Original article by Alice Aubrey from Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden
Dombeya rotundifolia Hochst. Family: Malvaceae Common names: wild pear (English); drolpeer (Afrikaans); iNhliziyonkhulu (Zulu); mohlabaphala (N. Sotho); motubane (Tswana); nsihaphukuma (Tsonga) SA Tree No: 471
This lovely tree gets its English common name, wild pear, from the masses of white blooms which appear before the leaves in early spring. It bears a resemblance to a true pear (Pyrus communis) in full flower. However, it is no relation of the pear tree, which is in the Rose family (Roseaceae) like the peach and apricot.
The wild pear is a lovely garden specimen, and the spectacular show of scented flowers is a herald of spring. It has a single stem and a somewhat rounded crown. It is both frost and drought resistant. The flowers appear from July to September, the earlier flowering taking place in the warmer northern areas.
Like other Dombeya species the flowers remain on the tree until after the fruit capsules have formed in the center of each flower. The petals turn brown and become dry and light. Once the fruit is ripe and falls from the tree, the petals act as wings and float it away.
This is a deciduous, very fast-growing tree, 1 - 1.5 m per year. It may reach up to 10 m in height but is usually between 3 and 6 m. The bark is dark brown, very rough and corky on mature trees. It forms a protective, fire-resistant layer around the trunk. The leaves are almost round and are covered with the minute star-like hairs which are a characteristic of Dombeya.
Dombeya rotundifolia grows in woodland, wooded grassland and rocky mountain slopes from KwaZulu-Natal northwards to Ethiopia.
The name Dombeya was given in honour of Joseph Dombey (1742 - 1793), a French botanist who worked in Peru and Chile. Rotundifolia refers to the round leaves of this species.
The dried flowers of the wild pear can be used in flower arranging. This is a good wildlife garden tree as it attracts bees and butterflies. It is a larval food plant for the Ragged Skipper (Caprona pillaana) butterfly. The wild pear is also reportedly a good bonsai specimen, which develops the corky bark and reduced leaf size after 2 - 3 years.
Dombeya rotundifolia has many traditional uses. Strong rope fibre is made from the bark, and the plant is used medicinally for various purposes, including a love potion made from the flowers. It is a useful tree on farms and nature reserves, as game and stock browse from it. The wood is termite-resistant and often used as fence posts. Bee farmers also appreciate the tree for the large amounts of nectar and pollen which it produces.
The wild pear can be propagated from seed in spring in deep seed trays of good, fine seedling mix, lightly covered with sand and kept moist. The seedlings should be transplanted once the true leaves have formed, into small nursery bags filled with a 3:1 mixture of sand and compost. They should be given protection from heat and sun until they are hardened off.