Even though South Africa is not rich in indigenous coniferous trees, arguably some of our most impressive trees fall into this category. Colloquially known as Yellowwoods, four species are found in South Africa and they are all protected in legislation.
1. The Outeniqua Yellowwood, Podocarpus (Afrocarpus) falcatus, is our tallest indigenous tree, growing to 60m and even taller in height – these enormous specimens are estimated to be more than a thousand years old! Sadly the majority of these most impressive trees were lost in rampant logging during the 1800’s. It is also known as the Bastard Yellowwood in the other African countries where it occurs. The IUCN lists it as being of least concern.
2. Henkel’s Yellowwood, Podocarpus henkelii, and also known as the Natal and Drooping-leaf Yellowwood, has a more restricted distribution and is mainly found in the forests of the Drakensberg in the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal. It can grow up to 30m tall and has a very recognisable pyramid-shaped growth form. The IUCN considers it to be an endangered species.
3. The Real Yellowwood or Broad-leaved Yellowwood, Podocarpus latifolius, is our officially designated national tree, and is considered to be of least concern by the IUCN. The Real Yellowwood grows to 35m tall.
4. The Breede River Yellowwood, Podocarpus elongatus, is the smallest of the four species found in South Africa and often appears more a multi-stemmed shrub than a tree, growing as wide as it does in height. It seldom grows taller than 6m, though some sheltered specimens have been measured at around 20m in height. It too is not considered to be in any danger in the opinion of the IUCN, though it occurs only in a relative small corner of the country in the winter rainfall region of the Western Cape province.
Occurring in coastal, riverine and montane forests, our Yellowwoods are slow-growing, evergreen trees that grow naturally in the moist south and east of the country. Yellowwoods are dioecious, which means there are separate male and female trees. You probably figured out that the wood is yellowish in colour, with that of the Outeniqua and Real Yellowwoods prized for making high-quality furniture, floors and ceilings. The Yellowwoods are also beautiful border or specimen plants in gardens, though they never attain their full potential size outside their native forests (which might be a good thing, come to think of it!). Various kinds of birds and animals consume the ripe fruit.
Yellowwoods are ancient trees, having been endemic to the super continent of Gondwana before it broke up into Africa, India, South America, Australia and their associated islands.