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Monday, 22 April 2013

Growing the Highveld Cabbage Tree (Kiepersol) from seed

We're deep into Autumn here in South Africa and my Kiepersol is already starting to lose its leaves. Time to stop watering so much, but we've had quite a bit of rain over the last week, so hope it dries out before the real cold weather hits.

(This article is especially for George, who enquired about growing these lovely trees from seeds.)

This evergreen tree makes a beautiful focal point in a garden as it has an unusual shape, interesting gnarled bark and stunning, large, gray-green leaves. 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. The plant is native to southern Africa : Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa (Cape Provinces, Northern Provinces, KwaZulu-Natal) and Swaziland, where it grows till 2.000m of altitude in the savannah and the mountain slopes, usually in the rocks fissures.

 Spring 2012

Spring 2012, showing the new growth

The Highveld cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculata) is cultivated from seed, preferably fresh. 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.

The seeds should be planted in a well-drained mix of river sand and compost (70:30). Germination is erratic - the best results have been obtained with seeds that have been "passed" through birds (Look for the seeds underneath the tree....). First germination occurs after about 2 weeks.

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.

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).

Put a mix of rich soil and compost into your seedling trays and place the seeds into them. Cover the seeds to a depth of 5mm with the soil and mulch. Keep moist during germination.

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

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 or, if you are planting the seeds now, during winter, keep them indoors in a sunny place, but not sun shining through glass as this can burn the plants.

Transplanting is easy when small. Bigger trees require care with the hug root system that tends to rot upon transplanting if an injury occurs in digging it out.

When ready to plant the sapling into the ground, position a 50 mm size x 1m length of plastic piping vertically near to the sapling, leaving +- 5 cm 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.

Well drained soil, some water and lots of sun.

Maybe you could also try your hand at making a Bonsai with one of the seeds - they do well in Bonsai-form. Due to the stem, which can easily assume contorted forms, and the succulent roots, it is an appreciated subject for the collectors of bonsai.

 Cussonia paniculata Bonsai - Image Credit



  1. Very interesting!! Thanks. One of my favourite trees too....and I have so many! ;-)

    1. Thanks Liz. I'm thinking of oplanting another one, just have to find the right sunny spot!

  2. Very informative. Also love them. Only have one tiny one but see the area I have moved to has some big ones in the veld. Nkzn. Can you please tell me when they have seed and when its best to harvest the seed. Can't find this info anywhere. thank you. Suzan

    1. Hi Anonymous, the Kiepersol I have (Cussonia paniculata) bears small, green, stalked flowers from January to April; in short dense spikes, making up a large, branched inflorescence at the end of the trunk or branches. Flowers are followed by fleshy and purple-maroon fruits, which mature in May to June, when you can harvest them. The seedss hould be harvested and sown fresh. Wash the thin layer of pulp off the seed and sow immediately into seed trays in a fine seedling germination mixture. Cover lightly. Seed may take from three to eight weeks to germinate depending on the species. Seedlings are best left in the tray for the first year and transplanted into individual containers at the beginning of the second growing season. Hope you find this useful and thank you for the visit!

  3. Good day, I mistakenely chopped one of my mature kiepersol's main roots off. It is a very thick root. Is there a chance that the tree will survive

    1. Hi anonymous, there is a good chance that it will survive, especially if the rest of the root system is healthy and well-established. Trees naturally seal off wounds after pruning, though they don't actually heal them. Instead, fresh tissue grows to cover the wounds, protecting them from decay and disease. Give him some extra TLC in the next couple of weeks and a thorough helping of water might be beneficial. We all make mistakes, terrible, isn't it? I'll be holding thumbs for your Kiepersol.

  4. Please give me advice on False Gabbage Trees. I have planted a row of them only 500cm apart. Is this to close together. It is suppose to serve as a border between neighbours. Another concern - they are only 2 mt from the swimming pool and house. I am worried that the roots might do damage to the building and pool. They are still very young so I can still replant them somewhere else. Thank you very much. Monica South Africa (North Coast)

    1. Hi there Monica, if you're talking about Schefflera umbellifera (from the Ivy family), it is a semi-deciduous tree of 6-20m in height, with a tall, straight, usually un-branched main stem, 60cm in diameter, and a much-branched, rounded crown. As 6-20m is quite high, I cannot see that it will serve well as a border between neighbours. I think 500cm apart is a bit too close together, probably 2m apart would be a better bet. As I don't have any experience with this tree (it doesn't do too well in our frosty area), I really do not know whether it has an invasive root system or not. Probably your local nursery would be able to help you with that. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Pretty good post. I have just stumbled upon your blog and enjoyed reading your blog posts very much. I am looking for new posts to get more precious info. Big thanks for the useful info. Como se toma la semilla de Brasil


  7. Help. My Kiepersol I bought from a nursery, The tree rot. the stem was full of water and was full of puss. If cut the stem off till the ground will it grow again or is little tree lost forever? Please help



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