The changing of names of birds, trees and other plants can make seeking information rather puzzling at times. Take the strange looking plant, Balloon Wild Cotton (Balbossie) for example. I first came across it growing in the veld while we were living in Mmabatho during the 1980s. So little grew in that wind-blown, sandy place that we delighted in anything green. Then this plant was readily identified as Asclepias physocarpa. Quite appropriately, some gardening books of the time recommended planting it to provide something green in very dry areas (such as we were living in at the time) with the added recommendation that the seed pods could effectively be used in arrangements.

I have subsequently discovered that it is now known as Gomphocarpus physocarpus. Another surprising discovery – for this plant is widespread in South Africa – is that it is actually a naturalised plant from tropical Africa! I would love to know how it arrived here e.g. did it arrive on its own or introduced for the floral trade? It seems to thrive in the Eastern Cape.

According to the genus Gomphocarpus is derived from the Greek gomphos meaning a club, and karpos, fruit. The species epithet physocarpa is derived from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits. These swollen capsules can be clearly seen in the picture below:

There is a slight resemblance to cotton bolls, but more so once the seeds emerge from the pods. These are dispersed by wind, aided by the tuft of silky hairs attached to each seed, shown below:



Be aware when you walk through parts of the Eastern Cape veld. Be very aware for dangerous prickles can lie await in the thick tangle of grass around your ankles, on stony ground – or even on a rock where you might wish to take a rest. This painful danger comes in the form of Opuntia aurantiaca, commonly known here as Jointed Cactus, or Litjieskaktus in Afrikaans.  It is a terror of note: those tiny, sharp, needle-like thorns embed themselves into your skin – even through denim – and break off easily should you try to brush them off. These plants need a large sign: HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE!

Their flattened leaf-like stems tend to be bright green, although older plants and those exposed to the sun are sometimes tinged with reddish-purple – as seen below.

These thorny invasive plants come – as so many do – from South America and are a particular menace in the Eastern Cape, where dense infestations of them reduce the grazing potential of the land and can harm animals such as sheep. The thorns stick into the wool of sheep – and anything else that might pass close by and unwittingly aid the dispersal of the plants!

A tip I learned after painfully trying to remove individual broken ends of thorns from my legs with a pair of tweezers, is to use brown parcel tape – the plastic kind. Cover the infected area (or sections of it) with tape, smooth it down firmly … and rip! Most of the thorns stick to the tape and come out – such a relief!


One of the most frequent search terms that appear on my blog relates in some way to Blackjacks (Bidens pilosa), demonstrating that what I have regarded as a pesky weed is clearly of greater interest to others. This piqued my curiosity and so I have put blackjacks under the microscope, metaphorically speaking.

The common blackjack is an annual plant belonging to the Asteraceae family. Like so many other species, this plant was collected and named by Carl Linnaeus in 1753 – what a marvellous contribution that man has made to our collective knowledge of plants! How this particular one came to be known as a ‘blackjack’ is anyone’s guess.

I have mentioned in a previous post that blackjacks originated in South America and, while it is now common in all tropical and sub-tropical areas throughout the world, it is known that they put down their roots in South Africa over a century ago. This date can be traced to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), when British forces imported fodder mainly from Mexico and Argentina for their horses. Blackjacks formed part of this fodder.

These plants are easily recognisable for they grow tall, and have small white and yellow flowers, which then develop into clusters of barbed seeds. The flowers are borne on long, slender stalks at the end of branched stems. Each flower head has four or five short, broad white petals with numerous yellow disc florets which are pollinated by flies and bees.

To the dismay of many a gardener, blackjacks are fast growing: flowering starts a mere six weeks after the plants emerge and the seeds mature only a month later! Think about it: each plant can bear about eighty flower heads, which in turn can produce over 3 000 seeds in a single generation. You can see why these plants are widely regarded as a weed.

As you can see from the picture above, the seeds radiate outwards and have sharp awns that hook onto passing animals and people as an efficient means of dispersal. Two of the seeds are dangling from the seed head on the left, just waiting to be caught on something passing by.

If you look carefully at the flower on the right of the picture above, you will notice the cluster of seeds in the making – quite an arsenal of them packed in tightly!

The plants commonly grow in disturbed habitats, such as in gardens, farm lands, and along the road verges. The hot weather conditions in South Africa suit the ideal growing requirements of blackjacks.

Heed this anonymous quotation: But a weed is simply a plant that wants to grow where people want something else. In blaming nature, people mistake the culprit.   Weeds are people’s idea, not nature’s.

