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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.
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 Zulu name iNhliziyonkhulu, translates to “the great heart”.
Infusions are used orally or as enemas to treat internal ulcers but also for haemorrhoids, diarhhoea and stomach problems. It is claimed to be effective against nausea in pregnant women. Decoctions of the bark are occasionally used in delayed labor, to hasten the onset of the process. It is also used for chest complaints.
Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West. Not endemic to South Africa. Dombeya rotundifolia grows in woodland, wooded grassland and rocky mountain slopes from KwaZulu-Natal northwards to Ethiopia.
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 centre 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. The flowers are produced in masses in spring (before the leaves appear).
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 large, leathery leaves are almost round and are covered with the minute star-like hairs which are a characteristic of Dombeya.
The tree has become a popular garden subject. 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.
Uses: 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.
Infusions or decoctions of the bark (rarely the roots) are taken orally or injected as enemas, sometimes mixed with other ingredients. The powdered root may be burnt and the smoke inhaled, after which the powder is used as snuff. The bark may be chewed.
There appears to be limited published information on the chemical composition of Dombeya species. A preliminary screening indicates the presence of tannins, saponins and cardiac glycosides. Other well-known members of the family (Cola and Theobroma species) contain pharmaceutically important purine bases, such as caffeine but these alkaloids have not yet een found in Dombeya species. Antibacterial compounds were isolated and identified as fatty acids, including palmitic, myristic, lauric and stearic acids.
Extracts showed modest antibacterial activity but pronounced anti-inflammatory activity.
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