Indigenous plants in traditional medicine
The rich variety of plants in the Cape Floristic Kingdom naturally gave rise to a layered tradition of plant use in traditional medicines in South Africa.
Here in Knysna, the remarkable Pledge Nature Reserve is one of the best places to view some of the plants used in local traditions.
Pledge Nature Reserve
Visit the 10 ha Pledge Nature Reserve in the very heart of Knysna.
Situated in the CBD (directly behind Pledge Square, and across the road from the Knysna Mall), the Reserve wasn’t always the green heart of the town. Beginning in the early 1900s, the land was used as a brickfield and then as a dumping ground. By the 1980s it had become overgrown with invasive alien plants, and its streams were polluted and dying.
Thanks to the efforts of many committed people, though, the ecosystem was restored to its original state, and the land was declared a Local Nature Reserve in the Provincial Government Gazette of 11 October 1991. It’s now administered by the Pledge Nature Reserve Trust, which holds the site on a long-term lease from its owner, the Municipality of Knysna.
• More information: www.pledgenaturereserve.org
Please download our e-brochure of the medicinal plants of Pledge Nature Reserve here. (LINK)
Decoction: the plant material is mashed and then boiled to extract the essential oils and other chemicals.
Infusion (or steeping): the plant material is placed in a solvent (alcohol, oil, or water) for a period of time in order to draw out the desired ingredients.
Poultice: a soft, warm moist balm made of herbs and other materials (such as bread or cloth) that’s applied directly to the skin.
The text in the descriptions below is intended for information purposes only, and not as medical advice.
Indigenous plants in traditional medicine
All images by Esther Townsend. Published with permission.
Family: AGAPANTHACEAE (the agapanthuses)
English: agapanthus or Cape agapanthus
In cultivation, the agapanthus group includes some of South Africa’s best-known and most easily recognised plants, which are valued by gardeners for their strap-like leaves and showy blue or white flowers. In the wild, the genus includes a number of species: the evergreens (including Agapanthus praecox) which occur naturally in the all-year-round rainfall areas of the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape Provinces, and the deciduous species which are found in most summer rainfall regions of Southern Africa.
The agapanthuses are widely used by the San, Xhosa, Zulu and South Sotho peoples of South Africa.
A decoction of the roots - sometimes mixed with the roots of the bulrushes (Typha capensis) - is taken during the last three months of pregnancy to cause a mild diarrhoea that’s said both to protect the placenta during childbirth, and to protect the child against problems of the bowel. The decoction may also be taken in a more concentrated form to induce labour. A hot infusion of the roots - which causes vomiting - may be taken to relieve heart disease.
The undiluted sap causes severe ulcers in the mouth. The plant is possibly poisonous to humans.
Family : RUTACEAE (the citruses)
Afrikaans: anysboegoe, steenbokboegoe
English: false buchu
The buchus are known for their sweet, spicy smelling aromatic oils which are produced in translucent glands that occur in the leaves, on the fruit, and sometimes on the petals of the flowers. This oil is one of the sources of the typical ‘fynbos smell’ that one often smells when out walking our area. The oils are released to protect the plant from pests, and, on hot, dry days, to reduce transpiration (which is why the fynbos smell is often strongest on such days).
The genus includes more than 140 species, most of which are endemic to the Western Cape (i.e. they occur in the wild here and nowhere else on earth).
Agathosma capensis is a rounded shrub that grows to a height of about 150 cm. Its flowers - which appear throughout the year - range in colour from mauve to pink or white.
Agathosma ovata reaches a height of between 30 cm and 3 metres in the wild - depending on where it grows. It’s valued as a garden plant for its delicate pink flowers, and is often planted next to pathways where it releases its fragrance as you brush past. A neat, much-branched pink-flowered cultivar, Agathosma ovata ‘Kluitjieskraal’ (which was bred at Kirstenbosch - South Africa’s oldest botanical gardens) reaches a height of 80 cm.
The Khoi and San people seem to have used the word ‘buchu’ for a wide variety of fragrant plants that were used for medicinal purposes - so the name may not apply only to the species discussed here.
Buchus are much used in traditional medicines for the treatment of stomach troubles, burns and wounds, inflammation, coughs, bladder infections, and many other ailments. They’re sometimes used in general tonics, too, and the leaves are often rubbed onto the skin as an insect repellant.
