An Introduction to the Genus Boophane

by Guy Wrinkle

Figure 1
Boophone cf. haemanthoides (photo  Guy Wrinkle)
Boophone distichia inflorescence, light red in color. Photo © Guy Wrinkle.

The genus Boophone is one of the more interesting genera in the Amaryllidaceae. The name of the genus has been spelled several different ways. However, the authorized spelling is Boophane, with each "o" being pronounced separately. The genus is not very well known and is in need of revision. Boophone is closely related to Brunsvigia and both have their flowers in dense umbels.

In Boophone, the umbels can have up to 100 flowers each and the leaves are usually hysteranthos, that is, they appear after the flowers. In some species, the bulbs are very large and I have seen more than one bulb with a diameter of 30cm. The huge bulbs along with the very interesting leaves, make this a very attractive genus even when not in flower. When the bulbs are through flowering, the pedicels elongate and the infructescence rolls around in the wind like a tumbleweed. This serves to disperse the seed. There have been five species of Boophone that have been described from South Africa. Baker (1896) listed three in Flora Capensis. These species were: B. longipedicellata, B. disticha and B. ciliaris. I have never seen another reference to B. longipedicellata. Leighton (1947) described B. haemanthoides; and B. pulchra was described by Barker (1963). The last species to be described, was B. flava, which was described by Snijman (1983).

By far the most common and widespread species is B. disticha (Figures 1 & 5). This species is found in the summer rainfall region of South Africa and north to Kenya and Uganda. The flowers are red to pink and the leaves are distichous. The size of the bulb will vary depending on the type of soil that it is growing in. The large bulbs are usually found in deep, sandy soils. The bulbs are very toxic and the Bushmen use them for arrow poison. Some of the common names for this species are poison bulb and sore eye flower or gifbol and seeroogbloom in Africaans. The name, sore eye flower, comes from the fact that the flowers of this species emit a compound which will burn the eyes. The Shona of Zimbabwe use the bulb as a medicine to treat wounds, as do the Xosha of South Africa during their circumcision rites. It has also been reported that some tribes use a concoction made from the bulbs in instigate possession during initiation rites of new witch doctors. All of the other species are found in the winter rainfall area of the Western Cape as far north as Namaqualand and Southern Namibia.

Figure 2
Boophane cf. guttata (photo  Guy Wrinkle)
Boophone cf. guttata, near Drew, Republic of South Africa. Photo © Guy Wrinkle.

Boophone guttata (Figure 2) is a species with small blackish-maroon flowers which is found in the South Western Cape. This species was known as B. ciliaris at one time. Unlike B. disticha, the leaves of this species lie flat on the ground and have maroon bristle-like margins as well as maroon markings on the undersides.

Boophone haemanthoides (Figures 3 & 4) was described from a small colony growing near Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape. Later a much larger colony was found growing further north near Hondeklip Bay in Namaqualand. In this species the leaves are upright as in B. dislicha but they are twisted. This species forms large clumps of up to 20 bulbs which can be as large as 30cm each in diameter. The spath valves are red to pink and the flowers are yellow but turn pink with age. I have seen plants from two areas that are vegetatively similar to this species except for the fact that they were solitary, not cespitose. One of these was seen near Langsburg in the Little Karoo where I was looking for Haworthia pulchella in the mountains west of the town. The plants were growing among the rocks in very sandy soil on the flats and on the lower parts of the mountain. The bulbs were growing on top of the ground and were a magnificent sight. Some of them were up to 30cm in diameter.

Figure 3
Boophone cf. haemanthoides, Namaqualand,
Republic of South Africa (photo  Guy Wrinkle)
Boophone cf. haemanthoides, Namaqualand, Republic of South Africa. Photo © Guy Wrinkle.

When I was in the Eilandia area further to the west, looking for Haworthia herbacea, I saw another population of Boophone, again in sandy-rocky soil. These plants were very similar to the ones from Langsburg except for the fact that they were much smaller. Similar specimens have been reported from Swellendam and Bredasdorp.

Further to the east on the farm Zebra, near George, I found another Boophone. Here I was looking for Haworthia emelyae and found the bulbs by accident as I had found the previously mentioned species. There was only one small group of about eight plants. The bulbs were quite small, being only 5-7cm in diameter. These bulbs may have been seedlings and a search of the area revealed no other specimens.

Even further east, at Port Elizabeth which gets rainfall all year around, another Boophone was found. This species has leaves which are very blue in color and undulate. This species is very attractive and I can only hope that it will flower someday for me so that it can be identified or described.

Figure 4
Boophane cf. guttata, near Drew, Republic
of South Africa (photo  Guy Wrinkle)
Boophone cf. haemanthoides, Touws River, Republic of South Africa. Photo © Guy Wrinkle.

Boophone pulchra was described in 1963 and is one of the most beautiful of the genus. It was found near Garies in Namaqualand on an expedition to look for plants which might contain cortisone. This species appears to be quite rare and has wine red flowers with protruding stamens and red spath valves. The leaves lie flat on the ground, have red to white bristles on their margins and are spotted with purple on their undersides.

The last species to be described was B. flava from Namaqualand. This species was described by Deirdre Snijman in 1983. It is related to B. guttata and, like that species, has leaves which lie flat on the ground. The leaves have straw-colored bristles on their margins and red speckles on their under sides. The flowers are yellow with maroon anthers and they excrete copious amounts of nectar which attracts bees, ants, and butterflies. The effective pollinator appears to be bees. The plants have been found in various soil types from heavy clay to sand to coarse granitic soils. Unlike any other species of Boophone, the bulbs of this species have a well developed neck of vertical segments with transversely thickened bands.

There is another Boophone from the Nieuwoudvill area to the south of Namaqualand which also has yellow flowers. In this species the leaves are distichous and twisted like those of B. haemanthoides. The leaves of this species differ from those of B. haemanthioides in that they are wider and the leaves turn a plum color at the base when they are approaching dormancy.

Figure 5
Boophane distichia, East Cape,
Republic of South Africa (photo  Guy Wrinkle)
Boophone distichia, East Cape, Republic of South Africa. Photo © Guy Wrinkle.

In the southern part of Namibia to the north of Namaqualand, Boophone ernesti-ruschii is found. Like B. haemanthoides, this species forms massive clumps. I have not seen the flowers of this species but the bulb scales are very different from those of any species that I have seen. They are very light brown and feel just like silk I have been told that this species doesn't cross the Orange River (the border between South Africa and Namibia). However I have seen a single bulb in the collection of the Karoo Botanic Garden which is similar to this species. This bulb was collected in the northern part of Namaqualand which is not too far from Namibia.

In his article, Mr. Oliver (1981) states that, "It is almost impossible to remain rational when one discusses a genus such as Boophone." As this is a very exciting genus, I could not agree with him more. I find that the plants are very easy to grow as long as their dormancy requirements are kept in mind.

Literature Cited

Baker, J.G. 1896. In: Thiselton-Dyer, W.T. (ed), Flora Capensis 6:242-244.
Barker, W.F. 1963. Two New Species of Amaryllidaceae. Jl. S. Afr. Bot. 29:163-165.
Leighton, F.M. 1947. Plantae Novae Africanae. Jl. S. Afr. Bot. 13:59-61
Oliver, W., 1981. The Genus Boophane. Bull. IBSA 31:5-8.
Snijman, D., 1983. A New Species of Boophane Herbert (Amaryllidaceae) from the North West Cape. Jl. S. Afr. Bot. 49:243-249.

This article was published in HERBERTIA 1984.

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