Sneezewood, Nieshout, Umthathe (Zulu), Umthatha (Xhosa)

Alien Species: Ptaeroxylon obliquum

Beyers Cronje

Name derivation: Ptaeroxylon = from the Greek words meaning “sneezewood”, and obliquum = referring to the oblique leaves.

Umthatha in the Eastern Cape takes its name directly from the Xhosa name for the tree.

National Tree Number: SA No. 292

As Turners I am sure that there is not a single one of us who in driving past the ubiquitous sneezewood fencepost has wondered as to the beauty that lies beneath.  This is a first in a series of articles that will expose you to our indigenous trees and their uses.

As far as identification is concerned, look out for the following:

·         Height:  Can grow up to 35 meters tall, but you are more likely to encounter much smaller ones.

·         Deciduous or evergreen: Evergreen to semi deciduous.

Beyers Cronje

·         Bark: Dark grey with deep longitudinal and inter- linked furrows on older branches and stems.


·         Leaves: with a slightly winged rachis bearing 3-8 opposite dark green leaflets, autumn foliage yellow to reddish. Leaves are distinctly oblique.

·         Flowers: In short branched heads, flowers sweetly scented, 5-7 mm in diameter.  4 Petals and a fleshy disc.  Male and female flowers occur on different trees.


·         Fruit: an oblong 2 lobed capsule with the top part notched turning reddish brown when mature, splitting to release winged pods.

·         Wood: Fine grained, the sapwood yellowish brown and the heartwood honey brown, hard and heavy (air-dry 1040Kg/m3), containing an aromatic oil (containing nieshoutol) with a slight peppery smell causing sneezing.


Distribution:  From Tanzania all the way to the Eastern Cape.


Uses:  Widely used as a general purpose timber but makes very durable furniture.  This was regarded as one of the best woods for making riempie benches and chairs.  Beams of this wood are still in use after installation 200 years ago.  Sneezewood lasts nearly indefinitely in water and this makes it ideal for bridge and jetty construction.  Wood was once cut by the tons for railway sleepers, and is nowadays incorrectly called “Yellow Jarra” by furniture manufacturers.  Still a popular wood with stock farmers as they use it for almost indestructible fence poles.  It has also been used as machine bearings often outlasting brass or iron.  The wood for xylophones is baked for a few hours.  On its removal it is almost flexible.  Once it hardens it develops near metallic resonance.  The longer it is baked, the better the sound.  Each key is tuned individually.

Beyers Cronje

Snuff made from the bark and wood is used to treat headaches and sinusitis.  To remove warts in humans and cattle, resin collected from the heated wood is placed on warts until they disappear. Pieces of wood are still placed in cupboards to repel moths and other insects.  This insect repelling ability made it popular for the manufacture of bedsteads.  Powdered bark added to a wash will kill ticks on cattle.

The wood is reported to burn like paraffin giving a bright hot fire.  It was also used as tinder to make fire by friction.  It has been reported that it was used to fuel lime kilns in the Bathurst area and for steam tugs at the Kowie. This is a protected tree in South Africa.

Until next time, keep on sneezing!

Dave Pattle