Indigenous landscaping & garden design
in Johannesburg & Pretoria, South Africa

A highveld grassland, one of the many areas of Gauteng that has become infested with pompom weed

As custodians of a five-hectare plot of indigenous grassland, we are always looking at ways to protect the biodiversity on our property, and one of these ways is to remove alien invasive species. Like many properties, ours originally had a number of invasives that are potentially damaging to the environment; plants with few native enemies, that proliferate freely, and that out-compete the natural vegetation, thereby reducing biodiversity.

One of these species is pompom weed (Eupatorium macrocephalum = Campuloclinium macrocephalum), a particularly aggressive perennial invader that can look quite 'pretty' in full bloom, but is damaging to South Africa's grasslands. It is a summer-growing perennial that can reach a height of up to 1.3m. The plant reproduces by seed that is dispersed on the wind, and a single plant can soon become hundreds if not removed.

Pompom weed has become a common sight on Gauteng's road verges

Various methods have been proposed to control pompom weed, including herbicides and biological control, and for land where Pompom has completely taken over - think a 'sea of pink' where once there was only an indigenous grassland - these might be the preferred solutions. But for properties where there is still a manageable population - a few plants here, a patch over there - mechanical control is simple and effective, albeit labour intensive.

Properties such as this still a have manageable population of pompom weed and are candidates for mechanical removal

It's important to mention that when using mechanical control (manual removal) one needs to avoid disturbing the soil as much as possible. Aggressive measures such as large-scale tilling are not only ineffective, but can also harm native species growing on that land. Disturbing the soil also provides space for other weeds to grow, especially if you have annuals such as Bidens spp. (blackjacks), Tagetes minuta (khakibos) or Conyza bonariensis (hairy fleabane). This is why it is recommended to cut back such species at their base, rather than pulling them out. In the case of pompom weed however, cutting it at the base does not kill the plant, and usually encourages new growth, often with more flower heads - which can leave land owners with a bigger problem than they initially had. To remove pompom in its entirety one needs to remove the root crown from below the ground, as this is where the roots, leaves, and flower stalks develop from.

Successful mechanical (manual) removal of pompom weed requires removing the root crown, circled above in red

Removing the stalk (highlighted in green) is useful as a temporary measure to delay flowering of pompom weed, but it does not kill the plant. As with the previous image, successful mechanical removal requires removing the root crown, again circled here in red

Here follows a description of our preferred method of mechanical removal of pompom weed, using the flat side of a blunt pick, which we find easier and less intrusive than using a hoe, mattock, fork or spade:

1) Aim the pick about 5-10cm away from the plant (depending on its size), and dig it into the soil at an angle, so that the blade of the pick is below the root crown of the plant. How deep depends on the size of the plant - larger plants require a lower depth, whilst smaller plants usually only require a few centimetres.

2) With the pick head still in the ground, gently loosen the soil by leveraging the pick until you can easily pull the plant out. If the plant 'resists' then loosen the soil a bit more.

3) If the stalk breaks off without the root crown attached, then repeat the process to see if you can find the root crown and remove it, otherwise the plant will regrow.

4) Once you have removed the root crown, gently stamp the ground back down into place

5) If the plant has buds or is in flower or has seeds, then cut off all flowerheads, bag and destroy them. If the plant has yet to flower, then you can leave it lying on top of the ground, where it will soon wither and die.

Some points to keep in mind:

  • If you accidently break off the stem without the root crown attached, try searching for the root crown and remove it. Failing this you will need to wait for it to grow back, which may be in a few weeks or the following season.
  • Small pieces of the root crown can easily grow back. If you see roots still in the ground then check them to see if there are any pieces of root crown still attached - a small knobbly bit at the top of the root.
  • In heavily disturbed areas - such as man-made mounds - the root crown may be many centimetres below the surface. In this case you will need to carefully dig the soil to find the root crown and remove it.
  • If the pompom weed bears dry flowerheads carefully remove them, bag and destroy them before removing the plant. Attempting to remove the plant with dry flowerheads bearing seeds may cause those seeds to disperse.
  • Very small pompom weed seedlings can be removed using a hand-weeding tool.
  • If the pompom weed is growing beside or 'inside' another indigenous plant, such as a bulb or grass, try to remove the pompom without disturbing the other plant. If you do have to lift both plants then remove the pompom and replace the desired plant back in the excavated ground, gently firming it into place. Water lightly around this plant if the ground is particularly dry.
  • Take care to identify pompom weed correctly - especially if the plants are small - as there are a number of indigenous grassland species that look similar when they are young (see images below).
  • If you have time, sow seeds from surrounding plants - such as grasses or bulbs - into the spaces left by the removed plants. A healthy grassland is likely to already have a large soil seed bank of such species, but areas that may be heavily infested with pompom weed will benefit from additional seed to help speed up the recovery process of the area. Locally indigenous pioneer, sub-climax and climax grasses can be used, along with seed from native non-grass species.
  • Removing pompom mechanically requires consistent effort during the active growing season, (October-March). Plants are easily overlooked, so walk your property at least once a week to search for and remove plants.
  • It is easier to detect emerging plants early in the growing season in areas burnt as part of a veld management strategy.
  • Lastly, it is worth supporting your neighbours in their pompom weed removal efforts. As the seeds are dispersed by wind there is a possibility that unmanaged populations can spread from surrounding properties. If you have time and resources, offer assistance to your neighbours to help them remove it from their land.