The oils may cause upset stomach, diarrhea, or kidney irritation, may increase the risk of bleeding, may block calcium channels (which could lead to cardiac arrest), may increase menstrual flow, and could induce abortion. Buchu should be used with caution in patients with seizure disorders, and is not recommended during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
Family: APIACEAE (the carrots)
Berula erecta subsp. thunbergii
English: giant water parsnip; toothache root
This evergreen perennial grows to a height of about 100 cm and grows along watercourses. It bears its cream-coloured flowers in the height of the summer (January to April). The fruit is reddish-brown when ripe. The lush, striking leaves have toothed margins and resemble ferns.
As its common name implies, Berula is used in the treatment of toothache. Various species of the genus may be poisonous to livestock.
Family: AMARYLLIDACEAE (the amaryllids)
English: clivia; bush lily
The popular clivia - which is known and bred for its showy flowers in many parts of the world - was first introduced to commercial horticulture in the 1800s. It’s endemic to Southern Africa, where it’s found in dappled shade in well drained, humus-rich soils in the Afro-montane forests of the southern and eastern parts of South Africa.
Clivia miniata usually bears its bright orange, trumpet-shaped flowers in spring (August to November) - although it’s been known to flower at other times of the year, too. Clivia miniata var. citrina is a rare, naturally-occurring yellow-flowered form of the same species.
Clivia miniata is listed as vulnerable. Its greatest threat seems to be harvesting for traditional medicine. About 40% of the natural population has been destroyed since the 1920s. (Red List of South African Plants)
The rhizomes, roots and leaves are used in traditional medicine for the treatment of fever, as a snake-bite remedy, and to relieve pain. The plant is also used as an aid in childbirth.
The rhizomes are extremely toxic due to the presence of amaryllid alkaloids that cause salivation, vomiting and diarrhoea at low doses, and paralysis at high doses.
Family: CRASSULACEAE (the stonecrops)
English: pig's ear
Afrikaans: varkoor; plakkie; platjies; varkoorblare; kouterie
A low-growing shrub with thick, succulent, green-to-greyish-coloured leaves whose margins are often lined with red. Its leaves are usually coated with a greyish powder that may help to deflect the heat of the sun, and so prevent water loss by lowering the rate of respiration. In the Southern Cape, the orange-red or yellow, tube-shaped flowers are borne on tall stalks during the summer.
Cotyledon orbiculata is widely used in traditional medicine. The flesh of the leaves is applied directly to corns and warts, while the juice may be warmed to form a poultice for boils, toothache, or earache. The juice is also used in the treatment of epilepsy, and eating a single leaf is considered effective against worms. In Southern Sotho culture, dried leaves are used as playthings, and they’re given as protective charms to orphan children.
Family: ASTERACEAE - also known as the COMPOSITAE (the daisies)
English: wild rosemary
Afrikaans: wilderoosmaryn; kapokbos
The wild rosemary has thin, fragrant, downy, greyish leaves; large numbers of tiny white flowers with purplish centres; and fluffy fruit that look a little like snow (hence the Afrikaans name kapokbos: ‘snow bush’). It’s widely distributed in the Cape Floristic Region (Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Namaqualand) - where it’s found mainly on clay and granite soils, and where it’s tolerant of many different conditions (including salt winds). It’s thus quite variable in size, shape, and even in the thickness of its leaves: at the coast, the leaves are more succulent; further away from the sea, the leaves become thinner and more papery. Both the aromatic oils that the leaves produce, and the down they carry serve to conserve moisture and minimise water loss in the heat of the day.
In our area, the wild rosemary is generally a rounded shrub that grows to a height of about 1 metre. It usually flowers in winter (June - August).
It’s used in traditional medicine to treat coughs, colds, flatulence and colic, and to stimulate sweating and urination. It’s usually taken as a tea, but a more concentrated infusion (1 part twigs and leaves to 2 parts boiling water) can be used to invigorate the skin and the hair. Wild rosemary can be used as a substitute for the cultivated rosemary in cooking, and in potpourri.
• More information: Medicinal Plants of South Africa (National Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. pdf 580 kb)
Family: GERANIACEAE (the geraniums and pelargoniums)
English: carpet geranium; Cape crane's bill; cranebill; wild geranium
Afrikaans: horlosies; vrouetee; bergtee; vrouebossie; meidjiejanwillemse
This low, spreading, sun-loving, herbaceous plant grows to a height of about 30 cm. The name ‘Geranium’ describes the seed capsule, which resembles the crested head of a crane. It comes from the Greek (‘geranos’) name for the dance that’s said to have been danced by Theseus and the Athenian youths (anamiktos) after their escape from Crete. (As the controlling power in the region, Crete required Athens to pay an annual tax of seven young men and seven young women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur that lived in the Labyrinth below the city. Theseus volunteered for the sacrifice so that he could put an end to the practice. He entered the Labyrinth trailing a golden thread behind him, slayed the monster, and then found his way out again by following the thread. After marrying King Minos’ daughter, he fled the city with his new wife and his anamiktos.)
The carpet geranium is used as a tea in traditional medicine for the treatment of bladder infections, venereal diseases, and complications related to menstruation. As bergtee (mountain tea), it’s taken every morning for ten mornings to expel worms. The flowers are edible, and are often used fresh in salads, or crystalised for decorating baked treats.
Family: APOCYNACEAE (the num-nums)
Subfamily: ASCLEPIADOIDEAE (the milkweeds)
Gomphocarpus physocarpus (= Asclepias physocarpa)
English: balloon milkweed; balloon wild cotton; hairy balls; bindweed
Afrikaans: balmelkbossie; balbossie; wilde kapok
This short-lived herbaceous plant grows to a height of up to 2 metres. It bears creamy white flowers throughout the year, although it flowers most heavily in summer (November - April). The fruit is a hairy, balloon-like structure, and all parts of the plant exude a milky latex that’s poisonous to people and livestock.
According to PlantZA, “Gomphocarpus physocarpus is a food plant for the larva of the African monarch butterfly (Danaus chrysippus orientis). The caterpillars are immune to the poisonous alkaloids in Gomphocarpus and have developed the ability to store them and pass them on to the pupa and adult butterfly, which use them to their own advantage and are foul-tasting and poisonous to predators. The anti-predator strategy of Gomphocarpus has thus been hijacked by the African monarch.”
Despite the fact that the plant is poisonous, the roots are used in traditional medicine to treat stomach ache, the latex is used to treat warts, and a snuff made from powdering the leaves is used to treat headaches.
Family: GUNNERACEAE (the gunneras)
English: wild rhubarb; river pumpkin
Afrikaans: wilde ramenas; rivierpampoen
Xhosa: iphuzi lomlambo: ighobo
“Is this what the dinosaurs ate? Read on to find out,” writes Renè Glen of the KwaZulu-Natal Herbarium on the PlantZA site.
“The genus Gunnera has numerous unique characteristics, some of which indicate that these plants have been around for the last 95 million years and belong to one of the oldest angiosperm families as well as being among the largest herbs on earth (Bergman et al. 1992). The internal arrangement of the vascular system is evidence that Gunnera was adapted to survive in the swamps where the dinosaurs browsed.
“However, the most unique oddity is that it is the only genus of flowering plants that has a symbiotic relationship with a nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). Also, it is the only group of land plants that host the cyanobacteria in intercellular spaces, in other words the cyanobacteria live in the spaces between the cells. Other angiosperms, for instance many of the plants in the pea family, have nitrogen-fixing bacteria that occur within specialized cells, not outside the cell wall.
“Some South American species of Gunnera have striking, enormous leaves and are popular ornamental plants in parks and gardens.
“[...] Gunnera and a few other plants have an unusual internal vascular system. Instead of having a central core with all the vascular tissue in it, there are numerous separate vascular strands referred to as polysteles, which is indicative that Gunnera evolved from aquatic ancestors (Bergman et al. 1992).”
The wild rhubarb is easily identified by its large, tough, hairy leaves and thick (up to 30 cm diametre) roots. The plant always occupies the shallows alongside streams, and is widespread in tropical and Southern Africa. The common name, river pumpkin, alludes to the leaf shape - which is similar to that of the pumpkin. The flower stalks and the leaf stalks (petioles) are eaten raw.
The plant has numerous uses in traditional medicine: a decoction is used to induce labour, help during delivery, and help in the expulsion of the placenta in both humans and animals; similar preparations are also taken during the third trimester to ensure the healthy development of the foetus. However, various authorities warn that the plant my act as an abortifactant, and it should thus be used with caution.
Decoctions are also used to relieve painful or difficult urination, and for rheumatism, dyspepsia, stomach aches, and coughs and colds. And infusion of the plant is applied to the skin to treat psoriasis.
The conservation status of Gunnera perpensa is listed as ‘declining’ due to excessive harvesting for medicinal uses, and because urban development is threatening its habitat.
