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




Two years ago I posted an entry about the arrival of alien invasive plants in this country as a result of the seeds being brought in with the fodder required for the horses used by the British troops during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). To my surprise, there have been a number of regular views since then from people wanting to know more about Khakibos, known elsewhere as Mexican Marigolds.

While my interest stems from their link to a conflict from the past that has had long-term consequences in this country, I have been intrigued by the interest shown in it as a plant in its own right. As I have mentioned before, Tagetes minuta was dubbed Khakibos (khaki bush) by the Boers in South Africa because of the khaki uniforms the British troops wore during the Anglo-Boer War – in sharp contrast to the traditional red and white uniforms worn during the earlier Anglo-Transvaal War (1880-1881). The British Army probably realised that wearing drab coloured uniforms would be a better camouflage.

Despite being regarded as invasive alien plants, these hardy weeds have been put to good use over time. Khakibos has long been used as a tick and flea repellent – I can remember besoms being made of Khakibos to sweep around the farm yard and laying Khakibos in the farmhouse before it was closed for long periods of time in order to limit the presence of fleas. It has a pleasant aroma when dried and a distinctive smell when fresh – one that takes me right back to my childhood forays into the veld.

With the development of technology and a broader understanding of the advantages of this plant, it now forms an important ingredient in many pet shampoos and other products. Having grown up in an environment where the Khakibos was simply regarded as a weed, I still find it astounding that it is actually cultivated in order to extract essential oils by means of steam distillation. According to the late Margaret Roberts, it is also useful to include Khakibos in one’s compost heap as it discourages the presence of egg-laying insects. It has also been recommended as a natural insect repellent for the vegetable garden: either growing it alongside one’s tomatoes or pumpkins, for example, or cutting it and placing it between such plants.

So, far from being an invasive alien – still detested by some – the Khakibos has turned out to be a useful plant after all!


Horses played a vital role during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Such was the demand for them that a large number of horses were imported to South Africa by the British from all over the world, including 50 000 from the United States and 35 000 from Australia – most of them landing in Port Elizabeth. A variety of breeds of horses were used during the war, including English Chargers and Hunters from England and Ireland as well as Australian Walers bred, ironically, from an original shipment of Cape Horses in the 1700s. The term ‘Waler’ was first used in India in 1846 in reference to the horses that had come from New South Wales.

At first glance these large animals appeared to be superior to the hardy Boer horses that were no larger than the average pony. These horses were also descendants of the famous Cape Horses of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some Boers used Basuto Ponies that were well adapted to the rocky, mountainous terrain and were known for their endurance despite their small stature. The Boer horses were exceptionally hardy and nimble for they were used for hunting as well as tending cattle in all types of terrain and weather conditions; proving to be reliable and well suited to the environment the war was fought in.

Of course war horses were workhorses, being used as mounted infantry horses, gun horses, and cavalry horses. Not only were horses ridden by soldiers, they were also used to pull gun-carriages – sometimes through muddy battle grounds or over rough, uneven terrain as well as having to ford rivers and streams. Horses and mules were also required to pull heavily laden transport wagons.

A horse’s life expectancy was around six weeks from the time of its arrival in South Africa. Sixty percent of the horses died in combat or as a result of mistreatment. Apart from being killed by bullets or shell fire in battle, other reasons for their demise included:

  • The failure to adequately rest and acclimatise horses after the long sea voyages prior to their arrival.
  • The rough terrain of South Africa, including boulder-strewn hills, which the imported horses were unused to.
  • Exhaustion and dehydration as a result of horses being ridden over hundreds of kilometres in all kinds of weather with little or no respite.
  • Many horses sustained injuries to their fetlocks and hooves – there was not always the time or opportunity to treat the animals with the care they had been used to.
  • Imported horses – unlike those used by the Boers – were unused to surviving on the veld grass, which is all many were exposed to for food for much of the time. The larger size of the British horses made them more dependent on fodder that had to be imported in great quantities from places such as Mexico. [See WEEDS WITH A HISTORY June 2015].
  • Overloading the horses with unnecessary equipment and saddlery.
  • African Horse Sickness.
  • Horses were occasionally slaughtered for their meat, such as during the sieges of both Ladysmith and Kimberley.

The number of horses killed in the Anglo-Boer War was unprecedented. When one considers that over 300 000 of them died during active service – not counting the horses on the Boer side – one can begin to appreciate how important these animals were in that conflict. The war lasted for 970 days, which amounts to about 309 British horses dying a day. The Boer horses also died in in their thousands, many ridden to exhaustion. Not unexpectedly, dead horses were not buried but tended to be left where they fell.

Because their lives depended on their mounts many soldiers formed strong emotional bonds with their horses. That horses were held in high regard by the men who worked with them is evident from the two horse memorials that have been erected in South Africa.

Only three years after the end of the Anglo-Boer War, the first Horse Memorial was unveiled in Port Elizabeth on 11th February 1905 to commemorate the horses which had suffered and died during that war. The inscription on the base reads:



This fact seems to have been missed by members of the EFF who vandalised the monument on 6th April 2015 by toppling the kneeling soldier in front of the horse – offering it water from a bucket.  This picture was published in The Herald 14th September 2015:

Horse Memorial Port Elizabeth

NOTE: On 7th May 2016 I was reliably informed by a resident of Port Elizabeth that the Horse Memorial has been repaired and is back to its former glory.

The other South African Horse Memorial is situated in the grounds of Weston Agricultural College in KwaZulu-Natal. It was unveiled on 31st May 2009 and is dedicated to horses, mules and other animals that perished serving men in war. Weston was the site of the British Army’s Number 7 Remount Depot, in service from 1899-1913. An estimated 30 000 horses and mules are believed to have been buried on the farmlands in the area. The memorial has been designed in a horseshoe shape, mounted by an obelisk-shaped monument created out of old horseshoes found on the farm. The inverted horseshoes of this centrepiece are in keeping with the tradition at a cavalryman’s funeral, where his boots are reversed in the stirrups on his horse.

Horse Memorial Weston

The structure is topped with a specially crafted bronze statue of a horse.


Three examples from the remembrance plaques clearly demonstrate how the war horses were regarded by the men they served:

  • Natal Field Artillery Established 1862: To the horses that served the guns and other animals in the supply chain.
  • The Light Dragoons: In memory of gallant horses of the 13th, 18th and 19th Hussars that perished during the South African Campaign 1899-1902.
  • The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery: In honour of horses that faithfully served during the South African War 1899-1902.



A weed is but an unloved flower – Ella Wilcox (American poet).

We have become so used to the sight of Khakibos (Tagetes minuta),


the Common Blackjack (Bidens pilosa),


and Cosmos flowers (Cosmos bipinnatus) in South Africa that we seldom even think about whether or not they belong here.


All three plants grow in fallow lands, flourish in disturbed ground and are generally regarded as weeds by farmers and gardeners alike. Unsurprisingly, the cosmos is also known as mieliepes (mealie/maize pest) by farmers. All are listed as alien invasive species in this country.

Their history is interesting, given that they originated in Central America and took root in this country over a century ago. This came about through the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) when the British forces imported fodder for their horses from Argentina and Mexico. It is this fodder that contained the seeds of these plants that initially established themselves in the areas that saw action during the war – imagine if one could go back in time to track the paths these plants took root in first and compare these with the movement of the troops!

Khakibos, otherwise known as Mexican Marigold, is particularly interesting given the above context. Its common name derives from the khaki uniforms the British troops wore during the Anglo-Boer War – in sharp contrast to the traditional red and white uniforms worn during the earlier Anglo-Transvaal War (1880-1881) – which gave rise to them being dubbed ‘Khakis’ by the Boers.

Despite being invasive alien plants, they have been put to good use over time. Khakibos has long been used as a tick and flea repellent – I can remember besoms being made of khakibos to sweep around the farm yard and laying khakibos in the farmhouse before it was closed for long periods of time in order to limit the presence of fleas. These days it forms an important ingredient in many pet shampoos and other products, for example. It is thus actually cultivated in order to extract essential oils by means of steam distillation.

While I recall feeding blackjack plants to our chickens after a bout of weeding, I was astounded to discover the other day that this weed is cultivated in parts of this country as a nutritious food crop!

During its flowering season the Highveld is transformed into a land of beauty as cosmos blossoms of several hues dance about in the lands and beckon the attention of travellers by growing en masse along the road verges too. These days gardeners can purchase commercially produced cosmos seeds to brighten a bed or two.

This is how these naturalised aliens came to be a familiar part of our landscape so long ago.