Caesalpinia ferrea, the beautiful leopard tree, may seem to be an African tree, but it actually originates from Brazil.
You’ll find this delicate tree already showing lots of character as it stands with its pale, upright trunk in a 20-litre nursery bag. The rust-brown new leaves at the growth points of its many branches, and the mid-green,compound oval leaves further along the branches are attractive and delicate and it is plain to see that this tree is not going to provide deep shade. (This also means that you won’t need to go searching for deep shade plants that battle to grow amongst tree roots.) The smooth bark exfoliates easily but incompletely, often leaving large dark brown patches against a light background – the reason for the common name.
If you are in a nursery somewhere in Johannesburg or Cape Town, they might say that this is a slender tree with an unusual trunk, and that it is ideal for small gardens. This is because in moderate climates that experience light frost or dry summer climates, the leopard tree is not a giant – Mother Nature stunts its growth. But be warned, if you plant it in Durban or the Lowveld, (its natural habitat is similar to our humid subtropics) the leopard tree grows to 15 m tall with an aggressive root system that mirrors the size of the tree above the ground.
Caesalpinia ferrea should rather not be planted close to structures, underground cables, drains and water pipes. But if you have lost your heart to the exotic tree, do plant one or more in your garden, or even in large pots in your courtyard.
When do they bloom?
Tiny, golden yellow, bell-shaped flowers appear in spring, followed by dark seed pods.