Below are more images to assist you.

A young pompom weed (circled in red) can look similar to native species such as Coleus pentherii (circled in green)

Another pompom weed circled in red

Scan the ground carefully for pompom weed seedlings

Pompom weed seeds are easily dispersed. If plants already have flowers or seed try to cut off, bag and destroy the flowers and seed heads before removing the plant

A beautiful five-hectare plot of indigenous grassland from which thousands of pompom weed plants were removed. This was achieved by two people walking the property for a few hours each day, 3-4 times a week, over two growing seasons (Oct-Mar), and manually removing plants as and when they were found. Regular monitoring and removal (if new plants are discovered) is ongoing.

With the recent drought in South Africa, homeowners have become more savvy in the way they use water in their homes. Many have installed rainwater harvesting systems, whilst others have installed boreholes to utilise groundwater. These measures go some way to making us water-wise, but despite these measures homeowners may still wonder what to do about their gardens. Many gardens still incorporate one or more exotics that may require higher than normal watering cycles, and this is where the use of indigenous, water-wise planting can be beneficial. It is sometimes assumed that water-wise planting means only using succulents, but this is not necessarily the case, and there are many plant species that may not be considered 'succulent', but are nonetheless beneficial in their own way to help you conserve water in your garden. Groundcovers, for example, can spread to cover the soil, thereby helping to conserve water by reducing evaporation. Deciduous bulbs and trees go dormant in winter, and can naturally survive periods of drought. And many grassland species are inherently water-wise, so incorporating these in your garden will help lower your water requirements.

Before we look at a list of possible plants, here are some other changes you can make to your garden to make it a more water-wise space:

  • Reduce the size of your lawn, or create a lawn-free garden
    Lawns may require up to 25mm of water per week in summer (in Gauteng) in order to keep them lush, whilst a water-wise bed will require much less water. So reducing the size of your lawn and changing it to an indigenous garden bed is a great way to reduce your water requirements.
  • Zone your plants based on their water requirements
    If you are going to make changes to your garden, try to zone your plants based on their water requirements. For example, if you want a rose garden or a food garden, dedicate specific areas for these plants so that you can water those spaces accordingly.
  • Incorporate already existing natural habitats into your new layout
    If you already have an existing indigenous grassland or woodland on your property, incorporate it into your new landscape. Think of it as your own private nature reserve, or an exclusion zone for wildlife. To make it accessible cut back some of the foliage and add pathways and seating areas so you can journey through and enjoy the space.
  • Use mulch and do not turn the soil or rake up leaves
    Mulch and fallen leaves act as a 'blanket' to protect your soil, helping with water retention, and eventually breaking down to become compost. Some people worry that leaves look 'messy', and ask their gardeners to rake them up and dig the soil. But this leads to poor quality soil, resulting in a lower water infiltration rate, drainage problems, soil erosion, and dust around the home. Instead of raking up leaves and digging the soil, leave the leaves in place (as happens naturally in our wild habitats), or cover the bare soil with groundcovers.
  • Choose locally indigenous plant species
    Locally indigenous plants - such as those growing in a nearby nature reserve - are already adapted to your climate, and once established will require little supplemental watering. So designing a garden using locally indigenous species will allow you to create a wonderfully water-wise space, as well as increasing the biodiversity of your area.

To get you started, here are some well-known South African plants worth considering when changing your ‘thirsty’ garden into a water-wise space. Keep in mind that these species occur in different parts of the country, so may not be locally indigenous to your area. Use the list as a guide, and remember that South Africa is home to a rich diversity of plants. My goal is not to limit your selection, but rather to get you started on your indigenous garden journey. Once gardening becomes an obsession (yes, it can!), speak to your local nursery about locally indigenous species you can add your home.

Herewith are 15 water-wise plants for your garden:

Aptenia cordifolia

This beautiful succulent groundcover is a favourite for retaining walls and dry patches of soil where other plants may struggle. It is rich-green in colour, with dainty pinkish-red flowers and can spread rapidly, helping to cover an area in a short space of time. It can be used to stabilise soil in areas which may be susceptible to run-off or erosion, or can be used as a lawn replacement for difficult to reach areas. A golden-coloured variety is also available.

Dietes spp.

These grass-like perennials have become ubiquitous on South African verges and in gardens. They are hardy, and once established require little watering or maintenance. A few varieties are available, including Dietes grandiflora with white flowers, Dietes bicolor with yellow flowers, and Dietes iridioides for shaded areas of the garden. They can be mass-planted to create beautiful backdrops to a bed, or used as filler shrubs for dry areas in the garden.

Tulbaghia violacea

Tulbaghia (Wild Garlic) is one of the hardiest species on this list, and has become popular with gardeners and landscape architects around the country. It has a long-flowering period, and when mass planted creates a stunning display with its pinkish-mauve flowers. It can survive extended dry spells as well as heavy rain, and can even be planted in a wetland to take up nutrients from the water. It is generally a fuss-free plant provided it is used in a sunny to semi-shade position, and clumps can be split after a few years and used elsewhere in the garden.

Agapanthus praecox

Agapanthus is one of the most popular plants in South Africa, and is cultivated world-wide. The beautiful blue or white blooms look stunning during the summer flowering season, and help to liven up an otherwise dull area of the garden. The evergreen foliage provides colour throughout the year, and the plants can withstand a fair amount of neglect. Once again, Agapanthus forms clumps, which can be split after a few years and reused elsewhere in the garden.

