PHOTOGENIC GOMPHOCARPUS PHYSOCARPUS

What a mouthful! Balloon Milkweed or Balloon Wild Cotton fall more easily from my tongue at least. There was a plethora of these interesting plants growing in the Grahamstown Historical Cemetery I featured recently – the tall plants to the left of the cross.

Looked at from closer quarters, you can clearly see the distinctive yellowish-green tones of the inflated fruits are tinged with purple.

Each fruit is covered in hair-like structures. One can see why these plants are popular in large flower arrangements.

Like all balloons, the fruits become deflated over time.

IT USED TO BE ASCLEPIAS

Birders have had to get used to the changes of familiar common names of birds – some I cannot get my head around, such as calling a Dikkop a Thick-knee. Ornithologists must have had fun as they scrutinised common names and looked at their classifications, scratched their heads, had a good laugh, got all serious – and then laid down the law. This has only applied to the English names – happily the (mostly) descriptive names in Afrikaans have remained intact. Botanists too have their fun.

Take Asclepias. I became familiar with this plant in the Milkweed family while we were living in what used to be Bophuthatswana – it grew all over in that unforgiving landscape that was regularly swept by dust storms and radiated with high temperatures and little rain. The bladder-like fruits were unusual and very attractive, especially where little else survived. It even survived the roaming goats there for its milky white latex is poisonous to livestock. Commonly known as the Balloon Plant, my wild flower guide at the time informed me its scientific name was Asclepias physocarpus. I have called them Asclepias ever since.

They are interesting looking plants and I was pleased to have one arrive in my Eastern Cape garden some years ago – alas, its presence only lasted a season or two. I occasionally see them growing in the veld near here – they are not particularly widespread around the fringes of town – and was delighted to find one growing on the neglected grass verge around the corner from my home. Since then I have watched the fruits balloon out, get dry, and burst open to reveal their silky seeds.

Asclepia what? I couldn’t remember. It didn’t appear in my newish guide to wild flowers and the ones I found on the internet looked nothing like the plant I had photographed. What now? Has my memory played tricks on me? Surely not: I have always called them Asclepias. Of course, I should have remembered that the taxonomists among botanists have also had their fun. It seems a scientist of whatever ilk loves nothing more than to fine comb names of species, to redefine families and to ‘bring order’ into the world of plants. Yes, this one has donned a new mantle in the form of Gomphocarpus physocarpus! I then remembered having written about this two years ago.

It is nonetheless worth revisiting this plant, which can grow to a height of about two metres, with its pendulous clusters of small, white to cream-coloured waxy flowers exuding a faint vanilla scent.

The flowers are followed by striking yellowish, ball-like fruits that look like hairy, inflated spheres. They start off being pale green, soft, and almost translucent.

The bladder-like follicles, covered with soft hair-like spines, swell until they turn yellowish, often tinged with red or brown.

Once these fruits have matured, they gradually split open to release brown seeds. Each seed bears a tuft of long, silky hairs at one end which aids their dispersal by wind. The seeds are dispersed by wind, aided by the tuft of silky hairs attached to each seed.