Photo: Stinkwood linen press c1860 – The Crown Collection
Do you remember the masterly crafted wooden furniture that graced the homes of our parents and grandparents? Each piece was magnificent, created by craftsmen who understood and loved the special properties of the woods they used. These iconic pieces of late 19th century and early 20th century crafts were most probably made of stinkwood or yellowwood – or a combination of the two. The dark, lustrous stinkwood was beautifully offset by the glowing golden yellowwood.
Alas, we don’t see much of this furniture in modern homes nowadays. In the mid- to late 20th century, “brown” furniture became unfashionable. It was then all about the Scandinavian look of clean lines and light and bright furniture. You couldn’t give your stinkwood away – or if no-one would take it, it was painted white with one or other “paint effect”. Some people were appalled. To quote a cabinet-maker I knew, “I know it happens, but I don’t want to be there when it does”.
Now, a century on, there is more appreciation for these beautifully crafted antique wooden pieces, but timber from both stinkwood and yellowwood is now protected from exploitation in South Africa.
All the Podocarpus (Yellowwood) species are now protected in South Africa. In the past, they were so sought after as timber trees that from being an abundant resource, they became almost extinct in many areas.
Real yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius) is distinctly South African, and should you ever admire some piece of golden-hued antique South African furniture, it’s likely that it was crafted from yellowwood. But to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “We kill what we love most,” and the aggressive cutting of South Africa’s yellowwoods led to its near eradication. Today, however, the tree has been declared South Africa’s national tree and is protected. It is illegal to injure a yellowwood tree in any way—they are very slow-growing, but left to live their natural lives, yellowwoods can flourish to amazing heights.
The “Big Tree” of Tsitsikamma National Park stands 36.6m high, with a 9m circumference around the base of the trunk. Nobody knows the tree’s exact age. Estimates range from six hundred to more than a thousand years.
The natural habitat of real yellowwood is mountainous areas and forests in the southern, eastern and northern parts of South Africa. However, it also makes a good garden specimen as it does not grow very large outside the protection afforded by forests.
The real yellowwood has been used more than any other South African timber. Think of the yellowwood floors and ceilings in the old Cape homesteads. It was used a lot for tables and cupboards, as it polishes up very well. The South African Railways used the timber to make railway sleepers. In the old days it was also used to make wagon boxes and coffins. It was popular for butchers’ blocks because the wood is hard, does not chip easily and doesn’t have a smell.
The black stinkwood (Ocotea bullata), or simply stinkwood, as it is commonly known, is a large evergreen tree.
Along with yellowwood, its timber was much sought after to make traditional Cape furniture often designed to highlight the colour contrast.
Photo: Stinkwood tree – Knysna Museums
The stinkwood is naturally a tall tree and can reach up to 30m in height. The leaves are very distinctive – dark and glossy green with wavy leaf margins. The most obvious feature is the blister-like bubbles on the upper surface in the vein margins. These bubbles are known as bullae, hence the species name bullata. The fruits are borne in “cups”, somewhat like acorns.
Ocotea bullata occurs naturally in most of the high forests of South Africa, from the kloofs of Table Mountain to the mountain forests of Limpopo, and it is at its best in the Knysna forests.
Even though it is difficult to propagate, it makes for a fine specimen tree in larger gardens and parks. Like yellowwoods, stinkwoods are protected. They “may not be cut, disturbed, damaged, destroyed and their products may not be possessed, collected, removed, transported, exported, donated, purchased or sold” (except by permit). Stinkwood is also listed as an endangered species.
However, the bark is collected illegally for traditional medicines. It is used mostly as a remedy for headache, urinary diseases and as an emetic for emotional and nervous disorders. It is one of the top ten traded plants in South Africa.
Because of this, now (according to PlantZAfrica) “only stumps and a few saplings remain in Newlands forest (Table Mountain) as the bark is heavily stripped”, leading to tree death.
Despite its common name — given for the horrid smell the tree gives off when first cut — stinkwood has remained a tremendously popular wood with permitted South African fine furniture craftsmen and cabinet makers. Long may this beautiful wood grace our interiors.