Monday 5 October 2020

Dermatobotrys saundersii Tree jockey


Dermatobotrys saundersii Bolus.

Family: Scrophulariaceae

Common names: tree jockey


The genus Dermatobotrys is a member of the snap dragon family (Scrophulariaceae) which is related to the Tree Fuchsia, Halleria lucida. Dermatobotrys has only one species. Seeds sent to Kew in the 1890s germinated well and plants have been grown in cultivation ever since.


Dermatobotrys saundersii is an epiphytic shrublet that can reach one metre in height , which grows in the forks of a variety of trees, on the Pondo Palm or Coconut – Jubaeopsis caffra and occasionally on the forest floor.

Dermatobotrys saundersii. The leaves are soft and fleshy with shallow toothed margins and reddish veins. Under natural conditions the plant is deciduous, losing its leaves in late autumn. The tubular deep red flowers appear from mid-winter to mid-summer (June to December), followed by smooth oval brownish fruit filled with numerous small seeds in a sweetish pulp.

It's an odd member of the Snapdragon family that makes a caudex-like base and terrific flowers.  Even without blooms it's a first-rate house plant, with its woody stems and attractive leaves that have an interesting scent when rubbed.

Dermatobotrys saundersii develops thick, woody rhizomes that resemble a caudex.  From the base emerges a wavy mass of upright, woody stems, each about up to one meter long.  The leaves have a rubbery texture, with new growth that is tinged red or purplish.  When rubbed, they have a scent that is hard to describe, but it is sort of like lemon furniture polish!  It is not a bad scent, just an unexpected one for a plant.


In its natural habitat Dermatobotrys saundersii flowers in late winter when the days start to lengthen which brings this plant out of its dormancy to flower before the leaves are fully grown.



The fruits are relatively large, spinning top-shaped about 25mm long by about 20mm in diameter at their widest. The fruits have a bitter pungent smell and taste.

The fruits which ripen a few months after flowering are readily eaten by monkeys, hornbills and other birds in spring and early summer ensuring that the many hundred fine seeds per fruit, are distributed to germinate in leaf litter lined tree forks at the height of the rainy season. Like many of the family Scrophulariaceae the seed capsules and even the leaves when rubbed have a pungent smell. The fruits are eaten by forest birds which seem not to mind this acrid taste.

Conservation Status

Although it is regarded as not threatened, and assessed as Least Concern (LC) on the Red List of South African plants , this is a rare species with a high habitat specificity.

Distribution and habitat

This rare epiphytic plant is found in coastal scarp forests in South Africa on the Transkei coast on the northern banks of the Mtentu and Msikaba rivers close to the ocean. It also found growing further north in southern Zululand to in the canopy of our coastal forests at Ngoye, Nkandla, Qudeni, Ngome and Gwalaweni.

It is also found in Madagascar.


It is likely that this plant with its red tubular flowers is pollinated by sunbirds. The fruit has a most unusual scent, which may attract fruit eating birds and small arboreal mammals, which eat the fruit and distribute the seed.

Growing Dermatobotrys saundersii

These attractive plants are easily grown and make very good container plant subjects in particular when grown in hanging baskets. For best results treat Dermatobotrys saundersii as any other epiphyte, it is however important not to over water. Dermatobotrys saundersii grows best in a loose well drained growing medium with plenty of organic material such as leaf litter, compost or chopped coco nut fibre as sold for growing orchids. If grown outdoors or in a green house in areas prone to eel worm (nematodes) keep the plants off of the ground preferably in hanging baskets to prevent these pests from attacking the roots causing the plants to grow very poorly or in extreme cases killing the plants.

Although Dermatobotrys saundersii will grow in rather heavy shade it will not flower well, it flowers best in medium to partial shade and will tolerate full sun.

Dermatobotrys saundersii will grow indoors in a bright well-lit room or under lights where it will tend to flower at any time of the year.

When grown indoors Dermatobotrys saundersii prefers filtered sunlight or morning sun.  Protect it from strong afternoon sun.


I feed a weak solution of liquid fertiliser alternating between organic and non-organic fertilisers. Every once and a while the plants need to be drenched with pure water to prevent the build up of salts in the growing medium.

Pests and diseases

In the close on 50 years that I have grown Dermatobotrys saundersii I have found them relatively pest free other than being extremely prone to nematode attack if they are placed on the ground.


For best flowering results dry the plants off almost completely for two to three months in winter to let them rest as in their natural habitat. Your rewarded will be a mass of flowers just before the new leaves appear.


For propagating small numbers of plants Dermatobotrys saundersii grows easiest from cuttings preferably taken in summer which grow extremely easy placed directly into growing medium, sharp sand of a mix of sharp sand and peat.

For growing a large number of plants one would need to grow them from seed, I have had best results growing them on peat or coconut peat.

The delicate quick growing seedlings are very prone to damping off so they should be treated with a suitable fungicide at the time of planting the seed then periodically thereafter as per the instructions on the label. I have always successfully used Benlate active ingredient benomyl and Previcur active ingredient Propamocarb as a mixture to control damping off. The seedlings can be prepicked out into individual small containers from a height of 25 mm. Do not over pot. Repot into the next sized container only when they have outgrown the one that they are in.

The seedlings should flower in their second year.

I can supply both plants and seed

 Michael Hickman on 05.10.2020 


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