Coleus neochilus (formerly Plectranthus neochilus)

This aromatic succulent perennial is ideal for a rockery or retaining wall where it holds a neat shape and provides a wonderful colour contrast with its grey-green foliage. Purple-blue lobster-shaped flowers add to its appeal. Cuttings root easily and can be used elsewhere in the garden as filler groundcovers, or mass planted to form a beautiful border to a bed. It is hardy and water-wise, and care should be taken not to over-water it which may result in the plant becoming ‘leggy’ and losing its neat shape.

Carpobrotus spp.

This hardy, evergreen succulent has become popular in landscape architecture, and is frequently used as a replacement for lawn on verges. At the coast it is used to stabilise sand dunes, and can be grown in areas where other plants may struggle. Cuttings root easily, and the triangular shaped leaves and fruit are favoured by birds, especially Grey Go-away-birds (Grey Louries). It generally prefers sunny to semi-shaded areas, where it will spread rapidly to cover bare soil. Common species include C. edulis with yellow flowers, and C. deliciosus with pinkish-purple flowers.

Aloe spp.

Aloes are hardy, beautiful species that can be used as shrubs or as structural plants in water-wise gardens. Numerous species exist in Southern Africa, and a number of hybrids have been cultivated for the market. Popular naturally occurring species include Aloe arborescens (Krantz Aloe), Aloe marlothii (Mountain Aloe), and Aloe Ferox (Bitter Aloe). Note that many Aloe species suffer from a leaf scale which can turn the plants white, and homeowners should be proactive in removing this. Snout beetle is also a common problem, as it can damage leaves and the stem of the plants. To prevent these problems avoid overwatering your aloes, and consult your local nursery for eco-friendly solutions.

Strelitzia reginae

Strelitzia reginae is one of South Africa’s favourite exports, and is cultivated worldwide – it has even become the official flower of Los Angeles! Strelitzias are hardy, and once established can withstand long dry spells and a fair amount of neglect. Plants can be grown in both sun and shade, and provide a beautiful structural display when in flower. Flowers resemble the head of a crane, hence the common name Crane Flower or Bird of Paradise, and both the leaves and flowers can be used in a cut-flower display.

Dymondia margaretae

Dymondia is a very low-growing groundcover, and although it requires some water to establish itself, it is ideal for areas where homeowners want to replace lawn with a low-maintenance, water wise solution. The grey-green foliage provides a wonderful effect, and yellow daisy-like flowers add to the display. Dymondia works well between pavers in a sunny area, or planted in a bare patch of soil in the front of a bed. It is drought resistant and will tolerate a small amount of foot traffic – all in all a wonderful species for the water-conscious gardener.

Asparagus densiflorus

Asparagus groundcovers are hardy, drought-resistant bedding plants. They prefer semi-shade conditions, but will survive in full sun or shade, and can be used to good effect in a planter on a patio. The ‘Meyersii’ variety (Foxtail Fern) is perhaps the most well-known of the cultivars, with its fox-tail like fronds, whilst the ‘Sprengeri’ variety is useful as a spreading groundcover to help prevent soil erosion.

Sansevieria spp.

Popularly known as ‘Mother-in-laws’ Tongue, Sansevieria species are hardy plants ideally suited to shade conditions. They are frequently used indoors, and recent studies have shown that they can act effectively as air purifiers. The exotic species/varieties have become popular, but South African homeowners should look towards using some of the local species, such as S. hyacinthoides, S. aethiopica, and S. pearsonii. Large clumps can be split and reused elsewhere in the garden or in spare containers on the patio or indoors.

Ledebouria petiolata (formerly Drimiopsis maculata)

The Leopard Lily is a deciduous bulb that makes a wonderful groundcover if mass planted. It prefers semi-shade conditions, but will survive in sunny areas and can handle a fair amount of neglect. Use it to liven up a dry, semi-shaded corner of your garden, or add it to a mixed container. It has beautiful spotted leaves (hence the common name), and produces tiny white flowers on long stalks which are pollinated by moths at night.

Bulbine frutescens

This clump-forming groundcover has tubular succulent green leaves, giving it a grass-like appearance. It spreads quickly, producing star-shaped yellow or orange flowers borne on tall spikes. It can be mass planted for a water wise border, or added to a verge to cover bare patches of soil. Cuttings can be taken and planted at the base of young trees to assist with water retention and to help prevent accidental damage from weed-eaters.

Chlorophytum comosum

Popularly known as Hen-and-chickens, Chlorophytum comosum can be used to good effect to cover bare soil in semi-shaded conditions in your garden. Mass planted they make a stunning display, and work beautifully on a semi-shaded embankment or on a retaining wall. The variegated varieties also brighten up those dull spots in the garden, whilst the green variety adds a beautiful, lush forest effect. Some homeowners prefer to cut the ‘chickens’ off the mother plant, but it is often preferable to leave these in place as they will soon root themselves and help to spread the plant around your garden, thereby helping to prevent soil erosion and aiding water retention.

Indigenous grasses

And finally, South Africa is home to a diverse array of indigenous grasses, many of which are some of our hardiest and most water-wise plants. Some grasses can be difficult to cultivate, but those that are available in nurseries usually make beautiful additions to residential and commercial gardens. Popular species include Aristida junciformis and Melinis repens (pictured above), but there are many others, so if you are wanting to create a water-wise garden then consider visiting your local indigenous nursery and trying a few species out. Apart from being water-wise, grasses will also give your garden a new foliage texture, adding contrast and a sense of movement as they shift in the breeze.

