Cunonia capensis

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Botanical Name
Cunonia capensis
Cunoniaceae -

The Wild-alder family

koo-NO-nee-uh ka-PEN-sis
Common Name(s)
English: Butter-spoon Tree; Red Alder; Red Els
Afrikaans: Botterlepelboom; Botterlepeltjie; Elsehout; Roode Elseboom; Rooi-els
IsiXhosa: Igqwakra; Umqwashube
IsiZulu: Umaphethu; Umhlalane; Umlulama; Umlulamomkhulu
Plant Group
  • Tree A woody, self-supporting perennial plant usually with a single main stem and generally growing more than 6 meters tall.
Plant Size
  • Small
    Tree4m to 8m
    Shrub50cm to 75cm
    Perennial/ground cover10cm to 20cm
    Bulb20cm to 30cm
    Succulent10cm to 20cm
  • Canopy Shade Canopy shade is found below closely grown trees where some light filters through. Ideal for the protection of herbaceous plants.
  • Light or Dappled Shade Found below trees with sparse, open foliage. Ideal for the protection of herbaceous plants.
  • Partial Shade The area is in shade for part of the day and in full sun for part of the day.
  • Sun The area is in full sun for all or most of the day, all year round.
General Information
  • Drought Tolerance: Moderate The plant is moderately adapted to arid conditions and can survive short periods of drought and high temperatures without extra water.
  • Evergreen Plants that have leaves all year round.
  • Fragrant / Aromatic These plants posses a strong, usually pleasant odour.
  • Frost: Half-hardy The plant is able to survive low temperatures and some frost but requires protection against severe frost.
  • Roots Non-invasive Safe to plant near pools, paving, walls or buildings.
  • Water Loving Plants need a regular supply of water and must not be allowed to dry out for any length of time.
Specific Information

Cunonia capensis is beautiful and versatile, evergreen specimen tree with dark green, serrated, glossy leaves and contrasting reddish leaf-stalks. The yellow and reddish growth tips are enclosed by two large stipules pressed together forming a spoon-like shape, from which it gets its common name 'Butterspoon Tree'. A relatively small tree, growing well in both sun and shade, it has a non-invasive root system and can be very fast growing.

The Red Alder does not grow well in hot and dry conditions, requiring a moist, mild climate and a generous supply of water. This water-loving tree is particularly suitable for marshy, water-logged gardens, to enhance natural water features, to grace streams and dams and is a good choice for large pots on a patio where it will grow beautifully for years. Trees planted in drier areas will need frequent watering, and shelter from sun, heat, cold/hot winds and frost.

The large bottlebrush-shaped flowers that appear in autumn are sweetly scented and attract insects and butterflies. The fruits are small, brown, two-horned capsules which release very fine, sticky seed.

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spikes packed densely with small flowers with long stamens forming a bottlebrush-like head

  • Summer to Autumn Plants will seldom bloom for the entire season as given in the list, but should flower during a period within these parameters.
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Growth Rate
  • Fast Specifying growth rate can be very misleading as there is considerable variation of growth rate depending on type and species of plant, available water, supplementary feeding, mulching and general care, as well as the plants suitability and adaptability to the garden environment.
  • Very Fast Specifying growth rate can be very misleading as there is considerable variation of growth rate depending on type and species of plant, available water, supplementary feeding, mulching and general care, as well as the plants suitability and adaptability to the garden environment.
Plant Uses
  • Accent or Focal Point A plant used to attract the attention because of its colour or form.
  • Attracts bees, butterflies or other insects This plant attracts insects which can be food for birds or other creatures in your garden.
  • Attracts Birds This plant will attract birds.
  • Container Trees, shrubs and ornamental species that can adapt to growing in a restricted environment.
  • Suitable for coastal gardens Plants adapted to dry, sandy soil, forceful wind, limited rainfall and intense sunlight.
  • Suitable for smaller gardens Such plants do not have invasive root systems, remain small or controllable and can often be grown in containers.
  • Water Features These plants may have dramatic, lush foliage or graceful form. They do not shed excessive leaves and do not have invasive root systems.
  • Wetland

    An area of land that is saturated with fresh or salt water and is a distinct ecosystem, with plants and wild life specifically adapted to and dependent on, a bog, fen, march or swamp.

  • Wild Garden An indigenous garden planted for the benefit of wildlife and birds. Provides food, water, a variety of mini-biomes and no poisonous chemicals are used.
Distribution and Habitat

from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, and into Mozambique, along the coast and adjacent inland areas in Afromontane forests and moist areas, especially along watercourses

Planting Suggestions

Young plants will need plenty of water and a sheltered aspect, in rich soil with moisture holding qualities. For very fast growth a regular program of deep watering should be followed. Top dressing with compost and a thick application of mulch will do much to stimulate quick and healthy growth. Keep young plants shaded until they are well established. Cunonia capensis can be propagated from seed sown in deep seed trays and covered very lightly with finely sifted seedling mix, and from cuttings taken in early summer. 

The old method of digging a deep hole and filling it with soil and compost has resulted in many trees failing to thrive, dying, rotting at the base or worse still, falling over in later years due to poor root development.  Refer to the following sites for the best method of planting trees: Planting a tree

International Society of Arboriculture: New Tree Planting

Tree People: Plant the right way

For those of you who have a clay problem try:

Rod's Garden: Planting in clay soil

Medicinal Uses

The tree is reportedly used for treating nervous complaints.

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