General Info

Tree, with its straight trunk, may reach 10 high. Usually trifoliate Leaves are hairless. White, bisexual, actinomorphic, scented Flowers with many stamens are in a corymb at branch ends. The plumb-like Fruit has many Seeds.


Maerua cafra, Maerua triphylla, Niebuhria cafra, Niebuhria triphylla, Capparis triphylla.

RSA Tree No. 133.

Common names: Common Bush-cherry, Whitewood Bush-cherry, Christmas flower, Witbas, Spiderbush, Bush Maerua, White-wood.

Family: Capparaceae. (The caper family) has about 16-33 genera and 480-700 species. This family has trees, shrubs and some lianas (climbing plants that are woody and hang from trees). Members are tropical and sub-tropical. Flowers are usually 4-merous. The superior Ovary usually has 1 locule. Fruit is a capsule or a berry. Mustard Oils are present in all genera. Local genera include Boscia and Maerua.

Name derivation: Maerua probably Arabic for the genus. cafra – refers to the Eastern Cape. There are about 100 species in the genus Maerua. 11 species occur in the RSA.

Conservation Status: L C. (Least Concern). 2009 (Raimondo et al.).


This plant is usually Tree up to 10m high but it can also be a small shrub. The Trunk is straight. The light to dark coloured Bark is and mottled. Young branches are hairless, yellowish or grey-green with conspicuous raised, light Lenticels (usually raised corky oval or elongated areas on the plant that allows the uncontrolled interchange of gases with the environment) (photo 808). Spines are lacking.


The alternate, compound, usually trifoliate Leaves are up to about 12cm long. Occasionally there are 4 or 5 Leaflets present. These softly leathery leaflets are up to 7,5 x 3,5cm. They are elliptic to obovate or lanceolate. The central or terminal leaflet is often the longest. A bristle tip may be present. The hairless, papery or coriaceous (leathery) Blade is dark green above and paler below. Apart from the prominent midrib on the lower surface, veins on both surfaces are difficult to see. In coastal forms, the leaves appear to be succulent. The Apex of leaflets is tapering to rounded and notched. The Base tapers and the Margin is entire (with a continuous margin, not in any way indented). The Petiole (leaf stalk) is up to 6cm long and grooved along the top. Petiolules (leaflet stalk) are short – up to 5mm long and are also grooved on top.


The white, scented Flowers are large (up to 4,5cm long) and located at the ends of branches in a Corymb (a short and broad, more or less flat topped indeterminate inflorescence with the outer flowers opening first) containing up to 12 flowers. These flowers are bisexual and actinomorphic (regular, symmetrical. Perianth, the calyx and corolla, are divisible into 3 or more identical sectors). There are 4 greenish Sepals about 1,7cm long. Petals are absent. Attached to the receptacle in the unopened bud are 30 to 45 intricately folded Stamens. The Filaments are up to 3cm long and once the buds open, the white extended Filaments become distinctive. The greenish Anthers are oblong and basifixed (attached by its base) and dehisce longitudinally. There is a single Pistil (a unit of the Gynoecium, the female element of the flower, composed of the Ovary, Style and Stigma) with a superior Ovary and a sessile, capitate (formed like a head) Stigma. (Aug-Oct).


The spherical or nearly so Fruit is ellipsoidal, funnel-shaped, oval and pale green. Lengthwise, darker green lines are present. It is smooth or slightly ribbed. Each fruit is about 5 x 3,5cm and hangs down on stalks up to 3,5cm long. These stout stalks are clearly visible when the fruit develops. Mature fruit may have minute bumps and remains green. Up to 30 flattened, round to kidney shaped Seeds are located inside in a jelly-like pulp. (Oct-Dec).

Distribution & Ecology

These plants are Located in dry places, dune bush, bushveld (is a sub-tropical woodland ecoregion of southern Africa) and forest fringes. They may occur from sea level to high altitudes. From the Eastern Cape e.g. from Humansdorp, Utenhage and Knysna: Eastwards and Northwards to KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Gauteng – Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens – close to the arboretum, North West, Limpopo, Swaziland, Mozambique and Eastern Zimbabwe. Many bird species consume the Fruit. Game browse the Leaves. Larvae of the brown-veined white butterfly Belenois aurota, the Zebra White Pinacopteryx eriphia and the Red Tip Colotis antevippe also feed on the Leaves.


A chicory “substitute” is extractable from the Root. They are also used in local medicine. These roots are non-aggressive. The Wood is soft, white, brittle and has a smell when cut. The tree grows well from seeds and cuttings but may take some time to reach a height of 1m.


Boon, R. 2010. Pooley’s Trees of eastern South Africa. Flora and Fauna Publications Trust, Durban.

Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of Southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.

Lawrence, G. H. M, 1951. Taxonomy of Vascular Plants, The Macmillan Company, New York. Tenth Printing 1965.

Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa, Balkema, Amsterdam, Cape Town.

Schmidt, S. Lotter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and the Kruger National Park.

van Wyk, B. & van Wyk, P. 1997 Field guide to Trees of Southern Africa, Struik, Cape Town.