Dicerothamnus rhinocerotis (L.f.) Koekemoer
Common names: rhinoceros bush, rhenoster bush (Eng.); renosterbos, rhenosterbos (Afr.)
Although renosterbos is not showy or beautiful, it is an interesting and important component of our indigenous flora. It is the dominant member and the namesake of the threatened vegetation type renosterveld. The plant renosterbos should not be confused with the veld type renosterveld which consists of a typical assemblage of shrubs, geophytes and grasses. This plant was previously called Elytropappus rhinocerotis.
Renosterbos is a single-stemmed, usually smallish shrub up to about 2 m high. The very old branches are gnarled and the bark is smooth and greyish. Older branches are bare of leaves but bear many thin, whip-like twigs which are held erect and covered with tiny, triangular leaves pressed tightly to the stem. In between the leaves a layer of fine white hairs is visible, giving a woolly appearance (see photo), giving the plant a greyish appearance overall.
Large numbers of flowerheads (capitula) are borne towards the ends of the twigs but are very small and inconspicuous so that many people do not recognise when a bush is in flower.
When the seeds are shed, they become more obvious as the pale brown chaffy bracts around each flowerhead open up to give the plant a brownish, fluffy appearance.
Each capitulum contains several tiny purple flowers called florets (click here to see labelled image of flower detail). Seeds are tiny and are wind-dispersed by means of a feathery pappus.
Shoot growth happens in summer, flowering occurs in early winter, and seeds are shed in late winter. Plants are fast-growing and thought to be quite long-lived.
Although the veld type renosterveld has been severely impacted by agriculture, renosterbos itself is not threatened due to its weedy nature. It is widespread and abundant on road verges, and reaches high densities on disturbed or overgrazed lands.
Distribution and habitat
The natural range of renosterbos is wider than one would expect, as it occurs outside of renosterveld vegetation. Although it is widespread in the Cape Floristic Region, renosterbos also occurs throughout Namaqualand and as far north as the Richtersveld.
It is also found as far east as the Great Escarpment around Molteno in the Eastern Cape, and in the southern part of the Eastern Cape to East London. Populations in the interior are usually restricted to high-altitude areas.
It readily tolerates both frost and snow but in humid areas may be susceptible to fungal infections. In the higher rainfall parts of its range it is confined to fine-grained soils such as those derived from shale or granite, but in more arid areas the soil type appears to have less effect.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Elytropappus was founded by Cassini and is derived from the Greek elytron, a sheath, and pappos, down or fluff, referring to the small cup-like rim around the base of the feathery pappus (click here to see labelled drawing). The genus consists of eight species which all occur in the Cape Floristic Region and are especially common in the Cederberg. Although a common component of arid fynbos, Elytropappus species are nondescript and not well known.
The species name rhinocerotis refers to the association with the rhinoceros (probably the black rhino) which occurred in the Cape before colonial times. According to Smith 1966, the vernacular name is one of the oldest for a Cape plant, being mentioned by van der Stel in 1685 as "Rinocerbosch ... so genaamt omdat de Zelve daar gemeenelyk in legeren". Skead 1980 mentions both Valentyn who wrote in 1726 that it was named renosterbos because they commonly lodge in it, and also Kolbe who, writing about the rhinoceros in 1731, stated, 'He is not fond of Feeding on Grass, chusing rather Shrubs, Broom and Thistles. But the Delight of his Tooth is a Shrub, ... the Rhinoceros Bush' (Skead 1980).
Renosterbos was originally described as Stoebe rhinocerotis by Carl von Linné filius (1741-1783), son of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), in 1781 who wrote that it was 'the primary nourishment for the Rhinoceros which also occurs at the Cape of Good Hope and shares the same name'. It was later transferred into Elytropappus by Lessing in 1832.
This species has lately been listed under the name Dicerothamnus rhinocerotis (L.f.) Koekemoer. However, strictly speaking this name is not valid until it is published in a recognised scientific journal.
It is not known whether rhinoceros really do eat renosterbos.
Most of the research into renosterbos ecology was conducted by the great Cape botanist Margaret Levyns (1929). The plant has an extremely deep taproot which can grow to well over 6 m. Its ability to grow in very arid areas is probably due to the taproot accessing ground water. It is flammable but killed by fire, so is dependent on its seed for regeneration. It thus has to produce many seeds, thousands of which are borne on each twig. After being shed in winter, seeds become dormant and do not germinate until at least the following year, or several years later. This may be an adaptation to enhance dispersal. Seeds are dispersed by wind, having a feathery pappus to catch the breeze.
Germination and establishment are facilitated by disturbance in the form of fire or clearing of vegetation. Until the taproot is established, the seedlings are extremely sensitive and are killed by drought or shade. Shading from other plants, especially grasses, would have prevented this plant from reaching large densities under natural conditions.
It is not known how it is pollinated, but it appears to be adapted to wind pollination, and genetic studies indicate that it probably outcrosses (does not self-fertilise). Although it is reported to be unpalatable to stock, it has its own specialist browser - the small flightless renosterbos locust Lentula obtusifrons. This insect is confined to the Eastern Cape and eats only renosterbos. Several other insects appear to have associations with renosterbos. Many of these are small and not well known. Scale insects form galls, spittle bugs are often found on the twigs, and small flies parasitise the embryos.
