Euclea racemosa

Euclea racemosa and other bushes showing the typical shaping by the wind along the sea shore.Euclea racemosa and other bushes growing on the seashore north of Cape Town, and showing typical shaping by the wind.

Information on our local plants,
a two edged sword !

Euclea racemosa has a wide distribution across Africa, and thus many names and manifold uses. However in addition to all this, it performs a role in ecology at the Cape that is attention worthy and makes it a very special plant that should be more widely planted and conserved locally.

An internet search for information on Euclea racemosa brought results which were disappointing compared to some other plants. I found most sources on the thin side, either comprising just a few lines, or a bare botanical description without other detail. I decided to write a fat article, compiling everything I could find.

If anyone knows of additional information I would love to give references to your material. I love this plant, and many other African forest plants, and would like to promote their use in gardens and agroforestry over exotic vegetation in order to protect our biodiversity on this continent. For that to happen, information and education are key.

The lack of information and exposure to our plants is one factor leading to their disappearance. The same lack leads to their adoption by people from other lands who have more resources, while locals miss out. All the ideas I mention here for the use of the plant are aimed at local people. Please think of them if you make use of our plants. There are many ways to start collaborative projects which bring benefit to local people and yourself and will improve the standing of your products in an international fair trade arena.

Distribution of Euclea racemosa

Euclea racemosa is native to the eastern side of Africa from the land of the pyramids in the north to Africa's southernmost tip, including some of central Africa and extending eastwards off the continent. It is thus found in the Western Cape, South Africa, on South Africa's south and east coast, and in the Comoro Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Oman, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Zaire (Kew Science).

Typical habitat of Euclea racemosa

Euclea racemosa is found in coastal thickets and coastal forests (Fernkloof Nature reserve), dune scrub and low coastal forest, mostly on the forest margins (Platbos), in most regions at 1000 to 2400 meters in dry woodland, bushland, riverine forest, and marginal arid areas in both the dry and the moist and wet Kolla and Weyna Dega agroclimatic zones (World Agro Forestry). These latter terms are used in Ethiopia in their multifactorial agricultural zonation system. Interestingly, at the Cape it occurs right on the sea, in the dunes, not just above 1000 meters as in Ethiopia.

Species and subspecies

Euclea racemosa belongs to the order Ericales, and Family Ebenaceae (Wikipedia). The genus Euclea has 20 species. All are evergreen trees and shrubs native to Africa, the Comores and Arabia (Sensagent dictionary). E. racemosa has several subspecies.

Euclea racemosa growing full sun. It is growing along a seasonal stream. The soil is sandy with clay banks nearby on the southern slopes of the Tygerberg, Cape Province.Euclea racemosa growing in full sun. It is growing along a seasonal stream. The soil is sandy with clay banks nearby on the southern slopes of the Tygerberg, Cape Province.

Euclea racemosa subsp. bernardii, and racemosa are found only in the Cape Province of South Africa with its winter rainfall summer drought climate. Subspecies E. racemosa daphnoides is found in the Cape Province up the south and east coast to Swaziland and Mpumalanga, and E. racemosa subsp. macrophylla from the Cape and as far as Kwazulu Natal. E. racemosa subsp. sinuata is found from KZN to Mozambique, and subsp. zuluensis is found in KZN, Mozambique and also Swaziland. These are areas with highly variable climate from arid to subtropical. E. racemosa schimperi is recorded in most of the rest of the range of the species (Wikipedia). That is a huge area. I suspect that this is a South African survey and there may be a lot more diversity over the rest of its range that remains to be recorded scientifically.

Euclea racemosa growing close to a seasonal stream in the shade of some tall Eucalyptus trees.Euclea racemosa growing close to a seasonal stream on the north edge of a grove of tall Eucalyptus trees, at the foot of a clay bank.

Size and habit of Euclea racemosa

Euclea racemosa's wide distribution leads to the adaption to diverse habitats and quite a bit of genetic variation. I think this is why descriptions across the continent vary. It is a small to medium sized single stemmed evergreen tree or multi-stemmed shrub (Tropical plants database). Its height seems to depend on the habitat, being 2.5 m tall in coastal thickets and up to 6m in coastal forests (Fernkloof ) and has been recorded reaching a height of 12 m (Tropical plants database and Kew Science). The subspecies E.schimperi is usually 3-4 m in height (World Agroforestry). I have seen E. racemosa 6 m tall, and very spindly in the shade of large gums, but forming a dense 4m high hemispherical umbrella which reaches down to the ground in full sun. It is trimmed by the wind into sloping flat pillows with numerous stems in the dunes.

