Poison bulb: a sight for sore eyes

2008-09-30 00:00

Boophone disticha (sore-eye flower or poison bulb) is a very attractive and rewarding bulb to try wherever you live in South Africa.

Whether you live in a summer or winter rainfall region, along the coast or in a semi-arid area, try the sore-eye flower in your garden. However, this is not a very common species and you may not be able to get it from your local garden centre, so you may need to find a specialist bulb grower.

The sore-eye flower is an attractive, deciduous, bulbous plant with a thick covering of dry scales on the part of the bulb that shows above the ground. The large, round flower heads are sometimes on such short stems that they appear to grow directly from the bulb, almost at ground level. Flowering of the bulb is induced by fire.

The bulbs do not produce flowers until they are quite large. The colour of the flowers varies from shades of pink to red and they are sweetly scented. Flowering times vary per region but are normally between July and October. The flowers attract bees and flies which pollinate them. The flower stalks form a large seed head after flowering. These break off at the top of the stalk and tumble across the veld dispersing the seed.

The sore-eye flower has greyish-green leaves which are erect and arranged in a fan shape. These leaves are usually produced after flowering.

The Boophone disticha bulb is very poisonous and has many medicinal uses. The San used the poison for their arrows and traditional healers use it to treat pain and wounds. Parts of the plant are also used to cure various other ailments.

The Boophone disticha is also used to plug sour-milk containers, while the leaves are stripped for fringes and used as decorative body ornaments. The plants are known to be poisonous to cattle and sheep. The name “sore-eye flower” refers to the fact that if a person is exposed to the open flowers in a confined space it may lead to sore eyes and even to a headache.

This species is widely distributed in all provinces of South Africa. It thrives in full sun, well-drained sandy soil and also in rocky areas. The species should be planted in a protected area. Although it can withstand drought, it does not like frost; however, some species have become hardy and are found in frosty areas.

For people who live in colder areas it would be recommended that you collect seed from the species that are growing in the colder areas as they will be cold-hardy and have a far better chance of survival in cold conditions. When planting the bulb the neck and part of the bulb should show above the ground. Specimens will take a long time to flower after being moved as the roots and the bulb will have been disturbed.

• Sonja van der Merwe is an indigenous plant enthusiast and owner of Springvale Nursery and Gardening. She can be contacted at 033 212 4704 or by e-mail at springvalenursery@lantic.net Alternatively you can visit www.indigenousnursery.co.za

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