Cussonia paniculata (2008)

By Eric Driskill (July 2008)

Cussonia paniculata, a member of the Araliaceae family, is commonly known as the cabbage tree or mountain cabbage tree. The name Cussonia was given by Carl Peter Thunberg to commemorate the mid-1700s French botanist Pierre Cusson.

C. paniculata is indigenous to South Africa, occurring inland at altitudes up to 2,100 meters. Favored for its odd appearance, it is an evergreen tree with gnarled bark that grows to more than 5 meters in height.

This tree is also prized for its beautiful, large cabbage blue/gray-green leaves. The leaves are oblong in juvenile plants and ovate in adult plants. Seven to nine, and up to 13 leaflets spring from the end of a long stalk. C. paniculata is sparsely branched with longitudinally fissured, thick and corky bark.

Some say that after as few as eight years, small, green-stalked flowers in short dense spikes will make up large, branched inflorescences in C. paniculata that appear from January to April. The flowers are pollinated by a variety of insects, including bees, wasps and flies. Flowers are followed by fleshy, purple or maroon fruits, which mature in May to June.

There are two subspecies of C. paniculata. The smaller mountain cabbage tree, C. paniculata subspecies paniculata, has leaflets without lobes in a limited distribution in Eastern Cape. The more widespread C. paniculata subspecies sinuata forms a larger tree with deeply lobed leaves. This is the form more commonly found in cultivation.

The soft wood of C. paniculata is used for the brake blocks of wagons. The leaves are often fed to livestock. The thick root can be peeled and eaten raw as food or used as a source of water.

Most C. paniculata are propagated by seed, which should be sown within three months. Although C. paniculata can be grown from cuttings, these plants will not develop the pachycaul roots that form when grown from seed.

Being a tree, C. paniculata is not a plant that takes up a small space on your bench. However, even in the winter, when all the plants come back in the greenhouse for a long rest, C. paniculata is there in leaf the whole time. With reduced water, some of the leaves drop, but it continues to grow – assuring you will never be able to forget about it all together or be without a little splash of color.

I don’t own a wagon or any livestock, but I do sometimes find myself parched while spending time with my plants. I don’t, however, think that peeling the roots to quench my thirst would fare well for my cussonia.