The foliage of Euclea racemosa

Euclea racemosa foliage and flowers showing the typical red petioles.Euclea racemosa foliage and flowers.

E. racemosa has exceptionally dense leathery foliage (Wikipedia). The leaves are shiny and dark green above and hairless and dull and pale below, forming an elongated oval, about 5cm in length, with a maximum of 11 x 4 cm (Kew Science) with a rounded tip, narrowing to the base (World Agroforestry). The thickish margins are rolled under. The secondary veins are more prominent on the upper surface and can have pink coloration. Tertiary veins are indistinct. (Kew Science). The leaf petiole is less than 1/3rd of a cm, and has characteristic reddish color (Fernkloof).

The young shoots are hairless (glabrous). The arrangement of leaves on the stem is varied: either alternate, subopposite or opposite, sometimes even in whorls (Kew Science).

E. racemosa bark

E. racemosa has slender trunks with rough grey bark (Platbos), or grey-black and rather smooth (World Agroforestry).

Euclea racemosa bark on an old tree.Euclea racemosa bark on an old tree in Cape Town.

Flowers and fruit

The flowers of E. racemosa are born in short sprays up to 8cm in length beside the leaves (World Agroforestry). In the Cape the sprays are maximally 4cm and drooping (Fernkloof). In yet another description the inflorescence is 15-50mm long, unbranched, with hairless main stem (axis or rachis) (Kew Science).

This tree bears only male Euclea racemosa flowers.This tree bears only male Euclea racemosa flowers.

The flowers are rather tiny, creamy white in color and sweet scented, and have a saucer-shaped, shallowly lobed or toothed calyx, with minute hairs on the shallowly lobed or toothed margin. The corolla is lobed only in the upper half, is smooth or sparsely bristled on the middle of the lobes. In another description, the flower is smooth (glabrous) and deeply lobed (Fernkloof). Female flowers are much smaller than the male, with the ovary either smooth or covered with rough hairs. Male flowers are up to 5mm long, the calyx 2mm. They bear 10-20 stamens, mostly in pairs, with filaments up to 1.3mm long and anthers up to 3mm long, which are bristly near the tips (Kew Science).

The plant is dioecious (Fernkloof, Tropical plants database, Wikipedia) requiring both male and female plants to produce fruit. The fruit attract many birds (Platbos and Wikipedia) as well as honey bees (Platbos).

E. racemosa bears flowers in December to June (Fernkloof ) or December to March (Platbos). The plants I know are flowering in February and March. In the southern peninsula they are said to flower earlier.

This tree bears female reproductive parts, including fruit. These are typically seen in a range of colors as they ripen.This tree bears female reproductive parts, including fruit. These are typically seen in a range of colors showing different ripeness.

The fruit is 6-8mm in diameter (Kew Science), green and ripening to purple-black, giving it characteristic multicolored berries in red, purple and black (Wikipedia). They are edible, with thin flesh around a double seed (World Agroforestry).

Ripe Euclea racemosa berriesRipe Euclea racemosa berries

In my experience the berries are sweet, with a slightly insipid black berry flavor, like a table grape and slightly tannic. I found only single round seeds in the fruit. Perhaps they have an outer skin which peels off to reveal two seeds. This would explain why after sowing the seeds I often got two seedlings coming up.

Naming

The common name of the plant in South Africa is variously spelled gwarri (Wikipedia), gwarrie, guarri and guarrie (Wikipedia). It is just variation in the representation of a similar sound, in a language which has only recently been written down, or not, as the case may be.

Wikipedia claims the true spelling in our native Khoe language is 'gwarri' and the common spelling is 'guarrie'. I would love to know which Khoe language they are referring to, and where they saw the correct spelling discussed, because the only sizable Khoekhoegowab dictionary is Haacke-Eiseb 2002 and there is no 'w' in that orthography, whereas the spelling 'guarri' is possible. The 'ie' ending is typical of Afrikaans and that is where they may have got their wires crossed. There is also no mention of the plant in whatever form it is spelled in the dictionary. That is to be expected, it does not occur in Namibia, where the dictionary was created.

