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Saturday, 1 March 2014

Kiepersol (Cabbage Tree) - Cussonia paniculata

Trees are beautiful in their peace, they are wise in their silence. They will stand after we are dust. They teach us, and we tend them. 
- Galeain ip Altiem MacDunelmor

The Kiepersol in my bathroom court-yard garden

The Highveld Cabbage Tree (Cussonia paniculata) is an evergreen tree that grows up to 4m tall. The Common Cabbage tree has long grey stems with smooth bark. Flowers from April to May and fruits from June to September.

This evergreen tree makes a beautiful focal point in a garden as it has an unusual shape, interesting gnarled bark and stunning, large, grey-green leaves. Plants show up especially well in a layout where rocks are used. Gardeners growing indigenous South African plants favour them greatly for their unique appearance. The wood is soft and light and was used for the brake-blocks of wagons. The leaves provide good fodder for stock and the Zulu name refers to this tree as goats' food. The roots are succulent and edible, mashed roots have also been used in the treatment of Malaria. It is a short, thick-set tree, rarely exceeding 5 meters in height, therefore making a perfect garden specimen. Even though it is an evergreen, we live in a heavy frost area and my tree loses its leaves in winter, but has always bounced right back every spring.

Afrikaans Name: Berg Kiepersol
Zulu Name : Umsengembuzi

Cussonia paniculata is native to Southern Africa (Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa (Cape Provinces, Northern Provinces, KwaZulu-Natal) and Swaziland) and occurs inland at altitudes up to 2 100 m. It is often found in rocky places from the mountains of the Karoo and Eastern Cape through KwaZulu-Natal and Free State into Gauteng and further north. It grows in crevices filled with natural organic humus and compost. It is commonly found near Johannesburg and Pretoria. It is frost-tolerant and drought resistant

Leaves are browsed by Kudu and domestic stock. Baboons eat the young shoots. Ripe fruit is eaten by Bulbuls, Louries, Starlings, Barbets and Mousebirds.

Medicinal Uses:
Decoctions are used to treat madness, convulsions, amenorrhoea, heart pains, venereal disease and pains of the uterus.

Mountain Cabbage tree - Cussonia paniculata subsp. paniculata 

There are two subspecies of Cussonia paniculata. The smaller Mountain Cabbage tree C. paniculata subsp. paniculata has leaflets without lobes and has a limited distribution in Eastern Cape (see pic above) and rarely exceeds a height of 3m. C. paniculata subsp. sinuata forms a larger tree with deeply lobed leaves and is more widespread. This is the form more commonly found in cultivation and the one I have in my garden. They can grow up to 15-20 ft. (4.7-6 m).

Cussonias belong to a large family Araliaceae, which include Ginseng, Ivy, and several indoor plants. It is also closely related to the parsley family (Apiacae) which includes several popular vegetables and herbs such as carrots, fennel and parsley.

Growing Cussonia paniculata
The best method of propagation is by means of seed harvested from fresh ripe fruits. Sow seed as soon as possible as it loses much of its viability within 3 months. However, seed sown in summer months will germinate faster (in about 4 weeks) than seed sown in winter (7 weeks to germination). Make sure seed trays are at least 15 cm in depth to allow the small tubers to form. Do not allow seed to become waterlogged or dry out.

Keep seed and seedlings in a semi-shaded area. Seedlings can be transplanted at about 4 months, but be very careful not to damage the fleshy roots when transplanting. The seeds should be planted in a well-drained mix of river sand and compost (70:30). Cover the seeds to a depth of 5mm with the soil and mulch. Keep moist during germination. First germination occurs after about 2 weeks.

When the seedlings get to a “2-leaf” stage (about 4 months), plant them out into larger black nursery bags or plastic pots.

When ready to plant the sapling into the ground, remember that this tree needs well-drained soil, some water and lots of sun. Once you've chosen your spot, position a 50 mm size x 1m length of plastic piping vertically near to the sapling, leaving +- 10cm above ground level. When watering around the sapling, also pour water into this pipe, as it will encourage the roots to grow downwards looking for the moisture below. Keep the ground around the sapling well mulched with dry leaves etc to assist with water retention above ground.

The C. paniculata is an ideal pot plant (plant it in a big pot in a well drained mix), or can be planted as a single specimen or in a cluster - the effect is always striking.

Growth rate is about 70cm per year, depending on the climate. The tree is drought hardy and is able to withstand heavy frost after 2 years. One can grow Cussonia paniculata from a cutting, but this is not advisable because it does not make the proper, fleshy, underground rootstock that it forms when grown from seed.

