Leonotis leonurus (L.) R.Br.
Common names: wild dagga, lion's ear, leonotis (Eng.); wildedagga, duiwelstabak (Afr); imvovo, utywala-bengcungcu, umfincafincane, umunyamunya (isiXhosa); umfincafincane, umcwili, imunyane, utshwala-bezinyoni (isiZulu)
This plant is a firm favourite in South African gardens for its colourful flower display coupled with its ability to attract nectar feeding sunbirds by the dozen. It also flowers for many months of the year providing a long and rewarding display.
The wild dagga is a fast-growing, soft-woody, robust shrub which grows up to 2-3m tall and 1.5m wide. The bush is comprised of mostly erect branched stems topped with multiple ball-shaped inflorescences which bear the nectar-rich bright orange flowers which protrude from the spikey calyx which protects the buds and later the seeds. The stems are velvety, woody at the base and distinctively square in cross section. The stems are brittle and can break in strong winds.
The narrowly lanceolate 50-100 mm green leaves are rough on the upper leaf surface and velvety on the lower leaf surface and have toothed margins. These leaves are highly aromatic when crushed and have a strong herby scent.
The flower heads are in axillary verticils and borne in clusters of 3-11 with various shades of orange to brilliant orange-red flowers. Individual flowers are tassel-like and consist of a long slender tube with four stamens, with an hirsute (having stiff hairs that are rough when touched) upper lip long and hooded and the lower lip short, smooth and reflexed. Flowering time is in summer, from November to January in some areas and from mid-autumn to winter (April to June) in others. Apricot, yellow and white flowered forms are also known. The white flowered from was described as Leonotis leonurus var. albiflora Benth, and is still widely cultivated today as an attractive alternative to the orange flowered form. Hybrids between the two can sometimes be seen as apricot coloured or off-white individuals.
Leonotis leonurus is listed as Least Concern (LC) in the Red List of South African plants.
Distribution and habitat
It is common and widespread throughout South Africa where it grows amongst rocks and in grassland. Its distribution is more concentrated along the wetter eastern and southern seaboard. It is found is found in sandy, clayey, loam or stony areas, forest margins or rough grasslands at altitudes ranging from 5-1980 m.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The generic name Leonotis is derived from the Greek words leon meaning lion and -otis meaning ear. This refers to the pubescent upper lip of each flower that resembles a lion’s ear, hence the vernacular name. The specific epithet leonurus means lion-coloured, a reference to the flower colour of some forms.
Leonotis leonurus is primarily bird pollinated and the flower presentation and pollination mechanisms are all structured to support this type of pollinator. The flowers contain sweet nectar that attract many nectivorous birds such as sunbirds which include the Whitebellied, Black, Yellowbellied, Olive, Collared and Marico Sunbirds. The curved beaks of these African birds which are used for feeding from these tubular flowers have been a contributing factor to the brilliant orange-red colour and tubular shape of these flowers due to co-evolution.
However the nectar and pollen is also attractive to honey bees and other insects who also visit the flowers.
Once the seed is matured the small, stick-shaped seeds are shaken loose by wind action from the dried seed heads and scattered on the ground around the parent plant. The seeds, or nutlets in botanical terminology, have an oblique surface at the top that is covered by special oil glands that attract ants, which carry off the seeds and in so doing, disperse them (Iwarsson, pers.comm.)
The Bush Bronze butterfly (Cacyreus lingeus Fam: Lycenidae) uses this plant as one of its larval food plants.
Leonotis leonurus contains a chemical constituent leonurine that has been reported to be used in traditional medicine for curing a wide range of ailments including headaches, coughs, fever, asthma, haemorrhoids and dysentery. A remedy concocted out of the leaf and root is also used in treating snakebites as well as a natural remedy or charm to keep snakes away. An infusion of the flower and leaf is used to treat tapeworm. The twigs of this plant can be added into a warm bath to soothe diseases such as itchy skin and helps to relieve cramps in the muscles. L. leonurus has also been reported as a slimming medicine.
Animal studies done on mice and rats in 2005, South Africa have indicated that the aqueous leaf extract of L. leonurus contained anti-nociceptive, anti-inflammatory, and antidiabetic properties that could aid in the control of painful, arthritic, and other inflammatory conditions including adult-onset, type-2 diabetes mellitus.
However in a study done on female rats in 2008 in South Africa, the results had shown that when rats were exposed to high doses of the extract of this species, it had adverse effects on their organs, caused changes in their red blood cells and caused death. Scientists had advised in this toxicology study that caution should be used when using this plant for medicinal purposes.
Early dwellers present in South Africa such as the Hottentot tribe or Khoikhoi, smoked the dry leaves and flowers which were said to have narcotic properties bringing on a calm sensation or euphoric feeling when smoked, hence the vernacular name wildedagga meaning wild dagga. It has been reported to be similar to Cannabis but not in any way related and is very mild and not as potent. It is one of the most effective legal herbal substitutes to smoking tobacco or cannabis. Users have reported to have experienced symptoms of mild excitement or elation, visual impairment, dizziness and light headedness, nausea, and sweating.