The Platbos website claims guarrie is a Khoesan word meaning bush or tree. This I cannot disprove, and it seems, they cannot prove. There is no similar word let alone one with this meaning in Haacke-Eiseb (2002). None of the claims about the origin of the name are accompanied by a reference to where they got their information. Having said this, I will continue as if all these claims are partially true, because it's likely to be a Khoe word in origin, as it sounds like a Khoekhoegowab word, and many plant names in Afrikaans do have this origin.   

Lets move on to other names of this wonderful and widespread plant. In a paper entitled Ethnobotanical survey in Canhane village, district of Massingir, Mozambique: medicinal plants and traditional knowledge (2010) by Ana Ribeiro, Maria M. Romeiras, Joao Tavares, Maria T. Faria. The following common names are given: mulala, nhlangulo, bush guarri, glossy guarrie, river guarri.

The Latin species name racemosa is derived from the Latin racemus, a bunch or cluster of grapes. It is a reference to the appearance of the fruit cluster (Fernkloof ).

The use of Euclea racemosa

Bushes sculpted by the wind in the sand dunes.Bushes holding the dunes and shaped by the wind.

E. racemosa in landscaping

The tree is exceptionally attractive in my view. It is used as an ornamental. Its leathery foliage is very dense, ideal for hedges (Wikipedia) and it is thus also used as a live fence for boundary marking (World Agroforestry) probably in Ethiopia based on the source. In addition it is suited to coastal gardens (Platbos) which can be difficult, due to the salt laden air.

The guarri in restoration

E.racemosa is used as a pioneer species in soil conservation and reforestation projects (Tropical Plants Database).

My own interest in the dune Gwarrie is based on what I observed in coastal hikes north of Milnerton, Cape Town. It took a me a while to identify the low trees that I observed growing in the dunes. I was greatly helped by local botanists on the public platform iNaturalist in so doing, where you can see my records and those of many other keen citizen scientists.

I noticed that this tree is a very important pioneer in establishing dune vegetation. I think it is the most key species in that role, but I'm not an ecologist or botanist. It keeps growing up through the sand dunes that form around it from the action of the wind, until it can stand clear of the sand. Then it is cropped by the wind into gentle green pillows that echo the landscape of waves and dunes. This combination of sloping green cushions and white sand is so beautiful I don't know why it isn't part of our local garden design aesthetics.

My mother (a botanical activist) described this type of vegetation as a Liliputian forest, with a low canopy, and ferns and vines and other levels of forest vegetation below. If the guarri can support other plants in the wild, it can do so in a food forest or agroforestry situation. 

I suspect that Euclea was probably very dominant in the vegetation of the Cape Flats once, and that all the Euclea was removed during the early colonial era, as it is an excellent firewood, and the removal of the dune vegetation for firewood was recorded, as was the problem it created. Removal released the sand and shifting dunes became a problem. Australian wattles were imported by the British to hold the dunes. These in turn became highly invasive and created problems as they suppressed local vegetation, and impacted on the hydrology of the landscape, reducing the water flow in rivers.

Bushes sculpted by the strong winds of the southern oceans.Bushes sculpted by the strong winds off the southern oceans.

E. racemosa is ideal for reforesting areas of Cape Town where sand is exposed after urban development. As a pioneer with its own edible fruit it would make a tough backbone for food forests in the sandy areas that used to be covered by ocean between Table Mountain and the surrounding mountain ranges, on the Cape Flats. It could be used in places which are hard to irrigate, where our new revolution for verge vegetable plantings cannot reach. There it can begin to create the sheltered micro-climate in which other more productive food plants thrive.

This would provide many ecosystem benefits such as carbon sequestration, healthy hydrology and soil, as well as services to the environment like the maintenance of insect diversity and services to the community in terms of wind protection for gardens, high anti oxidant wild berries, firewood and more.

