Greetings to all our Village plant enthusiasts. This week we’re focusing on a member of the Amaryllidaceae (Amaryllis) family.
Boophone disticha (Bushmans Poison in English, Boesmansgif or Gifbol in Afrikaans & Leshoma in Sesotho) is a perennial geophyte which may grow to 600mm tall. This extremely toxic bulb grows in grassland and rocky areas, usually on hill slopes. B. disticha occurs from sea-level right through to 3000 m A.S.L, distributed throughout S.A. Boophone distich is both drought tolerant and frost resistant. This particular specimen was observed on the Kloof Mountain Trail; however additional sightings above Scilla Walk, Porcupine and the Sky Contour trails have been recorded. Please note (again) that this plant is both highly toxic to people and livestock.
The leaves of B. disticha are arranged in a very prominent fan formation with dark green undulating margins, usually appearing after flowering has taken place. The oh-so-infamous bulb may obtain a diameter of 170mm and is almost always partially exposed to the sun. The bulb consists of layer-upon layer of thick and (highly toxic) dark coloured scales. The round compound flower is red-pink and each floret is held aloft on its own stalklet. A thick stem supports the flower-head. Flowering occurs from Aug-October. Uses:
The flowers of this plant attract a host of pollinators thus assisting with pollination of both wild plant and food-crop species.
The Khoisan believed that the leaves of B. disticha had special properties associated with the otherworld. A mummified bushman body was discovered in the Baviaanskloof wrapped in the leaves of this plant. Their belief is that this helps bridge the divide once the soul passes to the other side. The Khoisan thus regard this plant as one of the most mystically potent of all medicinal plants. It is also used by sangoma’s to enter a trancelike state; however since the plant is poisonous, the dosage must be absolutely spot-on or one may end up in I.C.U. or worse. Hunting is another traditional use whereby flint arrowheads are dipped in the poison and facilitate paralyses in quarry. Additional uses include use in psychotherapy and during circumcision as an anti-inflammatory and disinfectant.
The SANBI conservation status for B. disticha is listed as Declining as a result of overharvesting for any number of traditional and medicinal uses. What many don’t realise is that the plant requires a minimum of 10 years to reach flowering stage and even then the plant does not flower every year. Declining status arises when a population has a large geographical range but numbers in the veld dwindle and/or their prevalence on muti markets increases substantially.
Article and photograph by Damien Coulson
Head ranger: Clarens Village Nature Reserve
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