• Download a monograph about the medicinal properties of wild rhubarb from the South African National Biodiversity Institute here.
Family: ASTERACEAE (the daisies)
Helichrysum is a genus of about 245 species that are synonymous with the fynbos, and which are found throughout South Africa. Of particular interest at Pledge Nature Reserve are Helichrysum petiolare (kooigoed) and Helichrysum cymosum (also known as kooigoed, this species is more leggy in appearance, with smaller leaves and a more open growth habit).
Many of the everlastings are known for their distinctive, curry-like aroma. Helichrysum petiolare grows to a height of about 1 metre, and bears large numbers of creamy-white flowers in midsummer (December and January).
The everlastings are used in infusions in traditional medicine to treat chest problems (including asthma), high blood pressure, and general infections. The leaves are applied to topically to prevent wounds from becoming infected. Smoke from the burning leaves is said to relieve pain, and to chase evil spirits from dwellings. A mixture of the leaves and the leaves of Artemesia afra (wild wormwood; wilde-als; umhlonyane) is burned to repel flies and mosquitoes.
Family: ASTERACEAE (the daisies)
Afrikaans: rankals, kanferbossie
Hippia frutescens is endemic to the Cape Floristic Region. A shrub that reaches a height of about 60 cm, it produces its small, yellowish flowers in spring and summer - from about August to March. It prefers moist soils, and is thus usually found near watercourses and in marshy areas.
An infusion of the leaves and stems - which contain camphor - is used in traditional medicines for the treatment of chest infections and toothache.
• Download a monograph about the medicinal properties of this plant from the South African National Biodiversity Institute here.
Family: LAMIACEAE (the mints)
English: wild dagga; lion's ear
Afrikaans: wildedagga; duiwelstabak
The wild dagga is a woody/herbaceous shrub that grows to a height of about 3 metres. The flowers are usually a bright orange in the wild, but the plant has been hybridised in commercial horticulture to produce white, yellow or pink forms. The flowers attract many species of butterflies, bees, and birds.
In traditional medicine, it’s used as a treatment for snakebite, insect bites and spider bites, and as a charm against snakes. A decoction of the dried leaves or roots is used to treat eczema, and an infusion of dried leaves is said to treat headaches, bronchitis, high blood pressure, painful menstruation, viral hepatitis the common cold, and asthma.
The flowers and leaves may be dried and smoked, and the resin from the flowers and leaves may be rubbed off and smoked alone or with other tobacco. It’s said to cause mild inebriation - hence the common name.
Family: MELIANTHACEAE (the honey bushes)
English: Giant honey flower
Xhosa: ubuhlungu benamba
Kruidjie-roer-my-nie (meaning ‘small herb don’t touch me’) is a highly toxic, large, suckering shrub with a strong, unpleasant smell. It grows alongside freshwater streams and in marshy ditches throughout the Garden Route, and has become a popular garden plant in many parts of the world. It can reach a height of 2.5 metres.
Its flowers produce large amounts of nectar that is irresistible to sunbirds - which thus become their pollinating agents.
No part of the plant should be taken internally, but in traditional medicine, poultices and decoctions of the leaves are used externally to treat wounds, bruises, backache, and rheumatism.
Family: PLUMBAGINACEAE (the leadworts)
English: Cape leadwort; plumbago
The Plumbago is an untidy, scrambling shrub that reaches a height of 3 metres or more - but it’s a popular garden plant because it takes well to pruning (especially since the flowers appear most profusely on new growth). It flowers mostly in summer and autumn at Pledge Nature Reserve (November to May). Although the flowers are usually a pale, sky blue (rarely white) in the wild, a number of colours have been hybridised in commercial horticulture - including the popular deep blue of the variety ‘Royal Cape.’
The flowers and seed capsules are sticky in order to attach themselves to your legs (or those of passing animals) as you pass by . If you have a small child with you, he or she will delight in wearing them as decorative earrings.
According to Alice Aubrey of the Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden, writing in PlantZA, “The name Plumbago is derived from plumbum meaning lead - referring to it being a supposed cure for lead poisoning. Auriculata means ear shaped and refers to the leaf base. Plumbago auriculata was known as P. capensis, which was the name given by the botanist, Thunberg in 1794. However, the plant had already been named auriculata by Lamarck in 1786 in what was known as the East Indies where it had been taken as a garden plant! The Dutch East India Company trade routes included the Cape and this was most likely how the plant reached the East Indies.”
