Tree of the Week: Cape Chestnut

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The Cape Chestnut -- Calodendrum capense

In bloom the pink-draped Cape Chestnut is a magnificent sight. Linnaeus’ pupil Carl Peter Thunberg gave it the ‘beautiful tree from the Cape’ Greek and Latin scientific name. English explorer William Burchell (1782-1863), who in 1819 recommended South Africa for emigration purposes, thought that this South and tropical African tree resembled the chestnut tree he was used to in the U.K., hence the common name, but there is no relationship. The tree is a member of the citrus family.


The Cape Chestnut grows moderately slowly to become a handsome, dense, round-headed 25- to 40-feet briefly deciduous to almost evergreen tree. The trunk is smooth and mottled gray. Medium green oval leaves, up to 6 inches long, share this citrus family characteristic: They carry oil glands that are visible as tiny translucent dots when the leaf is held up to the light, and emit a strong smell when crushed. Candelabra-like, foot-long upright flower clusters consist of five narrow strap-like lilac-pink petals each, alternating with five stamens; the tree has to be at least 5 years old to put on a good flower show. Flowers are followed by brown woody capsules that split open to reveal five smooth, black seeds. The Cape Chestnut wants full sun and a location protected from strong winds; it dislikes sandy soils and cold. The tree will take some drought, but performs and blooms far better with regular water.

Yangu oil pressed from the seeds is used in skin care. The wood is fairly hard, bends well and is easily worked.

--Pieter Severynen

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Photo: Pieter Severynen