Calodendrum literally means a beautiful tree – kalos means beautiful, and dendron tree in Greek. I am reminded of the famous discourse between Diotima, a seeress and midwife from Mantinea in the Peloponessus, and Socrates; tes genneseos kai tou tokou en to kalo – Eros (love) is an easthetic desire, the passion for engendering and expressing the Beautiful. Perhaps one can say that the Cape Chestnut was created to remind us how important beauty is our lives.
Without the experience of beauty we cannot be alive in the true sense of the word. Without the experience of beauty our lives close down and becomes brittle and hard, encrusted with insensitivity. Beauty is the breath of life that awakens us from our cold winter dreams, or as Simone Weil so beautifully expresses: Beauty is that small tear in the surface of the world that pulls us through to some vaster space, lifting us out of ourselves.
But I digress, the sight of my Cape Chestnut tree in flower lifts me into a philosophical mood. It was Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), pupil of Linnaeus and the ‘father of South African botany’, who named it Calodendrum. He was so excited when he he saw a Cape Chestnut in flower at Grootvaderbosch (Big father’s forest) in 1772, that he fired his gun and one of the blooms dropped into his hand.
It occurs along the south and east coast of southern Africa through the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Swaziland, Gauteng, North West and Northern Province and into tropical Africa as far north as Tanzania and Ethiopia, and grows mainly in forests and ravines.
Calodendrum capense is a member of the Rutaceae, the buchu & citrus family, One of the diagnostic features of this family is the presence of oil glands on the leaves, visible as tiny translucent dots when held up to the light. Another common feature, caused by the oil, is the strong scent of the leaves, particularly when they are crushed. The Cape Chestnut’s leaves have a lemony-pine scent. The stunningly beautiful flowers also have a faint lemony-pine scent. Cape Chestnuts have a relatively long juvenile phase and will mostly flower only when it is 7 or 8 years old.
The bark is used as an ingredient of skin ointments and is sold at traditional medicine markets. Seeds are crushed and boiled to obtain oil that is suitable for making soap. The Xhosa believe that the seeds have magic properties, and hunters used to tie them around their wrists when hunting to bring them skill and good luck.
Cape Chestnut oil, extracted from the seeds, is also known as Yangu oil. In the Mount Kenya region seeds are harvested by local women’s groups and then processed into oil. The income supports the adjacent communities of the Kikuyu tribe. The oil has natural UV protection, high content of fatty acids (especially linoleic) and antioxidants. It is very popular for African hair and skin care. The oil has good affinity for hair proteins due to its high essential fatty acid and antioxidant content, which means that like coconut oil, it can penetrate the hair shaft and bond to the keratin in hair.
Typical Fatty Acid Profile:
Margaric 0.10%17:1………… 0.10%18:0
It seems that the Calodendrum capense deserves its name in more than one way; it not only brings beauty into our lives, it also helps to keep us beautiful!