A poi­sonous book ‒ read care­fully

Grocott's Mail - - OUTSIDE -

Boo­phone dis­ticha

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.

Medic­i­nal uses

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.

Poi­sonous In­gre­di­ents

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

Photo: Someleze Mgcuwa

The bulb Dis­ticha is to be treated with re­spect and care.

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