The dried leaves can also be brewed to make an appetizing tea.
In livestock it is used to treat cattle and fowl with Gall sickness.
The sweet nectar is sucked from the base of the flowers by local children.
Leonotis leonurus was one of the many Cape Plants taken to Europe for gardening purposes many years ago, it is reflected in the European gardening literature as early as 1673.
Growing Leonotis leonurus
This is an excellent plant for attracting wildlife to your garden as the flowers profuse copious nectar which attracts birds, bees and butterflies. The wild dagga is fast growing and is both drought and frost hardy. It should be well watered in summer and can tolerate being dried out during the dry winter months. In the landscape wild dagga can be used as a backdrop to smaller shrubs, it can also be used effectively as a low screen to hide or reduce visibility of undesired elements. In the natural garden this species can be used to create height in an open area, and is must for a bird garden. Due to its tall nature this species can easily be used along fences or against buildings.
This species is very easy to grow but will do best in rich well drained loamy soils with plenty of compost added. Plant in full sun and provide adequate water during the growing season, application of organic fertilizer can be applied at the beginning of the new season as well as a thick (100-150 mm) layer of organic mulch to stimulate vigorous growth. Wild dagga can tolerate moderate to severe frost, but extreme cold will force the plants into complete dormancy, cover the root zone with thick organic mulch in winter to protect the roots from freezing. Plants should be cut right back (approx. 100-200 mm high) at the end of winter, top-dressed with well-rotted manure or compost and given a deep watering to stimulate the new summer seasons growth. Propagate from seed, cuttings or by dividing large clumps. Wild dagga can also be relocated at this time of the year if need be. Under ideal conditions the wild dagga will re-seed itself around the garden. Smaller species such as Leonotis ocymifolia are useful for smaller gardens or containers where L. leonurus becomes to too tall.
Seed collection and sowing:
The seed should be collected once the spikey seed heads have completely dried out, these can be manually taken apart or shaken to dislodge the many small stick-shaped seeds. The seeds should be sown in spring or early summer into a finely sifted seedling mix comprised of equal parts finely graded decomposed bark, compost, loam and fine sand. The mixture is prepared in seed trays to a fine tilth and pressed down evenly and firmly, watered and drained. Seed is then sown directly onto the damp surface of the medium and very lightly covered with the same mixture or with fine sand. Fungicidal treatment is not usually necessary for this species. Trays should be kept warm but not in direct sun and watered daily until the seedlings begin to emerge, at which point watering can be reduced to three or four times per week. The seed germinates usually within two to three weeks and seedlings can be planted out into individual containers once they are large enough to handle >20 mm (ca. four weeks). Young plants can be planted out into well composted and prepared perennial flower beddings once they are approx. 300-400 mm high. Cover the soil with a thick layer of organic mulch and water well during the active growing season. Seedlings given suitable conditions can flower in their first or second growing season.
Joffe (2003) gives instructions on dividing clumps: “Using a spade, lift the clump. Divide, and chop away the older less vigorous looking sections. Replant newer, healthier-looking portions immediately into a well-prepared bed; don’t leave clumps lying out in the sun for a long period of time. Water thoroughly immediately thereafter, and carefully for a couple of months until the plants are well established again” .
- Foden, W. & Potter, L. 2005. Leonotis leonurus (L.) R.Br. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version 2014.1. Accessed on 2014/07/21
- Iwarsson, M. 1985. in Codd, L.E. 1985. Flora of Southern Africa Vol. 28 Part 4 p. 31-37. Lamiaceae. BRI, DAWS
- Joffe, P. 2003. Easy guide to indigenous shrubs. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Johnson, D., Johnson, S. & Nichols, G. 2002. Down to Earth, gardening with indigenous shrubs. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
- Kroon, D.M. 1999. Lepidoptera of Southern Africa Host-plants & Other associations: A Catalogue. Lepidopterists’ Society of South Africa’: Jukskei park.
- Maphosa, V; Masika, P; Adedapo, A (2008). "Safety evaluation of the aqueous extract of Leonotis leonurus shoots in rats". Human & Experimental Toxicology 27 (11): 837–43.
- Ojewole JA (May 2005). "Antinociceptive, antiinflammatory and antidiabetic effects of Leonotis leonurus (L.) R. BR. [Lamiaceae] leaf aqueous extract in mice and rats".Methods and Findings in Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology 27 (4): 257–64.
- Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35. Government Printer, Pretoria.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Updated by Andrew Hankey, Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden, in 2014
and Bronwynne Busch, National Herbarium, in May 2015
Plant Type: Perennial, Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Late Summer, Autumn, Sporadic/All year
Flower colour: White, Cream, Yellow, Orange
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy