wind blew through Gillitts on Spring Day as if to slough off the last of winter, removing old leaves that still clung on by just a thread, and wiping a few scattered rain drops across the skies as it cleaned. We’re ready for the growing season.
South Africans celebrate Arbor Week from the 1 – 7 September, and there are few trees that toast spring as spectacularly as the Weeping Boer-bean. Schotia brachypetala or Huilboerboon trees add character, colour, nectar, aesthetics, and function that should make it an essential plant for summer rainfall gardens. Plus, with its flowering season beginning in the last month of winter, the Schotia spans that tricky time for wildlife when winter flowers die off and the spring show has yet to begin.
There is little to rival a Weeping Boer-bean in full flower. In a good year, large clusters of red to scarlet flowers mass along old branches and on old wood, quantities of nectar spilling from the cup-shaped blooms. Flowering often begins while the tree is leafless or thin of leaf in a dry year, or as the spring leaves emerge, and their glorious colour and size make an awe-inspiring sight, even from afar. They’re like a red flashing signal light to birds and insects, and it’s said the Zulu or SiSwati name, “uvovovo”, and the Tsonga name “Mvhovhovho” imitate the sound of the insect swarms that cover the flowers. Don’t let that put you off, for these insects and bird species reward you by snacking on a range of other garden insects. While many red flowering plants are tubular, a shape that caters for only a small selection of pollinators, the open Schotia flowers offer their nectar up to all and any interested insect and bird.
Full size depends on rainfall, temperature, soil and aspect. Its natural habitats are warm and dry, principally the deciduous woodlands, forest margins, savanna, and along watercourses in the east of the country, though trees do cope in areas of high rainfall. So, Schotias can be either thickset, craggy specimens, or tall and spreading. Either way, the rough grey-brown trunk supports a dense, rounded canopy. Young, emerging leaves are copper to orange and bronze, and age to bright then dark green becoming crisp to the touch.
Dark brown pods, hard and flat, follow from December onwards and can remain until the next flowering season. These split open while still attached and are eaten by monkeys, louries and parrots. The tree plays host to the Large Blue, Giant, and Foxy Charaxes butterflies. Spittle bugs of the Ptyelus species parasitise the tree, covering themselves in dripping foam.
Schotia has a moderate to fast growth rate and withstands a light frost and extended periods of drought. Gardeners need to be patient though, for plants flower around five years of age.
Provincial distribution: Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga