I first fell in love with a Tassel Berry tree at the Hluhluwe Game Reserve Hilltop Camp. It was old, gnarled and shaped by the prevailing wind. By contrast, the tree in our garden leads a sheltered life.
The Tassel Berry (Antidesma venosum) tree is known to attract fructivorous birds that eat the berries and many insect pollinators that feed on the flowers and in turn attract insectivorous birds. Our tree was planted in 2004 in memory of my mother-in-law who had a fondness for wild birds and nature in general.
Our Tassel Berry tree displaying the catkin-like racemes bearing tiny pale flowers
We bought the tree as a small potted sapling, not knowing if it would ever bear fruit, as Tassel Berry trees have male or female flowers on separate trees, with only the female flowers going on to bear fruit. I can’t remember which year it was when we were pleased to find the tree bearing a few tassels of berries, but it has gone on to produce more fruit each season, with this year being particularly bountiful.
Tassels of green berries on our Tassel Berry tree in April
The berries on the Tassel Berry tree do not all ripen at the same time. At first only a few berries ripen and then a few more and then a few more, so as the fruit-bearing season goes on, berries from pale green through shades of pink and red to the dark purple of the ripest berries can be found on the same clusters or tassels of berries.
The first few berries in a cluster that are starting to ripen
Because the ripening of the berries happens in such a variable fashion with the first berries ripening in early May, now, three months later, the tree still has a profusion of berries at different degrees of ripeness. Consequently, the tree offers edible fruit throughout the months of winter. In our garden I have seen bulbuls, robins, Purple-crested Turaco, thrushes, sunbirds and Cape White-eyes after the berries. I have also seen Drongos in the tree at fruiting time but I am not sure if they are eating berries or finding insects.
Although there are many birds attracted to the tree they tend to eat when concealed inside the canopy of the tree and they are difficult to photograph as in addition to being hidden in the foliage they are wary of being approached. Interestingly, one of the common names for the tree in Afrikaans is voëlsitboom and one of the several Zulu names for the tree is umhlalanyoni, both of which approximate to meaning resting or sitting place/tree of birds.
A sunbird in the Tassel Berry tree during the fruiting season
Berries of varying ripenesses in abundance in the Tassel Berry tree in mid-July this year
The berries are small, being slightly smaller than the average garden pea, each with one seed. They sweeten as they ripen though they can still be quite sour. They are edible to people, though I have yet to try one
In the wild the leaves are browsed by many animals (including elephant and several antelope) and in addition to many birds, many mammals eat the fruit (antelope, baboons and Vervet monkeys, and nocturnal animals such as bats, civets and genets). Fruits that are helpfully dropped to the ground are eaten by bushpig, antelope, francolins and many insects too. All play their part in seed dispersal.
Cape White-eyes (one largely concealed) in the Tassel Berry tree
As the season progresses, the long tassels gradually get picked clean of the riper berries
Usually the riper berries seem to be preferred, but some ripe berries remain on these tassels. To grow from seed, it is best to pick ripe berries and then dry them in the shade to remove the flesh before planting them in seed trays
The Tassel Berry tree occurs naturally mostly at forest margins at lower altitudes and grows along the eastern seaboard of Africa from the Eastern Cape in the south to the Sudan in the north. The trees are deciduous or partly deciduous depending on rainfall patterns. In our garden, the tree loses most of its leaves at the end of the fruiting season in late winter into early spring
The Tassel Berry tree in our garden at the end of a very dry winter in September 2017
The Tassel Berry tree looking somewhat leafier in a much greener space in December 2017 after some early summer rain. The tree gains a more weeping habit as it gets older making it easier for ground-dwelling animals to browse or forage in the lower branches. In our garden Vervet monkeys often eat fruits from the tree while standing on the ground on their hind legs
As lovely and busy as the tree is when fruiting, it is also a very dynamic space during the flowering season. As we only have a female tree, I only have photographs of the long racemes bearing female flowers. The male flowers with conspicuous fluffy stamens are on much longer stalks. The flowers are often described as being smelly or else scented of honey, but I have only noticed a rather vague sweetness. Many insects, most noticeably pollinating flies, come to eat the nectar and pollen.
According to many sources pollinators attracted to Tassel Berry flowers include butterflies and bees, but on our tree I seldom see either, with the predominant pollinators being a variety of flies (see earlier post on flies as pollinators), as well as an intriguing variety of insects abundant among the flowers.
Tassel Berry flowers early in the season. On the right-hand raceme a fly can just be seen, perhaps providing some perspective on how tiny the flowers are. This photograph was taken in mid-February
A colourful blow fly feeding on the tiny flowers that are still a very pale yellow, in early February
By the end of February the flowers are starting to go over and are noticeably brown
An ant savouring the delights of the Tassel Berry flowers
I spotted this net-winged beetle visiting the Tassel Berry tree during February
A species of hover fly feeding from a flower
A strikingly colourful and tiny leaf-beetle feeding among the Tassel Berry flowers
Another of the several species of fly that visit the flowers, acting as vital pollinators in the process
A stripy house fly
Above and below are very tiny mantis-like creatures. I think they might be mantidflies (mantispids), which I had not heard of before. They cannot rotate their heads like proper mantises, but they do have relatively strong and large forelimbs for catching insects
The mantisfly above is extending its right forelimb showing its size and power. I assume they are attracted to the Tassel Berry tree to catch the insects that arrive to feed on the flowers. I had not seen these tiny insects before and I found them to be most entrancing. Really they are too small to be captured by my camera lens but I couldn’t resist giving it my best shot
Boon, Richard. 2010 (2nd ed.). Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa. Durban: Flora & Fauna; Nichols, Geoff. 2013. Antidesma venosum (Tassel-berry). Flora and Fauna Publications Trust. http://www.floratrust.co.za/blog/cat/snippets-fyi/post/Antidesma-venosum-Tassel-berry/; Picker, Mike, Griffiths, Charles & Weaving, Alan. 2019. Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. Cape Town: Struik Nature; Venter, Fanie & Julye-Ann. 1996. Making the Most of Indigenous Trees. Pretoria: Briza.
Posted by Carol