A poisonous book ‒ read carefully
Commonly known as incwadi (book) because of the papery bulb scales that resemble a book. I call it the poisonous book that covered the Kouga mummy - the poisonous book that killed a woman about 50 years of age, on 14 March 1946 in Kwambonambi, Kwazulu-natal. The poisonous book that heals wounds and sores.
Next time when you come across a Boophone disticha, look closely at the bulb and when you read this book, avoid looking too closely at the flowers: its pollen is an irritant – which is why it was named the sore-eye flower. In every book there is a story to learn about.
This distinctive plant has large bulb growing partly above the ground, from which the symmetrically arranged leaves emerge after flowering. The bulb is easily recognised by the thick layers of papery scales surrounding the fleshy inner part.
Attractive pink to reddish flowers are borne in rounded inflorescences – but the plants do not flower every year.
Disticha is perhaps the most important and interesting of all southern African poisonous plants. It is extremely toxic and has been the cause of several human fatalities resulting from murder, suicide or accidental poisoning by traditional medicine. It is one of the most prominent arrow poisons of southern Africa and of considerable ethnobotanical interest as a hallucinogen and in traditional medicine.
The Kouga Mummy
In 1999, Dr Johan Binneman, archeologist at the Albany Museum, made the remarkable discovery of a mummified San male individual, between 30 and 40 years old, about 135145cm tall, in a rock shelter in the Kouga Mountains – the first of its kind in South Africa. The mummy is estimated to be 2 000 years old but is so well preserved that the facial features, skin tissue and hair are still visible. The upper part of the body was covered with Boophone disticha leaves. Boophone is known for its antiseptic qualities and probably contributed to the excellent preservation of the body.
The dry outer scales are used for boils and septic wounds (often mixed with water, milk or oil) to alleviate pain and to “draw out” the pus.
Weak decoctions of the bulb scales are administered by month or as an enema for various complaints such as headaches, abdominal pain, weakness and eye conditions.
In the Karoo near Touws River, there is an old belief that sleeping on a mattress filled with bulb scales will relieve hysteria and insomnia.
Numerous alkaloids have been isolated from B. disticha, including buphanindrin, undulatin, buphanisine, nerbowdin and others. Buphanidrine is a powerful analgesic, hallucinogen and neurotoxin, with a lethal dose less than 10mg/kg in mice. Symptoms of poisoning are well documented and include dizziness, restlessness, impaired vision, unsteady gait, visual hallucinations, and finally coma and death.
• Dold, T. & Cocks, M. 2012. The Voices from the Forest, Celebrating Nature and Culture in Xhosaland. 10 Orange Street, Sunnyside, Auckland Park 2092, South Africa • Gordon, M.B. A Case of Fatal Buphanine Poisoning • Steyn, M., Binneman, J., Loots, M. 2006. The Kouga Mummified Human Remains (Received June 2006, Revised October 2006) • Van Wyk, B.E., van Oudtshoorn, B., Gericke, N. Medicinal Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria. • Van Wyk, B.E., van Heerden, F., van Outshoorn, B., first edition, first impression 2002, first edition, second impression, 2005. Poisonous Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
• Someleze Mgcuwa is a plant digitiser for the Karoo Bio gaps project, based in the Schonland Herbarium
The bulb Disticha is to be treated with respect and care.