Breonadia salicina | PlantZAfrica (2023)


A handsome, tall, evergreen tree, suitable for big gardens and parks, with a straight trunk and a dense, narrow crown, known to be an excellent wood for chopping boards in the kitchen and also used for furniture.

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Breonadia salicina is a small to large evergreen tree, 10 to 40m tall. When the tree is mature the base becomes thick, with grey to grey-brown, longitudinal, rough bark ridges throughout the trunk. Lateral branches are arranged in groups. Leaves usually occur in whorls of 4 and crowded at the ends of the branches, are simple, lanceolate (narrow oval shape, tapering to a point at each end) to narrow elliptic 80–300 × 20–90mm, tough leathery, glossy green, hairless, pale below, with midrib and lateral veins pale yellowish green.

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The flowers occur in 15–25mm diameter, spherical, compact heads, made up of numerous, minute, pale mauve flowers. The head of flowers is on a slender stalk, 20–95mm long, and has 2 leaf-like bracts below the head of flowers.

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Each flower has a tubular, five-lobed corolla, widening to a funnel-shaped throat, flared at the mouth. Stamens are attached to the throat. Flowering is in summer, from November to March, and the flowers are sweetly scented.

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Fruit is a ball of small, brown, 2-lobed capsules, 2–3mm long, densely packed into rounded heads and having a rough, bristly appearance, in winter, June to July. Seeds are 2–3mm long.

Conservation Status


In terms of the South African National Forest Act, Section 15(1) of the National Forests Act, 1998, ‘no person may cut, disturb, damage or destroy any protected tree or possess, collect, remove, transport, export, purchase, sell, donate or in any other manner acquire or dispose of any protected tree or any forest product derived from a protected tree, except under a license or exemption granted by the Minister to an applicant and subject to such period and conditions as may be stipulated’.

‘Contravention of this declaration is regarded as a first category offence that may result in a person who is found guilty of being sentenced to a fine or imprisonment for a period up to three years, or to both a fine and imprisonment’. Therefore Breonadia salicina is a protected tree under this Act.

This species has been Red Listed as Least Concern (LC).

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Distribution and habitat

Distribution description

Breonadia salicina is found in riverine fringe forest, along or in water of permanent streams and rivers, occurring at low altitude, in tropical and subtropical regions. It is widely distributed in the northeast of South Africa, from KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, mostly in the Lebombo Mountains, to the neighboring countries, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and in parts of Malawi and extends further north in Africa to Ethiopia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and in Madagascar.

This tree could be best represented or displayed in larger gardens or parks rather than small gardens, in frost free regions, with minimum annual rainfall of 110mm, but can also be grown in winter rainfall areas, but potentially will not grow to its full size. Can tolerate cold temperatures, but requires a warm, humid, moist environment.

Derivation of name and historical aspects


The meaning of the genus name, Breonadia is obscure, but possibly honours Jean N. Breon (1785–1864), a French horticulturist. The species name salicina, meanswith willow-like leaves’, from the genus name Salix for the willow.

Breonadia belongs in the gardenia family (Rubiaceae), the fourth largest flowering plant family in the world, consisting of mostly tropical trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials. The family consists of 615 genera worldwide with 13150 species and 64 genera with 285 species in the flora of southern Africa (Koekemoer, Steyn & Bester 2013). The genus Breonadia contains only this one species. Rauvolfia caffra (quinine tree), although not related, has a strong resemblance and is often mistaken for B. salicina, because they occur in similar habit and look similar, but the difference is that R. caffra has a milky sap, drooping leaves and fleshy fruits.

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The roots tend to grow towards flowing water, which is a significant feature of this species.

The seeds form part of the diet of Rameron Pigeon (Columba arquatrix), which also means that the pigeon plays a vital role in seed dispersal.

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The wood of Breonadia salicina is hard, heavy, durable, yellow to light brown, with a distinctive smell. It contains oils which prevent cracking when the wood is washed. It is termite-resistant, known as one of the best indigenous woods for making dining room tables and chairs, parquet floors, for turning and boat building. Excellent for outdoor furniture, such as benches, but also for side tables and trays. The wood is very strong and has been used to make beams. Up until the 1960s, the wood was commonly used as railway sleepers, and some are still found today. In the Lowveld, most of the tall matumi were cut down for this purpose. In some villages of Malawi, people use the tree trunks to make dugout canoes to cross rivers and for fishing.

The bark has an extract that is much used to cure stomach illnesses and given to children as a stimulant. The matumi makes an impressive specimen tree in the streets, parks and big open gardens, with its narrow crown. In very hot areas, it can be used as a shade tree with its compact crown. It is not recommended that one plants matumi close to the paved areas, walls and swimming pools, as it has rather an aggressive root system.

Growing Breonadia salicina


Breonadia salicina grow relatively fast from seeds. In preparation to sow seeds, use a large-sized seed tray, sterilize and fill the seed tray with coarse bark underneath for sufficient drainage, then fill the tray with river sand, level the surface and sow fresh seeds on the surface and slightly cover with river sand and keep moist. The rate of germination is usually between 60–80%. When the seeds have germinated and the seedlings have reached the 3 leaf-stage, transplant the seedlings into 9cm nursery pots filled with a mixture of river sand and compost (ratio of 5 parts sand and 1 part compost) and place in a shady, humid, moist area. Transplant the seedling when the roots have developed sufficiently, into a larger container or bag, preferably 10 litre nursery bags, filled with the same soil mixture (5:1) and possibly add slow-release fertilizer, to enrich your soil. Harden off in a partial shade to full sun area.

Matumi grows in most well-drained soil types, provided that there is sufficient water. It can grow with its roots in water, but will not thrive in boggy, water-logged soil. The leaves tend to respond immediately by wilting with lack of water. It is frost sensitive, but can withstand cold conditions.

When planting this tree, dig a hole twice the size of the root ball, prepare a mixture of dug-out soil, with preferably an organic fertilizer and compost and start planting. Remove the container without disturbing the roots and add some of the mixed soil into the hole and the remainder around the root ball and compact. Ensure that the root ball is at the same level as the original ground surface. After planting, water regularly until the tree is established in the ground.


  • Boon, R. 2010. Pooley's trees of eastern South Africa, a complete guide. Flora & Fauna Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa , edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Koekemoer, M., Steyn, H.M. & Bester, S.P. 2015. Guide to Plant Families of southern Africa. Strelitzia 31. 2nd ed., 2nd print. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa.
  • Plants of southern Africa: an online checklist. Accessed 11 /04/ ‎2017.
  • Pooley, E. 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publication Trust, Durban.
  • Retief, E. & Leistner, O.A. 2000. Rubiaceae. In O. A. Leistner, Seed plants of southern Africa: families and genera. Strelitzia 10: 476–494. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • The South African National Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries website,, Accessed 12/04/2017.
  • University of Pretoria website: Botanical Garden, Breonadia salicina., accessed 11/04/2017.
  • Van Wyk, P. 1994. Field guide to the trees of the Kruger National Park. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Venter, F. & Venter, J.A. 2012. Making the most of indigenous trees. Briza Publications, Pretoria.


Mpendulo Gabayi
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
June 2017


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