Renosterbos is one of the most widely distributed of an indigenous Cape group which includes Stoebe (slangbos), Disparago, Metalasia (blombos), Phaenocoma (strawberry everlasting) and a few other little-known species. This group is in turn a member of the globally distributed daisy tribe of everlastings, including Helichrysum and Leontopodium (edelweiss).
Renosterbos is commercially important as it is unpalatable to stock and can become a serious weed on farmlands. There is evidence that renosterbos has encroached on worked lands since settled agriculture has been practised in the Cape, reducing the commercial value of these areas. Many farmers, especially in the Eastern Cape, regard the species as a major weed and in the 1920s renosterbos was thought to be an invasive alien, imported from the East Indies in empty wine casks. Eradication strategies and research into its biocontrol were explored, but the main reason for its encroachment seems to be that overgrazing, especially immediately after burning, removes the grasses which would otherwise shade out renosterbos seedlings and reduce their numbers. Renosterbos is a poor competitor against established vegetation but is opportunistically able to take advantage of disturbance, especially fire.
Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) report on the medicinal properties of renosterbos. Infusions of the young branches in alcohol are a traditional Cape remedy, thought to be beneficial in the treatment of stomach complaints including indigestion, dyspepsia, stomach cancer and a lack of appetite. The powdered twigs were used to treat children with diarrhoea. It was also formerly used to treat sheep suffering from krimpsiekte. The preparations are also said to induce sweating, and the plant has been used in the treatment of influenza and fevers. The active medicinal ingredient appears to be a chemical called rhinoterotinoic acid which was isolated from renosterbos and found to have significant anti-inflammatory activity.
Renosterbos is likely to be an unpleasant medicine as the plant is bitter and strongly astringent as well as being resinous.
Growing Dicerothamnus rhinocerotis
Renosterbos is not regarded as a horticultural subject but it is cultivated in the Kirstenbosch Gardens. It is a variable species and there is an interesting silvery white form which could be used as a textural plant in the garden, and has potential for restoration and landscaping. In addition, renosterbos does well in heavy clay soils, making it ideal for this difficult soil type. The foliage might also create interest in cut flower displays.
To propagate from seed, smoke-treat them and sow in autumn. However, cuttings are a more reliable means of propagation. It is generally best to take cuttings during the period of active growth (late summer for renosterbos). However, cuttings can also be planted out in spring.
Renosterbos can be propagated using tip or heel cuttings. Tip cuttings should be less than 80 mm and treated with softwood rooting hormone. Heel cuttings (a young shoot and its base, torn off its parent branch) can be treated with semi-hardwood rooting hormone. Remove shoots from lower third of the cutting to prevent infection from rotting material. Remove side and terminal shoots of heel cuttings to reduce transpiration stress.
Place cuttings in a 50:50 mixture of polystyrene and milled bark in a cutting tray or shallow container. To prevent the cuttings drying out, cover the pots with a clear plastic cover. Place the cutting trays on a mist bed or spray frequently throughout the day. Once rooted, harden off for two weeks in a shaded/protected area and water regularly by hand. Thereafter plant into a suitable container with loamy clay.
When grown in potting soil rather than clay, renosterbos grows faster but may be susceptible to aphid attacks.
A note of caution: renosterbos has a propensity for weediness and should never be introduced into a new area. Also, any propagation from the wild should be done advisedly so as to avoid compromising the genetic integrity of local populations.
- Levyns, M.R. 1929a. A preliminary note on the rhenoster bush (Elytropappus rhinocerotis) and the germination of its seed. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 14: 383-389.
- Levyns, M.R. 1929b. Veld-burning experiments at Ida's Valley, Stellenbosch. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 17,2: 61-95.
- Levyns, M.R. 1929c. The problem of the rhenoster bush. South African Journal of Science 26: 166-169.
- Levyns, M.R. 1935. Veld-burning experiments at Oakdale, Riversdale. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 23: 231-247.
- Levyns, M.R. 1956. Notes on the biology and distribution of the rhenoster bush. South African Journal of Science 52: 141-143.
- Linnaeus, C. von, filius. 1781. Supplementum Plantarum.
- Omer-Cooper, J. & Shiff, C.J. 1955. The animal association of renosterbos, Elytropappus rhinocerotis (Linn.) Less. South African Journal of Science 51: 345-347.
- Scott, J.D. & Van Breda, N.G. 1937. Preliminary studies on the root system of the rhenosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis) on the Worcester Veld Reserve. South African Journal of Science 33: 560-569.
- Skead, C.J. 1980. Historical mammal incidence in the Cape Province, v ol. 1: the Western and Northern Cape. Department of Nature and Environmental Conservation of the Provincial Administration of the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Town.
- Smit, B. 1935. Lentula obtusifrons Stal., the beneficial rhenosterbos locust. South African Journal of Science 32: 461-468.
- Smith, C. A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Botanical Survey Memoir 35.
- Van Wyk, B-E., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. Medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa, edn 2. Livingstone, Edinburgh.
Compton Herbarium, Kirstenbosch
Paul Emms with assistance from Monique Twine, Kirstenbosch NBG
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Autumn
Flower colour: Brown
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Challenging