Celtis africana (White stinkwood)
Plant image

There is no doubt that this is an excellent tree to use in a landscape. It gives shade in summer, and is fast and easy to grow under a wide range of conditions.

Name & classification

Botanical name:
Celtis africana

Common names:
White stinkwood (E)
Witstinkhout (A)
umVumvu (X)
uSinga lwesalukazi (Z)
Modutu (Sotho & Tswane)
Mpopano (V)

Plant family:

Plant categories:

SA tree no:
Zimbabwe tree no:

Name derivation & history:
The genus name Celtis is the Latin name used by Pliny, and is also the ancient Greek name for one of the plants reputed to be the lotus of the ancients. The specific epithet africana means African. Celtis africana thus means, the African celtis.

Celtis africana is commonly known as white stinkwood, because of the unpleasant smell of the freshly cut wood, and it's pale colour. It is very unfortunate that it has this common name as it causes confusion with the true stinkwood, Ocotea bullata. These two species do not look similar, nor are they closely related. Ocotea bullata belongs in the laurel family (Lauraceae).



Leaf habit:

8 to 12 metres (up to 25 m in a forest habitat)

8 to 12 metres

Plant shape:
This beautiful deciduous tree grows up to 25 metres tall in a forest habitat, but in a garden it can be treated as a medium-sized tree, expected to reach a height of up to 12 metres. In the wild, where it is growing in an exposed, rocky position it may be nothing more than a shrub,but well-grown specimens will have a single, straight bole branching to form a dense, semi-circular canopy.

Leaf description:
In spring Celtis africana is very lovely, with its light green, tender, new leaves that contrast beautifully with the pale bark. The leaves are simple, alternate, triangular in shape with three distinct veins from the base, and the margin is toothed for the upper two-thirds. The new leaves are bright, fresh green and hairy, and they turn darker green and become smoother as they mature.

Flower description:
The flowers appear in spring (August to October). They are small, greenish, star-like and inconspicuous. Separate male and female flowers are produced on the same tree. A cluster of male flowers is borne at the base of the new leaf, and the female or bisexual flowers are in the axils of the leaves. The flowers are pollinated by bees.

Flower colour:

Flowering months:
August to October

Fruit description:
Masses of small, rounded, berry-like fruits on 13 mm long stalks follow the flowers, from October to February. When they turn yellow-brown to black they are ripe.

Wood description:
The wood of Celtis africana is white to yellowish in colour and of medium hardness. It has no commercial value.

Bark or stem description:
The trunk of Celtis africana is easy to distinguish by its smooth, pale grey to white bark. It may be loosely peeling in old trees and often has horizontal ridges.

Other distinctive features:


Natural distribution:
Celtis africana is common and widespread in South Africa. It occurs in a wide range of habitats from the coast up to 2,100 metres, from the Cape Peninsula northwards through South Africa to Ethiopia.

It grows in dense forest, on rocky outcrops, in bushveld, in open grassland, on mountain slopes, on coastal dunes, and along river banks and in kloofs.

Water requirements:
Waterwise (little water required)

Frost tolerance:

Light conditions:

Other Characteristics

Drought resistant
Has aggressive roots
Suitable for growing in containers
Suitable for bonsai

Edibility & Toxicity

We have no confirmation that any part of this plant is edible
We have no confirmation that any part of this plant is toxic, however we urge caution as this information may be incorrect.


Interaction with physical surroundings:
Celtis africana leaves are browsed by cattle and goats, and are food for the larvae of the long-nosed butterfly.

Many birds like rameron pigeons, willow warblers, black-eyed bulbuls, mousebirds and crested barbets feed on the fruits and disperse the seeds.
Attracts birds
Attracts insects
Attracts mammals

Other information

Uses & Cultural aspects:
The wood of Celtis africana is white to yellowish in colour and of medium hardness. It is tough and strong, and polishes well, but is difficult to work. It is a good general timber suitable for making planks, shelving, yokes, tent-bows and furniture. The African people have always used it to make a variety of household articles. It is also thought to have magical properties. The wood is mixed with crocodile fat as a charm against lightning, and many people believe that it has the power over evil and that pegs of wood driven into the ground will keep witches away.

Celtis africana is fast and easy to grow. It is fairly drought resistant and can withstand frost. It does best in good, rich, deep soil with plenty of water in summer. This is an excellent tree for large gardens and parks, and has also proved to be a successful street and avenue tree or as shade trees in car parks.

In the garden, it makes an ideal shade tree, particularly when planted on the northern or western side of the house, where the shade provided cools the house in summer, yet allows the sun through to heat the house in winter. It also works well as a specimen plant in a tub in a courtyard garden, and makes a beautiful bonsai subject.

Freshly collected seed germinates easily. Seeds collected from the ground are usually infested by insects, so it is best to harvest from the tree. The flesh from the berry is best cleaned off and the seeds should be sown in a flat seedling tray filled with river sand and well decomposed compost (5 parts river sand to 1 part compost). The seeds should be covered with a thin layer of river sand and kept moist. The trays should be placed in a warm but shaded area. Germination will take 15 to 30 days with an expected germination of 70%. Transplant the seedlings into good, rich soil and give them plenty of water and they will grow fairly fast, putting on 1 to 2 metres per year.

Similar species:
Celtis africana closely resembles, and can be easily confused with Trema orientalis. Trema is not as widely distributed, nor as tolerant of tough conditions as Celtis africana. Also, trema leaves tend to be larger and more slender, serrated nearly from the base, and the female flowers and fruits are carried on much shorter stalks than those of Celtis africana. Furthermore, related exotic species, Celtis australis (nettle tree), Celtis sinensis (Chinese hackberry) and Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese elm), are cultivated in gardens in South Africa and do occasionally escape into natural areas where they may be confused with the indigenous species.

The genus Celtis contains about 50 species widely spread throughout the warm temperate regions of the world. Only three species are indigenous to southern Africa namely Celtis gomphophylla (false white stinkwood), Celtis mildbraedii (Natal white stinkwood) and Celtis africana. In southern Africa there are 5 species in this family, the three Celtis species, Trema orientalis (pigeon wood) and Chaetachme aristata (false white pear). This family is closely related to the elm family Ulmaceae, which is distributed mainly in the north temperate regions of the world.

South African National Biodiversity Institute, South Africa.

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