Athanasia dentata (L.) L.
Common names: toothed-leaf athanasia (Eng.); geelblombos (Afr.)
Green and golden is the best way to describe Athanasia dentata.
It is a fast-growing, upright, densely leafy shrublet that reaches a height of about 1 to 1.5 m. It has decorative, rich green foliage, the leaves are serrated, recurved and are arranged neatly on the slender branches. The flowers are a bright golden yellow and are carried in showy, flat, honey-scented flowerheads on the ends of the branches in spring to midsummer. To put it in botanical terminology, the flowerhead is a dense terminal compound corymb. Each one consists of 15-20 rounded 'buttons' clustered tightly together at the end of a branch and each 'button' consists of 30-60 tiny yellow flowers clustered tightly together and surrounded by short paper-like bracts.
The flowerheads are long-lasting, on the bush and in the vase. Honey bees, solitary bees and butterflies visit the flowerheads at Kirstenbosch, and monkey beetles forage for pollen. Any one of them could be the pollinator. The hard, ridged seeds are ripe about six weeks after flowering.
Athanasia dentata is not threatened.
Distribution and habitat
Athanasia dentata occurs from the Cape Peninsula to Struisbaai, and from George to Port Elizabeth, where it is most often found on dry, sandy coastal slopes. The plants can vary in size and flowering season, depending on their locality.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The name Athanasia is derived from the Greek a-, 'without', and thanatos 'death', alluding to the persistent dry involucral bracts, i.e. the bracts around the flowers, which remain on the plant long after it has finished flowering. The species name dentata (Latin) means 'toothed' and refers to the serrated leaves. It has the Afrikaans common name of geelblombos, which means 'yellow-flowered bush'. Other members of the genus Athanasia have the common name Klaaslouwbossie or kouterbos and are regarded as troublesome weeds on farmlands. The first one to get this weedy reputation was Athanasia trifurcata, but others that have since had the name extended to them are A. crithmifolia, A. filiformis and A. juncea. The name kouterbos, comes from the fact that some species hamper farmers because they tend to pack up against the colter of the plough. The name Klaaslouwbossie comes from the belief that a certain Klaas Louw allowed Athanasia trifurcata to spread on his lands thus starting the whole weed problem.
The genus Athanasia is endemic to southern Africa. There are 39 species, the majority of which are found in the fynbos, but a few can be found in the Karoo with one extending into Namibia, and one species in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. This genus is a member of the large daisy family, which is very well represented in the Cape Floral Kingdom, with more than a thousand species.
Like many other perennial daisies, athanasias exude chemical substances into their root zone that suppress the growth of neighbouring plants. Ericas, buchus and proteas are sensitive to these allelopathic substances, but restios, watsonias, vygies, aloes and annual daisies do not seem to be affected.
The leaves and stems of most athanasias are rich in bitter resins, which have been widely used by traditional healers and herbalists for various ailments. Athanasias are not readily grazed by livestock or game because they have a bitter taste. Sheep and goats may show symptoms of photo-sensitivity (dikkopsiekte) when they eat the plant during droughts.
Growing Athanasia dentata
Athanasia dentata is easy to grow. It endures drought and harsh conditions, rewarding you with bright yellow flowerheads. It prefers a sunny situation and tolerates most soils, even poor, gravelly and sandy soils. Removing the spent flowerheads, and regularly pinching out the branch tips will keep the plant tidy and encourage branching, thus increasing the number of flowers. When they are looking leggy and woody, the whole plant can be cut back to about 10 cm above ground during autumn-winter and it will resprout from the base.
Athanasia dentata can be propagated by seed or cuttings. Seed should be sown in autumn, in situ or in seed boxes, and the young seedlings transplanted when about 5 cm tall. Tip cuttings root easily under mist. Use a sandy, well-drained soil mix. Pinching out the growing tip ensures a sturdy well-branched plant.
Athanasia dentata is an excellent water-wise garden subject, and is well suited to fynbos and coastal gardens, where it fills the gap between the spring and the summer flowers. It also makes a good cutflower, and can often be seen in the mixed bunches and bouquets of fynbos and proteas on sale in Cape Town. It has been used successfully in re-vegetation projects, e.g. the restoration of road cuttings, earthworks and open-cast mining sites.
- SMITH, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35. Department of Agricultural Technical Services, Pretoria.
- JACKSON, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town.
- GOLDBLATT, P. & MANNING, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape Flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria & Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Missouri.
- LEISTNER, O.A. (ed.) 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families and genera, Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
Christien Malan and Alice Notten
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Yellow
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy