Sideroxylon inerme "white milkwood" / "melkhout" (Afrikaans)/ "umqwashu" (Xhosa)/ "umbhobe"(Zulu)
A characteristic feature of the Southern Overberg, the milkwood is a low-growing, evergreen tree. It is rarely found with a straight trunk; instead, its gnarled, sprawling branches often create impenetrable thickets that are home to a variety of wild life. Although also occurring inland, milkwoods are found mainly along the coast from the Cape Peninsula to northern Zululand.
The small, yellowy-green flowers have an unusual sour-smell (Jan-July). The edible, juicy, black fruit (July-Jan) are enjoyed by birds and baboons. The milky latex which gives the tree its common name makes the leaves and the bark unpalatable to grazing animals. The wood is very hard, heavy and strong. In the past, it was used for ship building, bridges, mills and ploughs. It is very durable even when wet and it shrinks little with drying. In days gone by, the site of a farmyard was often determined by the presence of a milkwood. Their dense, umbrella-shaped crowns created a perfect "roof" for the meat chests that pre-dated refrigerators.
There are 4 milkwood trees that have been awarded National Monument status and their stories follow:
The Post Office Tree of Mossel Bay
In 1500, a letter describing the unfortunate drowning at sea of Bartholomew Diaz, the famous explorer, was placed in a shoe by Portuguese sailors and tied to this milkwood tree. It was found over a year later by the man to whom it was addressed, Commander Joao Nova.
The Treaty Tree, Woodstock, Cape Town
It was here, in 1806 that the commander of local defenses formally handed over the Cape to the British following the Battle of Blaauwberg.
The Fingo Milkwood Tree, near Peddie, Eastern Cape
The Fingo people pledged their loyalty to God and the British king under this tree in 1835.
Milkwood at Rhenosterfontein Farm, near Bredasdorp
This milkwood has been awarded National Monument status in recognition of its impressive size and age: the trunk has a girth of over 3 meters and the crown a spread of over 20 meters. It is well over 1000 years old.
Traditionally, the milkwood has a number of medicinal uses: the roots are roasted and made into a powder and mixed with the seed of Trichilia emetica. From this a paste is made which is used to aid the healing of fractured bones. An infusion of its bark is said to dispel nightmares and such an infusion can also be used as an astringent.
Milkwoods make beautiful shade trees and they withstand tough, windy coastal conditions. Its initial growth can be slow, but once well rooted, it develops relatively quickly. Milkwoods are protected in South Africa and no part of the tree may be cut without a permit from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.