South Africa is home to a magnificent variety of indigenous trees and shrubs, and with a move by homeowners towards the use of indigenous plants, it has become ever more important to choose species that will work in your home. Whilst many indigenous species are now being planted in gardens around Gauteng, not all of them are suitable for small gardens where walls, paving and house foundations need to be taken into account. Indeed, in my day-to-day consultations with clients I frequently come across gardens where incorrect species or incorrect planting techniques have been used, often leaving the homeowner with costly expenses to fell problem trees or repair the damage to property (read about trees breaking walls here). Even seemingly innocuous exotics such as palms and yuccas can become problems over time, either putting pressure on walls as their stems bulge, or dropping heavy fronds and seed pods which can break roof tiles! Fortunately, there are some beautiful indigenous alternatives that are ideal for small gardens, so to help you along we've created a list of the top 10 indigenous trees for small gardens on the highveld, with a selection below this list of species that would also be worthwhile. Please note that the list is entirely subjective, and we'd welcome your feedback on the selection. Here are the criteria used to compile the list:

  • The tree should be used more often as a tree, rather than as a shrub. i.e. we've excluded species that regularly feature as trees in tree books, but which we prefer to utilise as shrubs for our landscaping clients, e.g. Mackaya Bella, Freylinia tropica
  • The tree should not be too slow growing. We generally find that our clients prefer trees that will reach a respectable height in a reasonable time. Note however that the terms 'fast' and 'slow' in the context of trees are relative terms. Indigenous highveld trees usually grow at a rate of between half a metre to a metre in a year, so patience is required when growing trees.
  • The tree should be moderately frost tolerant (although most trees should be protected from frost when they are young)
  • The tree should have a non-aggressive root system. This is usually a critical factor when planting in a small garden, although we still recommend that trees be planted at least 1-3 metres away from walls, foundations and paving.
  • We specifically excluded trees that are usually planted for their structural appeal, such as Cussonia sp. and Aloidendron barberae, the Tree Aloe (although both these species are also unsuitable for small gardens due to aggressive roots systems and bulging stems respectively.)

Please keep in mind that for very small gardens, e.g. 10 square metres or less, you may want to consider alternatives to the list below, or to grow your trees in pots. Use the list as a guide and base your decisions on the spread and height that each species will eventually provide.

Herewith are our top 10 indigenous trees for small gardens on the South African highveld:

Heteropyxis natalensis (Lavender Tree)

With its pale bark, beautiful shape, and semi-deciduous foliage, the Lavender Tree, Heteropyxis natalensis, is one of our favourite small garden trees. It has an ornamental shape, and is an ideal replacement for the exotic Silver Birch or ubiquitous Leopard Tree (Caesalpinnea ferrea). Lavender Trees are slower growing than other species on this list, but with patience they offer the homeowner a beautiful specimen for their gardens. In the wild they are frequently found on rocky hillsides, and in Gauteng some beautiful specimens exist in the Tweedespruit conservancy on the outskirts of Cullinan.

Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach)

This magnificent semi-deciduous tree can grow to over 12 metres in ideal conditions, but usually reaches between 8 - 10 metres. It has beautiful light grey-green foliage, and is ideal if you do not want your garden to appear too dark. The Kiggelaria has male and female parts on separate trees, so if you want a tree that provides fruit for birds you must choose a female tree from your nursery (not an easy task for your nurseryman if the specimens are small. Try to look for the small grey-green fruit cases during the fruiting season, February-July, or for the arrangement of flowers - flowers on male plants are clustered together, whilst flowers on female plants are individually arranged) Female/fruiting trees attract a host of birds that feed on the fleshy seeds within the fruit casing, thus turning your garden into a natural wildlife haven.

Both male and female plants attract the Acraea horta butterfly which lays its eggs on the underside of the leaves. When the eggs hatch an eruption of black caterpillars appear, which in turn attract insect eating birds, especially cuckoos (look out for Diederik Cuckoos). Some homeowners become despondent when the caterpillars attack their plants, and some even resort to using pesticides to keep them at bay! But do not despair if you see caterpillars on this particular plant - this is a natural life-cycle for the tree and it will soon recover with a fresh set of leaves. The Kiggelaria is relatively fast growing, provides excellent screening, and has a sturdy trunk. All in all, an excellent choice for the small garden.

Buddleja saligna (False Olive)

The Buddleja saligna, False Olive, has become one of the most popular indigenous trees in Gauteng, and with good reason. At 1 - 1.5 metres growth per year it is one of the fastest growers on this list. The benefit to the homeowner is that this species can reach a height of 3 - 4 metres in just a few years, thus providing excellent screening in the shortest possible time. However, being fast does have its disadvantages. Sometimes the Buddleja can look a bit 'scruffy' after a few years, and because the branches are not as strong as other species, they often tend to droop after heavy rains, especially if they are carrying masses of white flowers. Despite these potential drawbacks this is still a wonderful species to choose. Homeowners should prune Buddlejas according to the shape they want them to grow - in other words, cut away lower branches to encourage a tree shape. You can even shape it into a hedge if you have the plants at a young age, and an excellent example of this type of pruning can be found in the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens:

If you allow it to grow into its natural form however you will be rewarded with masses of white flowers which attract a multitude of insects, and it's not uncommon to see this plant covered in beetles, ants, butterflies and bees during the flowering season. Finally, do not confuse this species with its cousin the Wild Olive (Olea europeae subsp. africana). The latter is a larger species and generally unsuitable for small gardens - see our section at the end of this article on why we omitted the Wild Olive.

