Asclepias stellifera (Common Meadow-star in English & khola-ntja in Sesotho) is member of the Apocynaceae (Milkweed) family and a perennial geophytic herb whose stems grow to 120-300mm tall. One will find this herbaceous species in grassland and often among rocky outcrops at altitudes of 2200 m A.S.L., occurring from the Eastern Cape right through to Botswana.
Break the stem of this guy and your fingers will be covered by milky latex. In almost all cases this says one thing about the seemingly meek little plant: Do not ingest me! I’m toxic! As its name aptly suggests, the florets have been likened to the clichéd rays of stars harking from children’s books.
The flowers of A. stellifera occur in 4’s and have 5 petals enclosed by as many skirt-like sepals. Each petal appears almost rolled inwards along its length forming what resembles a partially closed tube and is tinted purplish-black towards the centre. The stems can measure up to 50mm and the flowers measure between 4.5-7mm long by 3-4mm wide. The inflorescence is panicle-esk. The fruit resemble cushion-star capsules of length 6-10mm by 5-12 and are slightly beaked but touch-smooth. The leaves by comparison are long and thin (10-105mm X 0.5-2mm wide) and have a prominent midrib. The margins are rolled under and the whole blade is covered in short, fine & tufty hairs. Flowering occurs from September-Jan. Uses:
These small geophytic perennials endure annual regrowth of their stems, particularly (and shortly) after fires followed by the first spring rains. Their presence in the veld may act as an indicator of the biological diversity of the landscape. In truth only 1 in 3 plants in the grassland actually comprises grasses. The rest can be grouped into geophytes, annuals, trees and shrubs. Milkweeds are an important nectar source for bees and other nectar-seeking insects and use three defences to limit damage caused by caterpillars: hairs on the leaves, toxins, and latex fluids.
Milkweeds are beneficial to nearby plants as they repel certain pest invertebrates. The leaves of Asclepias species are the primary food source for monarch butterfly larvae and other milkweed butterflies and thus draw butterflies to gardens. Many Milkweeds also reportedly give off a pleasing fragrance in the early parts of an evening.
Natives of South America and Africa used arrows poisoned with glycosides from Milkweeds during hunts.
The SANBI conservation status for A.stellifera is listed as Least Concern.
Damien Coulson (Head ranger: Clarens Village Nature Reserve)