Bulbine succulenta Compton
Common names: compass plant (Eng.); kopiva, wildekopiva (Afr.)
Bulbine succulenta is an attractive bulbous plant, and a low-maintenance and rewarding ornamental plant.
Fig. 1: Bulbine succulenta, plants in flower, flowers and unripe seed capsules. Photos by Nicola van Berkel
A leaf-succulent with an underground tuber and juicy, fat, thick leaves. The star-like, amber flowers with fluffy stamens are borne on long, thin stalks in early spring (July to September). The flowers mature from the bottom upwards, each lasts a day. The fruit is a 3-chambered, ovoid capsule containing black seeds.
Fig. 2: Bulbine succulenta, a close-up of a flower, showing feathery stamens. Photos by Nicola van Berkel
Bulbine succulenta is currently assessed as Least Concern (LC) in the Red List of South African plants. This means that the species is not threatened and is not at a risk of becoming extinct.
Distribution and habitat
Bulbine succulenta is widespread along the transition between Fynbos and Succulent Karoo, growing at altitudes of 615–925 m in the Western and Northern Cape. It occurs from Hantamsberg and the Bokkeveld Escarpment south of Calvinia to the Roggeveld Escarpment, Tanqua Karoo and Witteberg near Matjiesfontein. It occurs on hillsides of Bokkeveld shale and Witteberg quartzite.
This plant is restricted to the winter rainfall region. The leaves appear after rain and wither and disappear in hot dry weather. Co-occurring succulents include other leaf-deciduous species such as Sceletium tortuosum and Pachypodium succulentum, as well as many species of leaf succulent Aizoaceae, and evergreen and deciduous dwarf Asteraceaeous shrubs such as Pteronia and Osteospermum (Sue Dean Martin, pers. comm. 2021).
The Succulent Karoo Biome is primarily determined by the occurrence of low winter rainfall and extreme summer aridity. Rainfall varies between 20 and 290 mm per year. Because the rains are cyclonic, and not due to thunderstorms, the erosive power is far less than of the summer rainfall biomes. During summer, temperatures in excess of 40°C are common. Fog is common nearer the coast. Frost is infrequent. Desiccating, hot, berg winds may occur throughout the year (Low & Rebelo 1996).
Fig. 3: Bulbine succulenta, an uprooted plant showing leaves and tuber, and a close-up of the tuber. Photos by Yvette van Wijk
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The name Bulbine comes from the Latin bulbus referring to the bulb-shaped tuber of many members of this genus. The specific epithet succulenta comes from the word ‘succulent’ from the Latin word sucus, meaning ‘juice’ or ‘sap’, referring to the juicy leaves filled with a clear gel. The English common name ‘compass plant’ was given because in winter the juicy, fat leaves tend to lie close to the ground and point northwards.
Bulbine belongs to the family Asphodelaceae (the Aloe family), which contains about 700 species; this is an Old World group with a distribution range that stretches from the Cape Peninsula in South Africa to the Horn of Africa, and into the Arabian Peninsula.
The genus Bulbine has about 50 species of which 10 species occurs in the Klein Karoo and 32 occur in Namaqualand. Other noteworthy members are: Bulbine dactylopsoides, with its finger-like, fleshy, greyish-green or reddish leaves; Bulbine mesembryanthemoides (waterglasie), a fascinating leaf-succulent with a transparent, glass-like top, that acts as a window and allows light to enter the buried part of the leaf; and Bulbine margarethae, with a rosette of bright green leaves with interesting patterns on them.
The bright yellow flowers, with feathery stamens, create an impression that the flowers have an abundance of pollen; this attracts pollen-collecting insects like bees. The 3-chambered capsule splits open to release the black seeds that are further dispersed by wind.
Bulbine succulenta occurs in an arid region with some rain in winter and extremely dry and hot summers. It survives the summer dry period underground, as a woody tuber. The leaves appear after rain, and wither and disappear when the dry conditions return.
Bulbine succulenta is water-wise and will make an excellent garden plant as it can withstand drought and is fairly cold tolerant; best suited to dry, winter-rainfall gardens. It is not sold in nurseries possibly because seed is not readily available and it is not a well known species.
The fresh leaf gel of many species of Bulbine is widely used for burns, wounds, cuts, abrasions, rashes and boils. It is also useful for eczema, cracked lips and herpes.
Fig. 4: Bulbine succulenta, a broken leaf showing the leaf gel, and the clear gel in a glass jar. Photos by Yvette van Wijk
Growing Bulbine succulenta
It always grows under taller woody shrubs in semi-shade. Preliminary experiments indicate that it can be grown in containers, however because of its leaf-deciduous habit it is likely to be overlooked in gardens (Sue Dean Martin, pers. comm. 2021).
Sow seed in autumn, in a well-drained growing medium of 2 parts river sand, 1 part loam and 1 part well-decomposed compost that has been sifted. Sprinkle the seeds evenly over the surface, avoid overcrowding, cover them with a thin layer of river sand and water well with a mist sprayer. The seed will start to germinate within 2-3 weeks. Once the seedlings have reached the 4-leaf stage and are 5 cm long, they can be potted up in a potting medium of 2 parts river sand, 1 part loam and 1 part well-decomposed compost. The harsh summer conditions causes the plant to die back in summer but it will reappear after good autumn rain.
Bulbine succulenta will enhance the look of a garden with companion plants like Aloe microstigma (Worcester’s speckled aloe), Cephalophyllum alstonii (rankvygie) with its blood red flowers, Crassula muscosa (akkedistert) with its odd looking, closely overlapping, scale-like leaves, Euphorbia caput-medusae (medusa’s head) with a rosette of warty, club-shaped branches, Lessertia frutescens (cancer bush) with striking bright red flowers, Senecio haworthii (snow daisy) with cylindrical white leaves that have a felt-like texture, Tylecodon paniculatus (botterboom) with its bonsai-like appearance, and to fill the open spaces, plant annuals like Felicia heterophylla (bloublomastertjie), Cleretum bellidiforme (bokbaaivygies) for spectacular colour.
The plant is relatively pest free.
- Le Roux, A. 2015. Wild flowers of Namaqualand. Struik Nature. Cape Town.
- Smith, G.F. & Crouch, N.R. 2009. Guide to succulents of southern Africa. Struik Nature, Cape Town.
- Smith, G.F., Crouch, N.R. & Figueiredo, E. 2017. Field guide to succulents in southern Africa. Struik Nature, Cape Town.
- Van Wyk, B.-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants, a guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Vlok, J. & Schutte-Vlok, A-L. 2015. Plants of the Klein Karoo. Umdaus Press, Hatfield.
- Von Staden, L. 2018. Bulbine succulenta Compton. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version 2020.1. Accessed on 2021/06/01
Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: The author thanks Nicola van Berkel and Yvette van Wijk for the use of their images.
Plant Type: Bulb, Succulent
SA Distribution: Northern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Spring
Flower colour: Yellow
Aspect: Morning Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Average