Dais Cotinifolia (Pompon Tree)

The Pompon tree, Dais Cotinifolia, is one of the most beautiful indigenous trees and has become a very popular species in Johannesburg. It is an excellent substitute for the exotic Pride-of-India, and although it does not flower as long as that species, it's explosion of pink flowers in summer provides a stunning display for any garden. The Pompon tree is a relatively fast grower and is frost tolerant. It is regularly used along pavements and sidewalks in Gauteng, and under certain conditions can grow to a height of 8+ metres (although it will usually grow to between 6-8 metres). All in all this is an outstanding choice for your small garden.

Apodytes dimidiata (White pear)

The White pear, Apodytes dimidiata, is an excellent choice for the small garden. It grows at a medium pace, and its dark evergreen foliage makes it an outstanding screening tree. Like the Buddleja it can even be used as an effective hedge if pruned for this purpose, although I prefer to plant it to grow in its natural state. Apodytes will usually reach 6-8 metres, but may take about 8+ years to do so. It is an excellent replacement for the alien privet which unfortunately has proliferated throughout Gauteng. Look for the small black seeds with orange-red casing if you're hiking in a kloof in Gauteng - a tell-tale sign that this species is growing close by.

Pittosporum viridiflorum (Cheesewood)

This indigenous Pittosporum has become a popular garden subject, and has a large distribution on the Highveld. It is a medium-paced grower, is evergreen and makes an excellent screening tree. It sports beautiful yellow, edible berries at the end of the flowering season (April/May) which are well loved by birds. This species has a non-aggressive root system so it is safe to plant alongside paving or retaining walls. It also makes an excellent alternative to the exotic Pittosporum tenuifolium that is frequently used as a screening plant, so consider this tree if you're in a complex or estate that requires the use of indigenous species.

Dombeya rotundifolia (Wild pear)

The Wild Pear, Dombeya rotundifolia, is an indigenous species that can grow to a height of 8+ metres. This is a fully deciduous species, losing all its leaves in winter, so if it's an evergreen tree you're after then you'll need to look elsewhere. Despite this it makes a stunning specimen for your garden in summer, exploding into masses of white flowers and making it one of the most attractive species on the list. If you find yourself hiking in one of the many nature reserves in Gauteng during the flowering season (July - October) keep a look out for this species as its flowers are striking and alert you to its presence. It has a non-aggressive root system so is suitable to plant closer to walls and paving.

Indigofera jacunda (River Indigo)

This beautiful small tree or shrub is an ideal species if you have a very small garden space. It is semi-deciduous and sheds some of its leaves in winter, leaving behind small brown tube-shaped pods. It is very easy to grow from seed and you will often find small seedlings growing beneath adult plants in your garden. The flowers are a pink and white combination which attract a host of insects - so much so that we rate this as one of the most prolific insect attracting species. It is also a very fast grower, but this can sometimes be a drawback as the branches may be weak and break in a heavy thunderstorm. Despite these problems, if you decide to plant it in your garden you will soon find it becoming one of your favourite plants. Prune it appropriately in order to encourage a tree shape. A large specimen can be found growing at the entrance to the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens.

Heteromorpha arborescens var. abyssinica (Parsley Tree)

The Parsley tree is a common species of the South African highveld, and can regularly be found on walks and trails in Gauteng, particularly in wooded or rocky kloofs. It has dark brown bark that peels off of the trunk and branches, making it distinctive and relatively easy to identify in the field. It grows to a height of 8-10 metres and larger specimens will create a beautiful crown. This tree does have a tendency to spray its branches in all directions when young, but with patience it will turn into a magnificent specimen for your garden.

Bolusanthus speciosus (Tree Wisteria)

The Tree Wisteria, Bolusanthus speciosus, is a stunning small to medium sized tree that grows at a medium pace. It is an ideal replacement for the exotic Jacaranda, and although it does not grow as large as that species homeowners should look at planting this species if they're aiming for the same bluish-mauve colour in Spring. It has a non-aggressive root system and is a welcome addition to any garden. Beautiful specimens exist at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens.

Other options for small-medium sized gardens

In addition to the above list, here are a few more species for you to consider. Remember to base your decision on the full grown height and width of the species and how these dimensions will fit within your garden.

Pteroxylon obliquum (Sneezewood)

This beautiful evergreen to semi-deciduous tree is ideal for medium sized gardens. It generally grows straight and narrow and thus is perfect for narrow spaces in gardens and complexes, and is a popular choice for corporate office parks. It grows at a medium pace, with dark grey bark containing longitudinal fissures. These features along with its opposite and compound leaves make it relatively easy to identify and distinguish from other species. For those with patience it is a rewarding species and makes a beautifully shaped garden subject.

Polygala myrtifolia (September Bush)

The ubiquitous Polygala myrtifolia is another very popular small garden tree, and if you have the space it is a wonderful species to have in your garden. It's masses of purple flowers last for quite some time making it invaluable if you're looking for indigenous colour in your home. The Polygala generally grows to form a large rounded shrub, which makes it a difficult species to fit into small or narrow spaces. The plant can also become quite 'leggy', and because it is a fast grower the branches may be weaker than other species - it's not uncommon to see broken branches after a heavy highveld thunderstorm. Despite this it makes a wonderful garden subject, provides ample colour, and attracts a host of insects and birds.