Plumbago is used in traditional medicine as a poultice to treat warts, wounds, and broken bones. It’s also dried as a snuff for headaches, and, as an infusion, is used to ward off bad dreams. A stick of Plumbago may also be woven into thatching to guard against lightning strikes.
Family: POLYGALACEAE (the milkworts or false legumes)
English: butterfly bush
Xhosa: ulapesi; umabalabala
This rounded, woody shrub grows to a height of about 2.5 metres, and bears masses of pretty, purple or lavender-coloured flowers in spring and early summer (September - November), although it may flower at other times of the year, too. The flowers appear superficially like those of the pea family - to which the milkworts or false legumes are not related.
The false legumes comprise a large family of 950 species which are arranged into 17 different genera. The genus Polygala has about 600 species in total, of which 232 occur in Africa and Madagascar. 88 of them occur in Southern Africa.
Writing in PlantZA, Cherise Viljoen and Anthony Hitchcock of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden say that, “Polygala is derived from classical Greek polys meaning much and gala meaning milk, so named because the plants were believed to enhance milk production in livestock. The specific name fruticosa means shrubby or bushy in Latin.”
The plants have been shown to have anti-microbial properties (US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health), and it’s thought that they might have anti-fungal properties, too. In traditional medicine, they’re used in infusions to purify the blood, and to heal damaged mucous membranes.
Family: PROTEACEAE (the proteas)
English: common sugarbush
Xhosa: isiqane; isadlungi; isiqalaba; umnqwane; indlungi
This upright, sturdy shrub generally grows to about 2.5 metres, but can reach a height of up to 4.5 m under exceptional conditions. At Pledge Nature Reserve, its characteristic flower heads appear in winter and spring (July - September).
What you may think of as the flower of the plant is actually a vase-shaped collection of colourful, bearded, pale pink to bright red bracts that surround the actual flowers - which are individually quite tiny, and which are pollinated by scarab beetles and protea beetles.
The flowers produce a sweet, sugary sap
Interestingly, Protea repens was the first protea to flower outside of South Africa: it was grown in the glasshouses of the Royal Collections at Kew from 1774, where it flowered for the first time in about 1780.
The nectar was boiled down to form ‘bossiestroop’ (bush syrup) by the early colonialists, who used it extensively in their folk medicines or ‘boererate’ (‘farmers’ cures’) in cough syrups, and in the treatment of diabetes. It was also used as a sweetener, and for making preserves, liqueurs, and even a powerful and, according to AfricanAromatics.com, a notorious sugarbush beer: “In 1687 the sale of sugarbush beer was banned from tap houses in the Cape as it was ‘the cause of numerous fights and injuries and promoted other evils.’ Widows and the poor were however, still allowed to brew and sell sugarbush beer under the provision that it was only ‘two or three days strong.’ In 1688, during the annual Cape market, however, everyone was given the exception to sell and brew sugarbush beer. (No doubt the market was a jolly affair.)”
Protea repens is the subject of the Afrikaans folk song, Suikerbos ek wil jou hê - the tune for which might have been brought to the Cape Colony by Malaysian or Indonesian slaves. (“Sugarbush I want you/ What will your mother say about that?/ Then like that, we'll walk under the moon/ Together, my sugarbush and I/ Mamma, please say yes...” etc.)
Protea repens was South Africa’s unofficial national flower for almost 200 years - until 1976, when the king protea, Protea cynaroides (groot suikerkan; isiqwane esincinci), was officially adopted. According to an article on the Protea Atlas site: “The Sugarbush was usurped from its rightful role, gained through popularity, utility and appeal, by a plant with a bigger flower head.”
Family: MYRSINACEAE (the myrsines)
English: Cape beech
Afrikaans: Kaapse boekenhout; boekenhout
Xhosa: isiQwane sehlati
A large, graceful, evergreen tree whose new shoots appear in a characteristic maroon colour. The leathery leaves are borne in clusters at the ends of the branches - hence the Xhosa name isiQwane sehlati: ‘protea of the forest.’
The small, whitish to creamy yellow flowers - which are also carried in clusters - appear in profusion from mid-winter through to mid-summer (Jun - December).
Rapanea melanophloeos is popular amongst gardeners in coastal areas (where it’s able to withstand fairly strong winds), and also in drier parts of the country - because it is quite drought-hardy. It’s not related to the European beech (Fagus sylvatica), although its wood is similarly prized for use in the manufacture of fine furniture, guitars and violins.
