The snuff box tree

The snuff-box tree (oncoba spinosa) is a really pretty tree to have in your garden.  I have two in the area between the cottages and they are about to get their summer foliage.  What brought the tree to my attention is it’s unusual hard-shelled fruit  which are traditionally used to make little snuff boxes by cutting off the point at the top and scraping out the fruit pulp.  My dad made me a little snuff-box when he visited recently.  A small stick is then carved to use as a plug to close the snuff-box.  I just don’t have any snuff and I don’t intend to start using it so I must find another use for it.  The husks also lend themselves to craft work, being painted or engraved.

The snuff-box tree grows up to 5 m, but may sometimes reach a height of 8 m. The bark of this plant is mottled grey and rather smooth. The leaves are dark, glossy green in colour and somewhat leathery and hairless. The margins are coarsely toothed. It bears large (90 mm wide) showy, sweet-scented, white flowers with masses of yellow, overlapping stamens in the centre . Flowers somewhat resemble a fried egg and in Zimbabwe it is called the fried-egg flower.

This tree occurs in the northeastern part of South Africa, primarily in Mpumalanga and further north.

The pulp of the fruit is edible, but is seldom used for that purpose. In African medicine the roots are used in the treatment of dysentery and bladder complaints.

Large yellow fruit, to 9cm in diameter, have a flavour very similar to almond meal. The tree is a source of chaulmoogra oil, valued for its medicinal properties and was used to treat leprosy around the world in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

If the fruit are left to dry with the seeds inside they it make amusing rattles for children and are also used as anklets and armlets for dancers to add rhythm when performing.

It is a protected tree in South Africa.

I have so many interesting trees on my farm – maybe I should start selling their seeds?

Fruiting Oncoba spinosa. Taken at the Universi...

Image via Wikipedia


9 thoughts on “The snuff box tree

  1. What a cute use for a lovely tree…and even if you don’t use snuff, you can always use it store “valuables” like love letters, mementos, or maybe just some dried herbs 😉


  2. Just found this posting of yours when testing my “search” button on my blog. There is a clump of these trees in Skukuza and I was admiring the flowers but didn’t know what it was called – thank you!


  3. I have picked up a number of these fruit and would dearly live to plant the seeds. I have dry as well as green fruit. When and how do I sow it?


    • Nerine, if stored too long, the fruit dries into a very hard little ball, containing all of the small seed inside the hard shell. You simply break open the shell and submerge the fruit- ball in water to soak up moisture and soften. The small, flattish seeds are easily separated from the pulp. If planted in a 50/50 sand potting mixture your success rate is almost 100%.

      A tiny hole can be made on the “flower-side” of the fruit, extracting and eating the fruit using a match stick or toothpick, through the hole. Very tasteful!

      The pulp resembles and smells almost like the “Marimba Jam” laxative which is widely sold in SA pharmacies.


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