Ilex mitis (Cape Holly)

The Cape Holly, Ilex mitis, is a magnificent, compact tree with an ornamental shape. Its dense dark green foliage combined with a pale and sturdy trunk make it diagnostic. In ideal conditions it can reach a height of 10+ metres. The Cape holly is a medium paced grower, and makes an excellent garden subject. It develops edible red berries and thus is very popular with birds during the fruiting season.

Halleria lucida (Tree fuscia)

One of the most unique species on this list, specifically because of its distinctive growth of flowers on the stem. The small tube-like red or yellow flowers (depending on which variety you have chosen) attract nectar eating birds and insects, and these are followed by large green to black fruits which in turn attract fruit eating birds. On the highveld the Halleria generally grows as a very dense evergreen shrub, and is ideal to use as a screening hedge or simply as an insect and bird-attracting garden subject. Look for it when hiking in the wooded kloofs and gorges around Gauteng.

Dodonea augustifolia (Sand Olive)

The Sand Olive is another beautiful small tree or shrub, and has become a popular plant in Gauteng gardens. It is evergreen, and develops clumps of diagnostic pale beige-green seed pods which make it relatively easy to identify in the field. Because of its dense foliage it makes an excellent screening plant, which in turn provides ample cover for insects and birds. It is a welcome addition to any indigenous garden.

Olinia emarginata (Mountain Hard Pear)

This is a stunning ornamental species that carries edible red-berries which attract birds. A well-known specimen can be found in the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens where it has been propped up after having been struck by lightning a few years ago. Unfortunately the Olinia is very difficult to grow, and is difficult to find in local nurseries. It's also a slow grower, so for these reasons we have excluded it from our main list. I should add however that if you're not in a hurry, and are looking for a tree that is unique and will bring something special to your garden, then this is an excellent choice.

Euclea crispa (Blue Guarri)

The Blue Guarri has a beautiful shape, and is abundant on the Highveld. It is a slow grower, so look to plant it with a long-term goal in mind.

Mundulea sericea (Cork Bush)

A beautiful ornamental shrub or small tree that reaches a height of about 3 metres. An excellent choice if you have a very small garden.

Vepris lanceolata (White Ironwood)

The White Ironwood, Vepris Lanceolata, is another excellent tree for the indigenous garden. It can be difficult to find in nurseries, but if you do manage to find one it is a worthwhile species to plant. It is evergreen, attracts birds with its fruit, and has a non-aggressive root system. It can be sensitive to frost, so keep this in mind and protect trees when they are young.

Ramnus pirinoides (Dogwood)

The Dogwood, Ramnus pirinoides, is a common species of the kloofs and gorges of Gauteng's nature reserves. It is often found beneath the canopy of larger species, and is an excellent choice if you're wanting to create a mini-forest of sorts in your garden. The small red-to-black berries are popular with birds making this a great addition to the bird garden. The glossy dark green leaves are also distinctive, making it relatively easy to identify in the field. The Dogwood will usually try to grow its sturdy branches in a horizontal 'scraggly' fashion, and hence we use it more for our clients as a large filler shrub rather than as a tree.

Diospyros whyteana (Bladdernut)

The Bladdernut, Diospyros whyteana, is another excellent choice for the small garden, especially if you're trying to create a foresty feel. Use it in conjunction with the Dogwood (above) in order to create a forest-type environment. This species has uniquely shaped seed-pods which make it relatively easy to identify in the field if they are present.

Grewia occidentalis (Crossberry)

A lovely small tree or shrub that is regularly found in the wooded kloofs and valleys around Gauteng. It has distinctively shaped bluish-purple star-shaped flowers.

Croton gratissimus var. gratissimus (Lavender Fever Berry)

A large, beautiful tree which resembles the smaller Lavender Tree is some respects. It is difficult to find in nurseries, and generally grows larger than would normally be suitable for a small garden.


Trees we specifically excluded from this list


Ekebergia capensis (Cape Ash)

The Cape Ash is a wonderful species that grows relatively fast and creates a dense crown. It has become a popular choice for sidewalks and shopping centres, and is ideal for spaces where you need to create a canopy in a relatively short space of time. It also has a non-aggressive root system, so is safer to use closer to walls or paving. We specifically excluded it from this list because it tends to grow very large and wide, over 12 metres high, and thus is generally unsuitable for small gardens where space is at a premium. As an additional note, there are two variants of the Cape Ash, a coastal one that is generally smaller and more compact, and a highveld one that tends to grow faster and larger.

Harpephyllum caffrum (Wild Plum)

The Wild Plum is another very popular tree in Gauteng, being regularly used on sidewalks and in shopping centres. It tends to form a very wide, round and dense crown, and for this reason is generally unsuitable for small spaces.

Combretum erythrophyllum (River Bushwillow)

The River Bushwillow is another tree that has become very popular in gardens and on sidewalks in Gauteng. This is a beautiful tree that grows to over 10 meters in the wild, mostly along streams and rivers - hence its name. Unfortunately, it is generally unsuitable for small spaces due to the massive size and bulk it can attain, though this hasn't stopped people from planting it in their small gardens! Keep a look out for its pale gnarled trunk on Johannesburg's sidewalks, and then decide whether you have the space for it. If you can plant it at least three meters away from walls and foundations then you can use it. As a side note, it might be worth mentioning that its branches tend to break more frequently in heavy storms than other trees.

