Catha edulis (Vahl.) Endl.
Common names: Bushman’s tea (Eng.); Boesmanstee (Afr.); umhlwazi (Zulu); iqgwaka (Xhosa); khat (Arabic)
This is a very attractive, small deciduous tree, with bright green leaves that turn to a pleasing yellowish colour in autumn. Its beauty is also complemented by its upright crown, and somewhat drooping branches, resembling a eucalypt from a distance.
Bushman’s tea is a shrub to small tree growing up to 10 m tall. The stem is usually straight and slender, with a narrow crown. The bark is light grey, becoming darker. It is rough and often cracked. The young stems are pinkish in colour. The leaves of this tree are opposite and are hanging. They have a leathery texture and are shiny bright green on the upper surface and paler beneath. The leaf margins are strongly serrated. Leaf stalks are short and pinkish in colour.
Creamy-white to greenish minute flowers are borne in leaf axils in spring. They appear in clusters. In late October, the tree bears reddish brown, three-lobed capsules. They are 10 mm long and in late summer split to release the narrowly winged seeds.
Distribution and habitat
Khat is found in woodlands and on rocky outcrops. It is scattered in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, mostly from the mistbelt, moving inland. It is also found in the Western Cape, Mpumalanga, Swaziland, Mozambique and through to tropical Africa and the Arab countries.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The generic name Catha is derived from the Arabic common name for this plant khat and the specific name edulis is a Greek word meaning ‘edible’. It is derived from the leaves of this tree being used in teas by the Bushmen, as it contains a habit-forming stimulant.
C. edulis belongs to the Celastraceae family, commonly known as the spike thorn family. The family has about 60 tree species in southern Africa, and thus counts as one of the ten largest tree families in the region. The largest genus of this family in the region is Gymnosporia. Most of the family members have spines, or are armed with spinescent shoots.
Bushman’s tea is attractive in the garden. It can be planted in groups or in mixed beds where it gives height all year round and beauty in the autumn months.
The plant is widely used against respiratory diseases. In tropical Africa and Arab countries it provides the habit-forming stimulant found in the leaves. The leaves are brewed as tea or chewed for this purpose. The effects include wakefulness and hyperexcitability, and suppressed hunger. In South Africa, this plant is regarded as a drug, since the drug cathinone, which is extracted from it, is listed in the Drug Act. It is however not widely used in this country, except by some groups of people from the Eastern Cape.
The wood of Bushman’s tea is also used for a number of purposes. It is hard and fine-grained, and therefore is good for firewood and furniture. The bark is also used as an insect repellent and the stem for fence poles.
Growing Catha edulis
C. edulis can be grown from seeds that are harvested just before the fruits split. The seeds may be sown in early spring, in trays filled with compost or seeding mix. The trays should be kept moist in a well-lit warm area. The seeds can also be sown straight into the prepared ground.
Bushman’s tea also grows quickly from root cuttings. Cuttings of new roots may be taken in the growing season, and planted immediately in pots filled with compost. They may then be covered with wood chippings to preserve heat and moisture. Cuttings should not be watered until the shoots have appeared, to avoid rotting.
- Pooley, E. 1993. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Schmidt, E., Lötter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees ands shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park. Jacana, Johannesburg.
- Van Wyk, B.-E., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B. & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
Mhlonishwa D. Dlamini
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Shrub, Tree
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga
Catha edulis Catha edulis (Vahl.) Endl. Common names: Bushman’s tea (Eng.); Boesmanstee (Afr.); umhlwazi (Zulu); iqgwaka (Xhosa); khat (Arabic) Introduction This is a very attractive,