The bark and roots are used in traditional medicine for treating respiratory problems, stomach ailments, and muscular and heart complaints. The bark contains a tannin that’s said to act as a charm against evil spirits, and the boekenhout is therefore subjected to illegal and unsustainable harvesting in various parts of South Africa.
Family: ALLIACEAE (the onions)
English: wild garlic
Afikaans: wildeknoflok; wilde knoffel
The drought-resistant wild garlic reaches a height of about 50 cm. Its strappy, fleshy leaves smell strongly of garlic when you brush past them. It bears its pinkish-mauve flowers throughout most of the summer (November - May) and, since it’s edible (you can add the leaves and flowers to salads, for example), it’s easy to grow, it deters moles, and its sap repels ticks, fleas and mosquitoes - it’s popular with gardeners around South Africa.
In traditional medicine, a decoction of fresh bulbs is used to cure coughs and colds, as a remedy for tuberculosis, and as an emetic against intestinal worms. In Zulu culture, the leaves and flowers are used as a hot, peppery seasoning for meat and potatoes and, since the plant is said to be an excellent snake repellent, it’s often planted around the home.
Writing on PlantZA, Shireen Harris of the Free State National Botanical Garden says that, “Wild garlic may prove to have the same or similar antibacterial and antifungal activities as has been scientifically verified for real garlic. The leaves are used to treat cancer of the oesophagus.”
Family: TYPHACEAE (the cattails)
Afrikaans: papkuil, matjiesriet, palmiet
The grass-like bulrushes, with their thick, strap-like leaves and brown, cylinder-shaped flower spikes, are usually found growing along the edges of most bodies of fresh water in Southern Africa - and, indeed, in many other parts of the world.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but Typha capensis is remarkably tolerant of drought: its rhizomes (the thickened underground stems from which the roots arise) contain large amounts of storage tissue whose cells are characterised by a specialised layer that protects the plants against the loss of moisture. The stems also contain internal air chambers that provide aeration to the submerged sections of the plant.
Writing in PlantZA, Werner Voigt of the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, says that, “Typha capensis is an important plant for many species of birds that are closely associated with water. The dense stems provide ideal shelter and nesting opportunities for birds such as the moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), African black duck (Anus sparsa), the red bishop (Euplectes orix), yellowrumped widow (Euplectes capensis), and the common waxbill. [Estrilda astrild] The submerged stems of bulrushes provide ideal nurseries for hatchlings of several freshwater fish species - not to mention frogs, toads, terrapins and other aquatic organisms.” (All the birds listed in this paragraph can be seen at Pledge Nature Reserve)
Bulrushes have numerous uses in traditional medicine. A decoction of the rhizomes is used to promote fertility in women; to enhance potency and libido in men; during pregnancy to ensure an easy delivery; during childbirth to strengthen uterine contractions; and after childbirth to help with the expulsion of the placenta. The mixture is also used in the treatment of dysentery and venereal diseases.
The plant has many uses in the home, too: the rhizomes are pounded to form a starchy meal, the flowers are used as a high-protein food, and the leaves are used in making brooms, and in weaving and thatching.
Family: ARACEAE (the arums and anthuriums)
English: arum lily
The delicate and lovely arum lily is neither a member of the genus Arum, nor is it a lily or Lilium (of the family LILIACEAE); and what we think of as its ‘flower’ is in reality a white spathe (modified leaf) surrounding a yellowish stalk (spadix) of tiny - actual - flowers. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely popular cut flower that’s been grown in cultivation at least since the Dutch colonial administrator, Jan van Riebeeck, arrived at the Cape in 1652.
Zantedeschia aethiopica prefers to grow in marshy areas, and may reach a height of 1 metre (more if it’s in the shade). Although its flowers may appear throughout the year, its main flush usually occurs in spring and early summer (August to January). Once flowering is complete, the spathe turns green and covers the fruit until it ripens; it then rots away, leaving the yellow berries exposed to the elements - and the birds that’ll disperse the seeds.
The leaves are used as a poultice in traditional medicine for the treatment of insect bites, headaches, sores, boils, gout and rheumatism.
Most parts of the plant are edible - as long as they’re boiled well to break down the sharp raphides (microscopic calcium oxalate crystals) that they contain, and that cause swelling of the throat. The rhizomes particularly were boiled down as pig food - hence the Afrikaans name ‘varkoor’ (pig’s ear).