Merwilla plumbea – Blue Scilla

Greetings to all our Village plant enthusiasts. Welcome to this weeks’ “Weekly Plant of Interest”. We’ll be looking at a bulbous perennial that has in recent years been much targeted and depleted in the Clarens Nature Reserve by domestic goats.

Merwilla plumbea (commonly known as the Blue Scilla in English, Blouslangkop in Afrikaans and kherere in sisotho), is a small sized plant of approximately 1 m in height, sometimes occurring in “colonies”. M. plumbea is widespread in the eastern summer rainfall regions and grows on cliffs and rocky slopes from 1675 – 2100 m A.S.L. This striking plant is frost resistant and may be grown from seed.

A large quasi-above ground bulb is always visible and is covered in layers of purple-brown sheathes, somewhat resembling an oversized onion. The plant possesses few leaves as these are usually shed annually. The leaves are erect prior to flowering and broad, tapering to a point. After flowering the leaves become much larger (30-80 mm X 10-35 mm) and appear wilted until they turn a coppery gold in autumn and are finally shed. The flowers are small, less than 10mm in diameter and are born in great numbers on a single erect green stem (approx. 15 mm diameter) of up to 2-3 feet. The flowers are a purplish blue colour with white filaments. It’s worth mentioning just how visually striking this plant is, even at great distances. The Blue contrasts rather nicely with the earth toned rocky surrounds and the stem appears to “reach for the heavens” in defiance of the barrenness of the apparently water scarce surrounds.

Animal Interactions

Despite its strikingly attractive appearance, the Blue Scilla is toxic to animals such as sheep, although goats frequently make a meal out of the poor plant. This is usually the case with both plants and animals in nature. Striking beauty (or aposematic colouration in scientific terminology) is often a visual cue that warns potential predators of the unpalatable and potentially lethal nature of the organism (sounds like the human dating game – guys take note!). Any animal trying to take a bite soon learns from its mistake.

Medicinal uses

Parts of M. plumbea have been used to treat internal tumours, boils, bone fractures and even in the treatment of lung disease in cattle.

General Human Uses

The bulb has been used to make soap.

Damien Coulson
Author: Damien Coulson