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Boophone disticha

Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description


Boophone disticha is a bulbous tropical and subtropical flowering plant, endemic to Africa.

The name Boophone is derived from the Greek bous, ox, and phone, death, referring to the poisonous properties of the bulb. The specific name disticha means leaves erect in a fan shape.

Its common names are gifbol, tumbleweed, veld fan, and windball, century plant, poison bulb, sore-eye flower (Eng.); perdeskop, seerooglelie (Afr.); Kxutsana-yanaha, Motlatsisa (Se Sotho); Incumbe, Siphahluka (Swazi); Incotho, Incwadi (Xhosa, Zulu); and Ibhade (Zulu).   As no one name appears to predominate, we have used the botanical name.



Boophone disticha is widely distributed in all provinces of South Africa and tropical Africa. The genus comprises of five or six species and is distributed throughout southern Africa to tropical Africa, but B. disticha is the most widespread and occurs mainly in summer rainfall regions.

Boophone disticha is native to Angola, Botswana, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa (in the provinces of Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape), Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It grows wild in dry savannas, grasslands and the South African Veld.


Boophone disticha is an attractive, deciduous bulbous plant with a thick covering of dry scales above the ground. The large, round heads are sometimes on such short stems that they appear to grow directly from the bulb, almost at ground level. The colour of flowers varies from shades of pink to red and are sweetly scented (July to Oct.).


The pedicels (flower stalks) elongate after flowering to form a large seedhead. This breaks off at the top of the scape (stalk) and tumbles across the veld dispersing the seed.

The greyish green leaves are erect, arranged in a conspicuous fan and are usually produced after flowering. This spring-flowering species will flower even if it does not receive any water in winter. The bulb is very poisonous.


The type specimen was collected in 1781 from South Africa by Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg and described by Linnaeus as Amaryllis disticha. Since that time it has been placed in the genera Brunsvigia and Haemanthus, finally coming to rest as Boophone. The genus itself was written in three ways (Boophone, Boophane and Buphane) by the author William Herbert, straining the procedures of the rules of nomenclature.

The genus as understood at the moment, includes two or possibly three species. B. disticha is one of the most widely distributed bulbous species in South Africa, readily identified by its fan-like appearance and its bulb half-protruding from the ground. The Hottentots, Bushmen and Bantu were aware of its poisonous nature and used parts of the plant medicinally and as an arrow poison. The principal compounds are eugenol - an aromatic, volatile oil smelling of cloves and having analgesic properties, and the toxic alkaloids buphandrin, crinamidine and buphanine, the latter having an effect akin to that of scopolamine and if taken in quantity may lead to agitation, stupor, strong hallucinations and (if over-ingested) coma.

Medicinal uses


Boophone disticha (Amaryllidaceae) is one of the most common bulbous plants used for medicinal purposes by the indigenous people of southern Africa. Its use by the Khoi/San tribes has been known for several centuries, while the Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu people are known to use the plant to treat a host of ailments, including inflammation, wounds, gynaecological conditions and psychosis.  The outer covering of the bulb is applied to boils and abscesses. Fresh leaves are used to stop bleeding of wounds.

Material from this species' bulb was used to preserve the Khoi Kouga mummy found in the Langkloof.  And one of the reasons the plant is used medicinally, is that it is a strong anti-bacterial agent against some quite tough bacteria.  Not an anti-biotic, in other words not consumed, but a form of disinfectant.

References and further reading

  • Du Plessis, N & Duncan, G. Bulbous plants of southern Africa: a guide to cultivation and propagation.Tafelberg, Cape Town.
  • Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meaning of names of South African plant genera. Ecolab, Botany Department, University of Cape Town.
  • Pooley, E. 1998. Field guide to wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Van der Spuy, U. 1971. Wild flowers of South Africa for the garden. Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg.
  • Van Wyk, B. & Malan, S.1988. Field guide to the wild flowers of Witwatersrand and Pretoria region. Struik, Cape Town.

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