Combretum erythrophyllum (River Bushwillow)
Plant image

A fast growing medium to large tree that produces creamy flowers and beautiful 4-winged fruits. Straight or multi-stemmed with dense spreading crown.

Name & classification

Botanical name:
Combretum erythrophyllum

Common names:
River Bushwillow, River Combretum (English)
Riviervaderlandswilg (Afrikaans)
uMdubu (isiZulu)
Modubunoka, Modubu (Pedi)

Plant family:

Plant categories:

SA tree no:
Zimbabwe tree no:

Name derivation & history:
The specific name erythrophyllum means red leaf in Greek and was given by Burchell. He based it on the name roodeblat used by the inhabitants of the northwestern Cape for this species.



Leaf habit:
Evergreen to semi-deciduous (depending on conditions)

7 to 12 metres

Exhibits interesting autumn leaf colour

Plant shape:
Medium to large tree that is often multi-stemmed

Leaf description:
The leaves are simple, subopposite or in whorls of three, and elliptic with tapering base and apex (50 x 20 mm). The upper surface is usually without hairs, while the under surface has hairs. The petiole is short and stipules are absent. Inconspicuous scales cover both surfaces.[2] The leaf's midrib and lateral veins are very conspicuous. It is deciduous, and the leaves turn yellow and red in autumn (the specific name erythrophyllum means red leaf).

Flower description:
The cream or yellowish, bisexual flowers are produced in dense, rounded axillary spikes, about 10 cm in diameter and up to 3 cm long. They appear after the first leaves in spring or early summer

Flower colour:
Cream to pale yellow

Flowering months:
September - November

Fruit description:
Fruit are small, 4-winged and a greenish brown colour, ripening to yellowish brown and drying to a honey-brown. They remain on the tree for a long time and are reputed to be poisonous, causing hiccups.

Wood description:
The coarse wood shows little distinction between sapwood and heartwood.

Bark or stem description:
The bark is a pale brown, smooth, but flaking with age to expose grey patches, which give it a mottled appearance. Knob-like outgrowths commonly occur in older trees, giving them an old, gnarled look.


Natural distribution:
This species is found in the northeastern part of South Africa, from Zimbabwe in the north down to Eastern Cape in the south with a thin line following the Orange River westward.

This is a riverine species, occurring alongside rivers or away from rivers where sufficient groundwater is available. It is found at almost all altitudes and can therefore tolerate a fair amount of climatic variation and diverse soils such as heavy black loam, sandy riverine alluvium and granite sand.

Water requirements:
Waterwise (little water required)

Frost tolerance:

Light conditions:
Sun; semi-shade; shade

Other Characteristics

Drought resistant

Edibility & Toxicity

We have no confirmation that any part of this plant is edible
Poisonous fruit
Poisonous roots


Interaction with physical surroundings:
Giraffe and elephant browse the tree.

The seeds, although said to be generally poisonous, are eaten by Pied Barbets.

Wasps sometimes lay their eggs through the fruit wall. The newly hatched larvae then feed on the seeds. Birds such as the Southern Black Tit tap each fruit, open those that contain grubs and eat them.

Combretums are pollinated by various kinds of insects, including bees.

They have adapted to wind dispersal by developing a wing-like fruit structure that can carry the seed with the help of air currents or wind.
Attracts birds
Attracts insects
Attracts mammals

Other information

Uses & Cultural aspects:
The gum has interesting properties. It is non-toxic, elastic, producing a non-cracking varnish.

The roots, which some regard as poisonous, are used as a purgative and to treat venereal diseases.

Ornaments, cattle troughs and grain mortars are made from the wood.

A dark, rich brown dye is extracted from the roots.

The dried fruits also work well in flower arrangements.

This is a popular shade tree, surprisingly drought and frost resistant and fast growing under good conditions, reaching 4 to 6 metres in three years. It has the attraction of being one of the more responsive and adaptable bushwillow species, even surviving in the Karoo gardens where its autumn colours are even more brilliant than in milder climates.

This species sets lots of seed and seedlings are often to be found under the trees. It grows easily from fresh, non parasitized seed which should be soaked for some hours before planting. Seedlings appear 7 to 13 days after planting. The seedlings are frost resistant after two years.

Pests & diseases:
Although parasitism on this species is low, the following general Combretum pests can cause problems: aphids might attack plants in summer; cutworms can cause damage to seedlings planted in outside seedbeds; red spider mites may attack plants, especially if they do not get enough sun.

South African National Biodiversity Institute, South Africa.
Photo Guide to Trees of Southern Africa; Braam van Wyk, Piet van Wyk, Ben-Erik van Wyk; Briza Publications (2008).

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