Podocarpus sp.

The Yellowwoods have become popular trees in Gauteng, and are especially common along pavements and sidewalks. In Johannesburg some beautiful specimens can be found on Katherine Drive just as you turn off from Marlboro drive towards Sandton. The Podocarpus is indigenous, evergreen, and is very sturdy. It is a slower grower than most other species, but if you have the patience, it will be a worthwhile addition to your garden. We have excluded them from the above list because most of them eventually grow into large trees, sometimes reaching a height of over 12 metres. The possible exception is the Podocarpus elongatus, Breede River Yellowwood, which generally grows to about 6 metres, but can also grow into a large tree under ideal conditions.

Olea europaea subsp. africana (Wild Olive)

The Wild Olive has become one of the most widely used trees in Gauteng's parks and gardens. It is a common species throughout Southern African, and is very hardy and frost tolerant. Although it is regularly planted in small gardens, it may be best to consider an alternative unless you have the space. This species will become a large and broad tree in time, and years from now you (or the next homeowner) may find yourself having to prune it aggressively, or remove it due to its size. In Gauteng there are many examples of large Wild Olive specimens, but my personal favourite can be found in Fourways on the corner of Douglas and Glenluce Drive. That specimen is in the company of a Searsia, and has taken many years to reach that size, but our goal as landscapers is to advise our clients appropriately, and so this species is best planted in medium-large gardens.

Acacia (=Vachellia / Senegalia) sp.

Acacia (=Vachellia/Senegalia) species are wonderful trees to have in your garden, especially if you enjoy the bushveld and are wanting to recreate that particular biome in your home. Most species of Acacia have aggressive root systems though, and some can grow into very large specimens. The beautiful Acacia (=Vachellia) xanthophloea (Fever Tree) has become ubiquitous in Gauteng, and is regularly used in gardens, shopping centres, along sidewalks and in corporate office parks. Despite its frequent use and beautiful colouration, we would advise owners of small gardens to avoid the temptation to plant it and rather consider smaller species with less aggressive root systems. Take a closer look at the surface roots of a Fever Tree the next time you see one, and keep in mind that that is what it may try to do in your home.

Celtis africana (White Stinkwood)

This is one of our favourite large indigenous trees, and is one of the most common species on the highveld. It is often found along our river systems, where it can reach an impressive size. If your home is big enough then planting a Celtis africana will be a wonderful addition to your home - at least 3-5 metres away from paving or walls - but for smaller gardens, rather consider one of the options we've suggested above.

Feel free to comment on the above trees, and if you think we've missed one do let us know what it is and why you feel it merits a mention.

Each tree offers something unique and there are so many trees with stunning characteristics. When choosing a tree, remember that the bark can be a striking focal point. Whether peeling, patchy, colourful, shiny or dull, bark is an asset.

When you plant trees with an ornamental bark, think of positioning them against a backdrop of evergreens which will help to show off their bark, especially in winter. Including one or more trees with showy bark in your garden will help create a landscape with year-round interest.

Here are some indigenous trees to consider for their noteworthy bark. All are good choices for specimens or focal points in the garden. Most become more ornamental as they mature over time. Some can get quite large, so consider their full-grown size before planting.

Heteropyxis natalensis (Lavender Tree)

Initially the bark of this semi-deciduous tree is smooth and plan in tawny silver hues with darker grey patches and a papery grain. As the tree matures, the bark develops a rich texture and flakes off in large scales, leaving craggy apricot-coloured patches.

Acacia (=Vachellia) sieberiana (Paperbark Thorn)

The bark of this large tree is light brown or greyish-yellow. It is corky and often peels in papery strips and flakes.

Heteromorpha arborescens var abyssinica (Parsley Tree)

The bark is reddish-brown to purplish-brown with a smooth, somewhat waxy appearance. It peels in fine papery rings.

Cussonia paniculata (Highveld Cabbage Tree)

This thickset tree has a grey, thick and corky bark which bears longitudinal fissures.

Leucosidea sericea (Oldwood)

A reddish-brown bark that flakes off in strips.

Olina emarginata (Transvaal Hard Pear)

Grey, mottled bark smooth in younger plants and rough as it ages.

Buddleja saligna (False Olive)

Creamy-brown to dark grey-brown twisting bark with longitudinal furrows.

Acacia (=Vachellia) xanthophloea (Fever Tree)

This large tree has a very characteristic, smooth, slightly flaking, greenish-yellow bark. It is often described as sickly or sinister.

There is something deeply satisfying about picking flowers from your garden for an indoor arrangement. Typically, we view indigenous flowers as wild and unsuitable. There are however some wonderful long-lasting species, and many indigenous gardens are a florist’s treasure. You don’t necessarily have to find perfectly straight and long-stemmed flowers. Consider the benefit of using foliage in different colours, textures or that can offer a pleasant fragrance. Even indigenous grasses can make beautiful and long-lasting arrangements.

Below is a list of some indigenous plants that can be used as cut flowers:

As mentioned, if you are fortunate to have indigenous grasses on your property, these can make wonderful cut flower displays, and they are long lasting.  When creating an arrangement with grasses, it is best not to use any water in the vase which allows the grasses to dry and extends the life of your display for months.