Cussonia spicata (Natal cabbage tree, 5m) is a shapely tree with the same interesting foliage as the Highveld version. In summer, green flowers are borne that look like 20cm long candles.

 April 2012

Even though most websites say the Cabbage Tree is an evergreen tree, that has not been the case with mine here in Tarlton (Gauteng, South Africa). Above is my Kiepersol in April, just before the winter, and below is my Kiepersol at the beginning of Spring - it was completely bare, looking almost dead, but now sprouting new leaves and heads.

 Sept 2012

Over the years it has changed from a single head to four or five, each consecutive winter frost taking its toll. Below you can see a new head forming on an old branch.

I planted my 50cm little Kiepersol in 2006 and within a year it had doubled in size. Two years later, in 2009, it had doubled in size again, growing to an impressive 3m within three years.



November 2011

These trees make a beautiful focal point with their attractive gnarled trunk and grey leaf. So if you have a spare sunny spot in your garden, consider getting one or two of these. They are actually shown off at their best in a rock and large boulder garden. 



  1. I love Kiepersols, and can't wait to try grow my own in my garden. Thanks for this informative post!

    1. My pleasure Claire, glad you liked it! Maybe you could send a link if you post pics!

  2. My kiepersol tree is riddled with small white worms. Its lost all its leaves and the branches break easily. Can I do anything to save it?

    1. Hi Anonymous, it is virtually impossible to tell what is wrong with your Kiepersol without seeing the branches or the worms that are attacking it. I would suggest that you take a few of them to your local nursery and try and get them identified so that you can get the appropriate treatment.

    2. Maybe try to give it a dose "Koinor" if not to late- It is a broad spectrum systemic pesticide, last all season as apposed to contact insecticides which has to be reapplied say after rains or whatever. Just don't go over the prescribed amount.

  3. How often should the cabbage tree be watered? It is spring and the tree is only 3" tall at the moment? Thank you!

    1. Hi Anna, once a week should be enough watering, depending on how good your dranage is.

  4. I mastekenly chopped off one of my kiepersol's main roots. It was quite close to the tree, less than n meter away, and it seems to be one of the main/thick roots. Is there a chance that the tree will survive? Thanks

  5. My cabbage tree is now very old and sadly has to be felled as it is leaning right over the neighbour's wall. It is at least 10m high maybe more. Very sad but I suspect they have a lifespan?

    1. Aaaah, yes, that is sad indeed Unknown. Unfortunately I do not know what their lifespan is, maybe you can Google it.

  6. I'm worried about my Kiepersol tree right next to my pool. I suspect the root system is pushing up all my brickwork around the one side of the pool. What IS the root system of this tree like? Does it spread quite awfully?

    1. Hi there, The Kiepersol does have an invasive root system and should not be planted close to walls, pools or paving as the roots will eventually cause damage to these structures.

      You have the following options:

      Leave it where it is and hope for the best.

      Dig trenches about half a meter from the pool on either side of the tree and cut off any roots that appear to be heading towards the pool. This should be done every two or three years to keep the roots from invading these areas. This should not damage the tree but there are no guarantees.

  7. Hi all . We had a storm here in Nelspruit tonight. A piece of my
    Kiepersol has broken off, about a metre
    Long with ahead of leaves, can I try and plant it if so what do i need to do
    Soul wise. Any advice please. Dave

    1. It's always terrible when a storm damages one of our trees Dave, sorry about that! But unfortunately you cannot plant the piece the broke off, just throw it away, your tree will recover and push out new heads.

    2. Thanks for the info. Kind regards.

  8. Thank you for this information I wanted to see about the roots of the kiepersol, my gardener dug out the root or ball under the tree and when I asked him about it he said he found it on the just lying there on the ground and he moved it to throw it away, my tree looks like it is staring to die now, from this I can see that he most probably took it for medicinal use at the cost of my tree. Thank you Neil Botes

    1. Oh no Neil! How terrible! I've also had my garden plundered for 'medicinal' purposes and, unfortunately, the only cure is to get rid of that gardener. Your Kiepersol will now most probably defintely die, but perhaps you can replace it (together with the gardener!)

  9. Hello, I am about to grow Cussonia spicata from seed ..can you tell me the differences from your Cussonia paniculata ?

  10. My tree is oozing gum and "juice" which stinks. The bark is loose, when you tap it, it sounds hollow. The leaves are green and the tree looks fine from a disance. Any idea what could be wrong with it?


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