A plant as prolific as this must have some uses. I find it intriguing that blackjack leaves are considered in some quarters as a ready source of food and medicine. It has been recorded as having been sold at local markets in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo during times when other vegetables are scarce. The problem is that blackjacks cannot be stored for more than a day and so, storing leaves in a ‘fridge or parboiling them before allowing them to dry in the sun are some methods of preservation that have been tried.

It is the young plants that are reputed to be the most nutritious as they contain high levels of Vitamins A and C as well as iron, and even protein. The leaves are generally eaten boiled or stir-fried. I cannot vouch for this, yet I imagine one would have to become used to their astringent taste.

The roots, leaves and seeds reportedly possess anti-sceptic and anti-inflammatory properties. For those who know how to administer the plants medicinally, decoctions of powdered leaves have been used to treat abdominal pains, headaches, and even diarrhoea. Juice from crushed leaves can apparently be used to clean cuts and superficial wounds. It has also been said that the fibrous nature of the plants promote bowel regularity and can ease constipation.

While it is fascinating to know of some of the many uses of this common weed. I wouldn’t try any of the above medicinal applications – that’s what pharmacies and pharmacists are for!

This is a list of some of the many interesting resources relating to blackjacks, their cultivation and their uses:

Henderson M. and Anderson J.G Common Weeds in South Africa Botanical Survey, Memoir No 37 1966. Department of Agricultural Technical Service.–medicinal-power.html



Over the past month I have been struck by the tall purple flowers growing near the roads I have travelled on. A closer look – I am always happy to investigate something that intrigues me – revealed the flowers to look a bit like a relative of the verbena that gardeners are fond of using as ground covers. Clearly some further investigation was required.

It turns out that these flowers are commonly called Tall Verbena (Verbena bonariensis) and what has really surprised me is that, far from it being an indigenous plant as I had imagined, it is actually classed as an invasive alien in many parts of the country!

Why I am taken aback by this is because I have seen it growing in the veld for years and never given it a second thought – the flowers have simply been there, occasionally waving their purple petals in the breeze but otherwise not really drawing attention from passers-by. As with so many invasive plants in this country, the Tall Verbena originates in South America and, as with others of its ilk, it grows in disturbed areas and then invades grasslands. The problem here is that it is poisonous to livestock and other grazers.

The bonus is that they are attractive to butterflies and, as this image shows, beetles too! I was attracted by this CMR beetle (actually Mylabris oculata) which is named for its similarity in colour to the uniform of the South African Cape Mounted Riflemen, which had black and yellow bands.


As pretty as these flowers are, the Lantana camara (also known as Tick-berry) has long been declared a noxious weed in South Africa. The flowers are attractive to butterflies and the purple-black berries are relished by birds – the latter are responsible for dispersing the seeds far and wide.

Having spent much of my youth on a farm, I was aware that my father got rid of these plants whenever he saw them as they are particularly poisonous for cattle. It was thus with reluctance that I rid our garden of them soon after our arrival.

This plant was growing in a ditch next to the road. I have noticed a number of others blooming along the road leading towards Port Alfred and wonder who is responsible for their removal. One would imagine this would fall within the bailiwick of the Roads Department, on the other hand it is surprising that stock farmers leave them growing on the perimeters of their properties.


This is the time of the year that the Australian Bottlebrush (Callistemon) trees start coming into bloom. We inherited an old one with our garden and used to enjoy its scarlet bottlebrush-shaped blooms until the indigenous Dias cotonifolia (Pompon trees) crowded it out. It was a popular ornamental tree at one time, and can still be seen in the older gardens of many South African towns. My neighbour’s tree is covered with blossoms at the moment and looks lovely. It too is categorised as an invasive alien in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and in Mpumalanga. However, in all the years that this one has grown in our garden, I have not seen a single seedling emerge anywhere.


A single Statice (Limonium sinuatum), also known as Sea Lavender, has responded beautifully to the recent light rain. These long-lasting flowers are a welcome addition to the garden and seemingly last forever in flower arrangements – even when they are dry. My joy comes from having tried – unsuccessfully – for years to establish Statice in our garden. Other plants have shrivelled up in the drought, and an unfortunate few have been shaded out by lavender bushes.

Imagine my surprise to discover that Statice is a listed invasive alien in this country! It is classed as Category 1b (invasive species that may not be owned, imported into South Africa, grown, moved, sold, given as a gift or dumped in a waterway) in the Northern and Western Cape and is also considered a problem in Gauteng, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, and in the Eastern Cape. It is spread by seed and apparently invades roadsides, disturbed coastal sites, fynbos and vacant lots in the Karoo.

I purchased my plant from a nursery and it is a flower that is widely used in commercial flower arrangements. Dilemma: keep it or toss it? Never having seen it growing in the wild in the Eastern Cape, I think I will keep it – for now at least.