To make cut flowers last:

  • Take a bucket into the cutting garden with you and place cut flower stems in water immediately
  • Cut flowers with a sharp knife or clipper in the early morning when they are fresh and before the bees join you
  • Remove leaves that will be below the surface of the water in the vase, as well as any excess leaves above water level that will compete with the flowers for water
  • Cut off and use the side stems in smaller arrangement
  • Leave prepared flowers in a bucket of water in a cool place for a couple of hours, preferably overnight, before arranging
  • Seal cut ends of plants with milky sap in boiling water or hold over a flame for a few seconds
  • Crush the bottom 2cm of woody stems and branches to encourage maximum water intake
  • Cutting stems underwater can sometimes revive wilted flowers
*images courtesy of Joane' Jacobs

Garlic is a wonderfully fragrant herb to add to many cooked dishes.  It has numerous health benefits, acts as an antibiotic, helps with chest infections, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure and prevents strokes by thinning the blood.

Garlic has a specific planting window from mid-February to the end of March. For best results one should use organically grown garlic.

How to plant garlic:

  • Prepare the planting area in a spot that will drain freely and receive at least 6 hours of sunshine
  • Enrich the soil with well-rotted compost
  • Break up a head of garlic into individual cloves
  • Push the cloves into the soil with the tip of the clove pointing upward, to a depth of three times the length (about 5cm deep)
  • Plant the cloves 15-20cm apart
  • Firm down gently
  • Cover with a layer of mulch
  • Keep moist but don’t overwater
  • Shoots should start pushing through the mulch within 4-8 weeks of planting
  • Garlic can also be planted in pots filled with a quality potting soil.

Growing tips

  • Foliar feed with a kelp-based plant food once a month from September to November
  • Remove flower stalks as they affect the quality of the bulbs


  • It is time to harvest when the leaves turn yellow-brown, usually within 6 months
  • Gently dig out the bulbs, tie them in bunches and hang them in a cool, dry, well-aerated room for about 4-6 weeks to cure

If you’re living in the Southern hemisphere, February to April is the ideal time to plant garlic, so go out there and plant your own garlic!

Trees serve various functions. In our gardens we might use them for the shade they provide, to screen off the view of neighbouring properties, to block out the sounds from a busy road, or to provide food, shelter and roosting spots for our feathered friends and other creatures.

But trees take time to establish themselves. As the ancient Chinese proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.” So, when selecting a young tree, you need to consider factors that ensure both you and future generations can benefit from your mature tree.

Herewith are some of the factors to consider when selecting a tree for your garden:

  • Full grown size of the tree
    When purchasing a tree, consider the average size of a mature tree of the same species.  To find out this information ask the nursery, do some research on the internet or visit your nearest botanical garden to see if they have a mature specimen.  Once you know its average mature size, check that this will fit in to your garden space.  Remember that a tree is three-dimensional and should not be planted too close to a building or boundary wall where it could damage structures and lead to expensive repairs.
  • Indigenous vs Exotic
    Indigenous trees, especially those that are naturally found in the area where you live, will generally fare better than most exotics because they have evolved to grow within your climatic conditions (e.g. rainfall, wind, temperature).  They also have the benefit of having natural pest control in the form of birds and insects that control the populations of creatures that use the tree for their survival.
  • Growth Rate
    Trees have a fast, medium or slow growth rate depending on the species and the conditions under which they are planted.  Some trees can grow up to 2m per year (under optimal conditions) but often these are very large species, which may in time outgrow their space - particularly in small gardens. Many of our most beautiful indigenous trees are slow growers, so rather than selecting a tree based on its rate of growth, choose one with the characteristics that suit your space.
  • Evergreen vs deciduous
    Decide whether you want a deciduous tree (loses its leaves in winter) or an evergreen tree.  Although there is often a tendency to want to plant evergreen species - either for screening, year-round foliage, or to avoid a 'messy tree' - deciduous species only lose their leaves once a year (as opposed to evergreens which lose their leaves constantly), and some deciduous trees are some of our most beautiful species of all. Additionally, by planting a deciduous species, you could benefit from the cooling shade in summer but the warmth of additional sunshine in winter.
  • Water Requirements
    It is important to find out whether a tree has high, medium or low water requirements.  This will help you determine its suitability for your garden situation. In general, locally indigenous highveld species are waterwise, and once established will require minimal watering.
  • Frost-resistance
    Find out if your tree is frost-resistant, especially if you live in an area that experiences frost.  As a general rule, most young plants will need some frost protection in their first 2 seasons.
  • Wildlife Attractions
    Trees attract various types of wildlife (birds, reptiles and insects) who use the tree, or parts of it, for various purposes (shelter, feeding, breeding, etc).  If you have a specific desire such as attracting butterflies, find out which trees will best attract them to your area.

In conclusion, trees have a long lifespan (often exceeding 100 years), so we should view them as permanent fixtures when planting them.  To learn more about indigenous trees and which ones to choose, read our Top 10 trees for small gardens article, visit our website, or ask your local indigenous nursery for assistance.

About us

Grounded Landscaping is an award-winning landscaping company specialising in indigenous, wildlife-friendly gardens. We are based in the Cradle of Humankind, a world heritage site and part of the grassland biome of Southern Africa. We service most areas of Gauteng, including Johannesburg, Centurion and Pretoria.
© Copyright 2024 Grounded Landscaping, Gauteng, South Africa, cc 2011/012073/23
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