Guarri timber

Several Eucleas are used as hardwood timber producing hard, dark heartwood similar to ebony (Sensagent dictionary). The timber of E. racemosa itself is fine grained and heavy, with red to purple hue (Platbos). The wood is sometimes employed by wheelwrights and turners, and also serves very well for wooden screws (Tropical plants database) and making farming implements (Sensagent dictionary). It is also used as roofing material, the branches used as tooth brushes (Tropical plants database). It burns very well and so is chiefly used as fuel. It is harvested wild for all these purposes, but could be grown in a plantation or coppicing system to save the dune forests.

The fruit

E. racemosa fruit is harvested through the extent of its range for food (World Agroforestry), mostly from the wild (Tropical Plants Database). The berries are used locally in South Africa to make "Guarrie vinegar" according to Wikipedia. I have never seen or tasted this vinegar. It must be very good.

E.racemosa fruit branchesE.racemosa fruit branches

Guarri extracts

A black dye can be obtained from the roots (World Agroforestry and Tropical Plants Database). This could be useful when oil runs out and the demand for organic clothing increases sufficiently. The roots are mainly harvested from the wild for medicine (Tropical plants database) used as a purgative, for treating caries and toothache (Tropical plants database). It is taken orally, by chewing in Mozambique. Roots are also used for wounds, applied topically after peeling and grinding. The stem is used for wounds as a bath after cutting and steeping in water (Ribeiro et al. 2010).

It would be preferable for the roots to remain in the ground from an environmental point of view. As the tree performs well in a coppicing regime, one could harvest the branches more sustainably. 

E. racemosa contains pentacyclic triterpenoids (Sensagent dictionary). These are biologically active phytochemicals with properties that are anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, anti-hypertensive, antiulcerogenic and anti-tumor (NCBI).

The use of Euclea racemosa in Africa is just part of a bigger picture showing how much we need to maintain biodiversity to serve needs on the continent. The area where the study was done in Mozambique is an important repository of biological diversity. They found that 90% of the population make use of this plant diversity for housing, food, energy and health. 15% of the 5500 species found there are used for medicine (Ribeiro et al. 2010).

E. racemosa after germinationE. racemosa shortly after germination

Horticulture

E. racemosa can be grown from seeds, layering and cuttings. It also produces root suckers. The seeds often fail to germinate as they are parasitized by a type of fly larva (Platbos). I had no problem with germination. It was really good. This may be due to the different localities and scale of our nurseries, and that I didn't use seeds which had fallen to the ground. As I can substantiate, no pre-treatment of the seed is needed (Tropical plants database). Apparently the seed stores well in air tight containers at room temperature (Tropical plants database) and there are 18000-20000 seeds per kg (World Agro Forestry). As said previously the plant can be coppiced, and responds well to trimming (Tropical plants database).

The seedlings moved from shade house to open sky, semi shade.The seedlings moved from shade house to open sky, semi shade.

References

Fernkloof (The Fernkloof Nature Reserve website). https://www.fernkloof.org.za/index.php/all-plants/plant-families/item/euclea-racemosa- subsp-racemosa

Haacke W.H.G, Eiseb E. 2002. The Khoekhoegowab dictionary with an English Khoekhoegowab Index. Windhoek: Gamsberg Macmillan.

iNaturalist https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/34697953

Kew Science  http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:323337-1

NCBI https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6645347/

Platbos (Platbos Indigenous Forest website) ttp://www.platbos.co.za/african_tree_essence_seaguarrie.html https://www.platbos.co.za/indigenous_sea_guarri.html

Ribeiro et al. (2010) Ethnobotanical survey in Canhane village, district of Massingir, Mozambique: medicinal plants and traditional knowledge. Ana Ribeiro, Maria M. Romeiras, João Tavares, Maria T. Faria. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine volume 6, Article number: 33 (2010) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/1746-4269-6-33

Sensagent dictionary  http://dictionary.sensagent.com/euclea/en-en/

Tropical Plants Database http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Euclea%20racemosa  Cite as: Tropical Plants Database, Ken Fern. tropical.theferns.info. 2021-02-24. <tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Euclea%20racemosa>

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euclea_racemosa

World Agroforestry http://apps.worldagroforestry.org/usefultrees/pdflib/Euclea_racemosa_ETH.pdf

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Mr Patrick Dowling 
Thorough article, thanks Caroline, and interesting. I'm also a big fan of Euclea and feel it's under appreciated. What a splendid small tree if allowed …

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