Cunonia capensis

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Cunonia capensis
Cunonia capensis1.jpg
Its distinctive spoon-shaped stipules give the tree its common name.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Oxalidales
Family: Cunoniaceae
Genus: Cunonia
Species: C. capensis
Binomial name
Cunonia capensis

Cunonia capensis (butterspoon tree, butterknife tree, African red alder, red alder or rooiels) is a small tree, found in the afromontane forests of Southern Africa, and along rivers. (It should not be confused with Alnus rubra, an unrelated North American tree that is also called red alder.) It is grown as an ornamental in gardens for its attractive glossy foliage and its clusters of tiny, scented, white flowers.


The cream-coloured sprays of flowers

Cunonia capensis is a beautiful specimen tree, especially for Southern African gardens. Its foliage is glossy, with tints of red, and it produces sprays of dense, fragrant, cream flowers from February to May. The flowers are bisexual and attract butterflies and honey bees. The fine seeds appear in tiny two-horned capsules and are dispersed by birds and by the wind.

The large stipules which enclose the growth tip are pressed together to form a spoon-like shape, giving the tree its common name of "Butterspoon Tree".

Detail of the glossy, red-tinted leaves

This evergreen garden tree does not grow well in arid conditions, as it prefers a slightly more temperate climate, and needs a great deal of water in its first few years. It tolerates some frost and it is very fast-growing - provided it has sufficient water. In the open sun it typically reaches about 5 meters, but in forests it can grow up to 10 meters high.


Giant specimen growing beside a forest path on Table Mountain

Cunonia capensis naturally ranges from Cape Town and the Western Cape of South Africa, eastwards all the way to Swaziland and southern Mozambique. It typically grows in the indigenous Afromontane forests of Southern Africa, and especially beside rivers. In its distribution it greatly favours moist spots or areas with high rainfall.

The greater Cunonia genus has a disjunct natural distribution, with 24 species occurring only on the island of New Caledonia in the Pacific, and a single species (Cunonia capensis) in Southern Africa.


Small Cunonia capensis trees in cultivation, in a botanical garden

Cunonia capensis is increasingly cultivated across Southern Africa as an ornamental specimen tree. It is cultivated for its glossy foliage which is tinted with red, and its sprays of cream flowers.

It grows well both in the sun and in the shade, and it can be planted near to buildings because it has a gentle, non-invasive root-system. This has recently made it popular in built-up areas. It requires a moist environment though, so trees planted in arid areas need frequent watering (especially while still small). However, this has also made it a very suitable tree for marshy, water-logged gardens, or next to rivers. The tree is usually cultivated from the tiny seeds. The young plants need lots of water and some shelter from direct sunlight.

It is one of the fastest growing trees in Southern Africa. [1]


  1. ^ "Cunonia capensis | Plantz Africa". Retrieved 2017-08-02. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Kubizki, Klaus ed. (2004). Flowering Plants, Dicotyledons: Celastrales, Oxalidales, Rosales, Cornales, Ericales (The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants, Volume VI). Springer, Berlin.
  • Missouri Botanic Garden TROPICOS Nomenclatural Database. Accessed December 28, 2007.