Bulbine frutescens (L.) Willd.
Common names: snake flower, cat's tail, burn jelly plant (Eng.); balsem kopieva, geelkatstert (Afr.)
This is a popular, waterwise garden plant, especially when planted en masse as a ground cover, or in rock gardens. It is also cultivated for its medicinal properties.
It is a fast growing, branched, succulent perennial with fleshy, linear green leaves in opposite rows and clasping the stems at the base. It forms spreading clumps with greyish stems often bearing adventitious roots. The small 6-petaled star shaped flowers are carried on an upright, spreading raceme during spring (or occasionally at other times). The petals are either yellow or sometimes orange, which combines attractively with the fluffy yellow stamens to give a bi-coloured look. The fruit is a small, rounded capsule and contains black seeds which are dispersed by wind (Ernst van Jaarsveld pers.comm.).
The plants are very variable in leaf length.
Distribution and habitat
Bulbine frutescens occurs widespread throughout parts of Northern Cape, Western and Eastern Cape; however, it reaches its peak in the succulent-rich, dry valleys of Eastern Cape.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Bulbine comes from the Latin word bulbus meaning an onion or bulb. This name is misleading, as plants do not have a bulbous base.
The brightly coloured flowers attract bees.
It has its value in the home garden. The fresh leaf produces a jelly-like juice that is wonderful for burns, rashes, blisters, insect bites, cracked lips, acne, cold sores, mouth ulcers and areas of cracked skin. This plant is ideal to grow and is a useful first-aid remedy for childrens' daily knocks and scrapes. The Rastafarians make an infusion of a few fresh leaves in a cup of boiling water. The strained drink is taken for coughs, colds and arthritis.
Growing Bulbine frutescens
Bulbine frutescens is often used in landscaping where a drought-resistant, tough groundcover is required.
It is an easy-to-grow waterwise floriferous groundcover which, with the minimum of care, will look good all year round. It combines beautifully with blue dwarf agapanthus, flowering at the same time.
This succulent perennial multiplies rapidly. Prune it when untidy. For best results it should be planted in well-drained soil preferably enriched with compost. The dead flower heads should be removed to encourage further flowering. These plants prefer full sun, but they will also grow in semi-shade for part of the day. Although it will grow indoors, it requires maximum light.
Propagation is from seed, cuttings or either division of clumps, and should be done in spring. Once the seedlings have four leaves and the cuttings have a well-formed root system, they can be transplanted.
- Dyson, A. 1998. Discovering indigenous healing plants of the herb and fragrance gardens at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. NBI, Cape Town.
- Joffe, P. 1993. The gardener's guide to South African plants. Table Mountain Publishers, Cape Town.
Free State National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Perennial, Succulent
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Autumn
PH: Acid, Alkaline, Neutral
Flower colour: Yellow, Orange
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy