Top 10 trees to plant in a small garden

Heteropyxis natalensis (Lavender Tree)

With its pale bark, beautiful shape, and semi-deciduous foliage, the Lavender Tree, Heteropyxis natalensis, is one of our favourite small garden trees. It has a very ornamental shape, and is an ideal replacement for the exotic Silver Birch or ubiquitous Leopard Tree (Caesalpinnea ferrea). Lavender Trees are slower growing than other species on this list, but with patience they offer the home owner a beautiful specimen for their gardens. In the wild they are frequently found on rocky hillsides, and in Gauteng some beautiful specimens exist in the Tweedespruit conservancy on the outskirts of Cullinan.

Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach)

This magnificent semi-deciduous tree can grow to over 12 metres in ideal conditions, but usually reaches between 8 – 10 metres. It has beautiful light grey-green foliage, and is ideal if you do not want your garden to appear too dark. The Kiggelaria has male and female parts on separate trees, so if you want a tree that provides fruit for birds you must choose a female tree from your nursery (Not an easy task for your nurseryman if the specimens are small! Try to look for the small grey-green fruit cases during the fruiting season, February-July) Female/fruiting trees attract a host of birds that feed on the orange-red seeds within the fruit casing, thus turning your garden into a natural wildlife haven.

Both male and female plants attract the Acraea horta butterfly which lays its eggs on the underside of the leaves. When the eggs hatch an eruption of black caterpillars appear, which in turn attract insect eating birds, especially cuckoos (look out for Diederik Cuckoos). Some home owners become despondent when the caterpillars attack their plants, and some even resort to using pesticides to keep them at bay! But do not despair if you see caterpillars on this particular plant – this is a natural life-cycle for the tree and it will soon recover with a fresh set of leaves. The Kiggelaria is relatively fast growing, provides excellent screening, and has a sturdy trunk. All in all an excellent choice for the small garden.

Dais Cotinifolia (Pompon Tree)

The Pompon tree, Dais Cotinifolia, is one of the most beautiful indigenous trees and has become a very popular species in Johannesburg. It is an excellent substitute for the exotic Pride-of-India, and although it does not flower as long as that species, it’s explosion of pink flowers in summer provides a stunning display for any garden. The Pompon tree is a relatively fast grower and is frost tolerant. It is regularly used along pavements and sidewalks in Gauteng, and under certain conditions can grow to a height of 8+ metres. (although it will usually grow to between 6-8 metres). All in all this is an outstanding choice for your small garden.

Apodytes dimidiata (White pear)

The White pear, Apodytes dimidiata, is an excellent choice for the small garden. It grows at a medium pace, and its dark evergreen foliage makes it an outstanding screening tree. Like the Buddleja it can even be used as an effective hedge if pruned for this purpose, although I prefer to plant it to grow in its natural state. Apodytes will usually reach 6-8 metres, but may take about 8+ years to do so. It is an excellent replacement for the alien privet which unfortunately has proliferated throughout Gauteng. Look for the small black seeds with orange-red casing if you’re hiking in a kloof in Gauteng – a tell-tale sign that this species is growing close by.

Dombeya rotundifolia (Wild pear)

The Wild Pear, Dombeya rotundifolia, is an indigenous species that can grow to a height of 8+ metres. This is a fully deciduous species, losing all its leaves in winter, so if it’s an evergreen tree you’re after then you’ll need to look elsewhere. Despite this it makes a stunning specimen for your garden in summer, exploding into masses of white flowers and making it one of the most attractive species on the list. If you find yourself hiking in one of the many nature reserves in Gauteng during the flowering season (July – October) keep a look out for this species as its flowers are striking and alert you to its presence. It has a non-aggressive root system so is suitable to plant closer to walls and paving.

Heteromorpha arborescens var. abyssinica (Parsley Tree)

The Parsley tree is a common species of the South African highveld, and can regularly be found on walks and trails in Gauteng, particularly in wooded or rocky kloofs. It has dark brown bark that peels off of the trunk and branches, making it distinctive and relatively easy to identify in the field. It grows to a height of 8-10 metres and larger specimens will create a beautiful crown. This tree does have a tendency to spray its branches in all directions when young, but with patience it will turn into a magnificent specimen for your garden.

Bolusanthus speciosus (Tree Wisteria)

The Tree Wisteria, Bolusanthus speciosus, is a stunning small to medium sized tree that grows at a medium pace. It is an ideal replacement for the exotic Jacaranda, and although it does not grow as large as that species home owners should look at planting this species if they’re aiming for the same bluish-mauve colour in Spring. It has a non-aggressive root system and is a welcome addition to any garden. Beautiful specimens exist at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens.

Buddleja saligna (False Olive)

The Buddleja saligna, False Olive, has become one of the most popular indigenous trees in Gauteng, and with good reason. At 1 – 1.5 metres growth per year it is one of the fastest growers on this list. The benefit to the home owner is that this species can reach a height of 3 – 4 metres in just a few years, thus providing excellent screening in the shortest possible time. However, being fast does have its disadvantages. Sometimes the Buddleja can look a bit ‘scruffy’ after a few years, and because the branches are not as strong as other species, they often tend to droop after heavy rains, especially if they are carrying masses of white flowers. Despite these potential drawbacks this is still a wonderful species to choose. Home owners should prune Buddlejas according to the shape they want them to grow – in other words, cut away lower branches to encourage a tree shape.

If you allow it to grow into its natural form however you will be rewarded with masses of white flowers which attract a multitude of insects, and it’s not uncommon to see this plant covered in beetles, ants, butterflies and bees during the flowering season. Finally, do not confuse this species with its cousin the Wild Olive (Olea europeae subsp. africana). The latter is a much larger species and generally unsuitable for small gardens – see our section at the end of this article on why we omitted the Wild Olive.

Pittosporum viridiflorum (Cheesewood)

This indigenous Pittosporum has become a popular garden subject, and has a large distribution on the Highveld. It is a medium-paced grower, is evergreen and makes an excellent screening tree. It sports beautiful yellow, edible berries at the end of the flowering season (April/May) which are well loved by birds. This species has a non-aggressive root system so it is safe to plant alongside paving or retaining walls. It also makes an excellent alternative to the exotic Pittosporum tenuifolium that is frequently used as a screening plant, so consider this tree if you’re in a complex or estate that requires the use of indigenous species.

Indigofera jacunda (River Indigo)

This beautiful small tree or shrub is an ideal species if you have a very small garden space. It is semi-deciduous and sheds some of its leaves in winter, leaving behind small brown tube-shaped pods. It is very easy to grow from seed and you will often find small seedlings growing beneath adult plants in your garden. The flowers are a pink and white combination which attract a host of insects – so much so that we rate this as one of the most prolific insect attracting species. It is also a very fast grower, but this can sometimes be a drawback as the branches may be weak and break in a heavy thunderstorm. Despite these problems, if you decide to plant it in your garden you will soon find it becoming one of your favourite plants. Prune it appropriately in order to encourage a tree shape. A large specimen can be found growing at the entrance to the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens.