5 South African plants you might want to avoid
Updated: Aug 21, 2019
South Africa is fortunate enough to be home to a wealth of biodiversity. In fact, we’re just short of the world’s top ten most biodiverse countries, which is without a doubt something worth being proud of! With great biodiversity, though, there must be great understanding of that biodiversity. Hiding in South Africa’s richness are multiple organisms you want to avoid.
I took a visit to Rhodes University’s herbarium housed in the Albany Museum in Makhanda/Grahamstown, and chatted to its curator, Tony Dold. He showed me some of South Africa’s toxic plants, and told me all about them. Anyway, down to business. Here are five South African plants worth watching out for.
1. Moraea polystachya
Commonly known and blue tulp, or Karoo blue tulp, this purple and yellow baby might look pretty, but it can wipe out cattle. Ironically, it grows well in over-grazed areas and buds at the time of year when other snack options are scarce. It’s even been known to kill humans who ingest it, so watch your friends as well as your cows.
It contains toxins categorised as a cardiac glycosides, which means they increase heart rate and the force of heart contractions. While that can be helpful in medicine for specific conditions, it’s best to steer clear. Animals who have ingested Moraea polystachya experience bloating, weak hearts, anxiety and immobility before their hearts give out.
2. Acokanthera oppositifolia
Acokanthera oppositifolia is commonly known as: uhlunguyembe, nthunguyembe, gewone gifboom, or bushman’s poison bush. It offers beautiful juicy berries, but at a price. All parts of the plant are so toxic, historically, Khoi-san people have used gum made from the plant on the tips of arrows to kill prey.
Acokanthera oppositifolia also contains cardiac glycoside toxins, which as you’ll have noticed are no joke. If a human is struck by an arrow dipped in the poisonous gummy stuff, they can die within 15 minutes. On top of the symptoms mentioned above, humans hit by a poisonous arrow will experience nausea, salivation, fatigue, and ultimately heart failure.
3. Ornithogalum thyrsoides
This pretty plant is commonly called chincherinchee, after the sound its flowers make in the wind. It’s just another pretty but deadly work of nature. Chincherinchees, as funny as they sound, also produce toxins.
They produce steroid glycosides, which can leave victims with days of severe diarrhea, abdominal pain and convulsions, before killing them. All parts of the plant contain this lovely poison, which can affect both humans and animals, so watch out for your livestock and pets.
4. Erythrina caffra
Erythrina caffra is commonly known as the coastal coral tree, the lucky bean tree, kuskoraalboom, umsinsi, or umsintsi. Unfortunately those cute red beans or lucky beans you played with as a child are in fact toxic. While the beans are a food source for many seed-eating birds or beetles, it’s best us humans keep away.
The bright red beans contain isoquinoline alkaloid. Many alkaloids produced by these trees have a a paralysing effect on the skeletal muscles of animals (the muscles in our limbs to help us get around), making them ideal for arrow tips. Luckily, the toxins in the beans are not too harmful if taken by mouth, but it's always best to exercise caution.
5. Boophane disticha
Boophane disticha is a bulb commonly known as bushman poisonbulb, gifbol, incotha, incwadi, leshoma, or muwandwe. It contains a toxin that’s an isoquinoline alkaloid, which causes dizziness, shaky step, restlessness, compromised vision, and ends with a coma and death. It consists of a big bulb, much like an onion, leaves that grow out of the bulb, and delicate-looking pink flowers that replace the leaves seasonally.
Nature boasts some gorgeous plants, but sometimes it's best for us to admire them from afar. Keep in mind that these are only some of the toxic plants South Africa has to offer. Please watch over your pets, livestock, children, and family members. Something as innocent and playful as putting a plant in your mouth or eating whatever happens to grow could spell disaster.