The genus Cussonia contains about 20 species of trees from southern Africa and the island-nation of Madagascar. The best known and most commonly cultivated species is the common cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata), which hails from scattered locations south of the Saharan Desert. It most often grows in open habitats, such as grasslands or just outside forest margins. Although they don’t grow very quickly in their native lands, they are very fast growers when provided with supplemental water.
Most cabbage trees grow about 30 to 40 feet tall, but occasional specimens may become quite large and approach 60 feet in height. They tend to produce a long, thick trunk and a rounded, spreading canopy. Cabbage tree leaves grow in terminal clusters at the ends of short, soft stems. The limbs and stems often grow in a gnarled, twisted fashion. Cabbage trees have bizarre, divided leaves, that are partially responsible for the tree’s unique aesthetics.
Cabbage trees have thick, corky gray bark which would draw more attention, were it not for the plants unusual, spiky inflorescences. Some even describe them as looking like a candelabra.
Many folk remedies rely on cabbage trees, and Western medical professionals are beginning to investigate the properties of various cabbage tree extracts. Local people use a tea made from the bark of cabbage trees to treat malaria and heartburn, while elixirs produced from the roots of the tree are used to treat venereal disease and as a diuretic. While the common cabbage tree is thought to be the primary species used medicinally, but the mountain cabbage tree is also an important medicinal species in its range.
While cabbage trees do not represent a significant source of calories for people sharing their native range (nor are they cultivated specifically as a food source), their roots are edible when mashed and boiled. Cabbage trees also provide sustenance for a variety of wildlife species. A variety of caterpillars feed on the leaves of the plant and spin their cocoons on its leaves, while elephants feed on the foliage and seeds.
- Common cabbage trees (Cussonia spicata) – Common cabbage trees are the most commonly seen and cultivated members of the genus. Common cabbage trees thrive in U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zones 9b to 11. Most cabbage trees are tolerant of mild frosts, although prolonged winter cold snaps may kill them off. Mountain cabbage is thought to be more cold tolerant than the common cabbage tree.
- Mountain cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculata) – Mountain cabbage trees are another relatively well-known species in the genus Cussonia. The mountain cabbage tree often grows in difficult environments, and it typically grows rather slowly. Even the tallest specimens rarely exceed 20 feet in height. The mountain cabbage tree is a popular ornamental in some areas, and, thanks to its modest size, it is often suitable for container plantings.
- Cape Coast Cabbage Tree (Cussonia thyrsiflora) – Hailing from the South African Cape region, the Cape coast cabbage tree is a hardy species, that can thrive in sandy, acidic or clay-heavy soils. Growing to about 15 feet in height, this evergreen species makes an interesting addition to gardens in Mediterranean climates.