Phytolacca dioica

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Related Links
Flowers are borne on terminal, more or less pendulous sprays about 10cm long. The flowers are unisexual and male and female flowers are borne on separate trees. Leaves occur alternately on different sides of the branchlets and have long pinkish petioles.
© Ellis RP
A striking medium sized to large, semi-evergreen tree 12-20m tall. It has a short, thick bole and a massively branched, rounded crown. Native to South America (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Peru). Widely cultivated in South Africa for fodder an
© Ellis RP
Succulent, berry-like fruits, measuring about 100mm in diameter, consist of a number of carpels joined at the base. These fruits ripen to a blackish colour early in winter and are eagerly eaten by stock.
© Ellis RP
Grape-like bunches of berry-like fruits. Leaves are simple, ovate to elliptic in shape, pointed at the apex, margins entire, 5-25cm long. These leaves, fruits and the succulent branchlets provide excellent browse - often being fed to livestock in times of
© Ellis RP
A striking feature of the belhambra is the manner in which its root collar and partly exposed surface roots develop with advancing age. The gnarled hump that develops around the base being characteristic. These massive roots make this tree unsuitable for
© Ellis RP
Developing fruit showing the gynoecium with 10 -12 free or slightly connate carpels. The free styles are still persistent at this stage of fruit development.
© Botha R

Local names:
English (phytolacca), Spanish (belombra,bella sombra), Trade name (umbú,packalacca,ombú)

Phytolacca dioica is a spreading deciduous tree, 6-10 m in height, with a domed crown. Trunk erect, stout, uniquely swollen at the base, which may grow to 4 m in diameter, spreading above the ground so that the tree appears to be standing on a mound. Bark grey to pale brown, rough; becomes gnarled with age; young branches fleshy green. The trunk and branches contain up to 80% of water. 

Leaves simple alternate, typical of the family, appearing as terminal whorls; each smooth, oval, somewhat recurved, to 15 cm in length, margin edge appearing white, midrib extending to form a distinct tip; young leaves fresh light-green, leaf stalks and midribs tinged with red.

Flowers small, creamy white, with many stamens arising from 5 green sepals hanging in handsome terminal catkins up to 15 cm in length; in flower the tree is striking. 

Fruits juicy, yellow to black berries with 10 lobes hanging in clusters; irregularly produced after flowering, each 3-7 mm; small, shiny, grey-black seeds are found inside the soft fruits. 

The genus Phytolacca comprises plants from which juice is extracted for dyeing, a fact reflected in the generic name meaning ‘plant that produces juice’, from the Greek ‘phyton’ (plant) and ‘lacca’, a latinized form of the Amerindian word ‘laek’ (shellac), from the colouring property of the fruit. The generic epithet 'dioica' alludes to the fact male and female flowers occur on separate trees in this species.


P. dioica is a tree for mild climates, undemanding in soil fertility and resistant to sea winds. The tree is reputed to grow rapidly to its preferred height but is fairly aggressive in gardens, with root suckers appearing readily above the soil. It is resistant to locusts and ants and will withstand hurricanes and prolonged heat and drought.

Native range
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, United States of America, Uruguay, Venezuela

Tree management

The tree can be pruned to form a perfectly domed crown suitable for shade.

The species may show orthodox seed storage behaviour. There are approximately 150 000 seeds/kg.

P. dioica is a tree for mild climates, undemanding in soil fertility and resistant to sea winds. The tree is reputed to grow rapidly to its preferred height but is fairly aggressive in gardens, with root suckers appearing readily above the soil. It is resistant to locusts and ants and will withstand hurricanes and prolonged heat and drought.

P. dioica can be propagated by direct seeding.

Poison:  The seeds, leaf and root contain saponins.

Leaves are used as fodder in times of drought. However, fruits should be considered potentially toxic to livestock.

Shade or shelter:  P. dioica provides excellent shade in regions where other trees will not grow.

Medicine:  The fruit has been used as a human emetic and purgative; an infusion of the leaves also acts as a purgative. 

Ornamental:  Planted as an unusual ornamental around Nairobi and elsewhere in the highlands of Kenya.