For years, when I walked in mist-belt forest almost daily, I was puzzled by the identity of saplings with shiny, elliptic leaves, that were growing on the forest floor. Eventually, I discovered they were Stophanthus specious – a climber, not actually a tree.
Usually the interesting spidery flowers are spotted fallen in the leaf litter. I seldom saw them on the plant reaching for the light high above – it can climb 10 metres through the trees. As with most lianas or forest creepers, they provide good nesting places for birds.
The bark is greenish with little white spots, the leaves are leathery. When the first rains arrive in spring, the plant flowers.
The flowers are borne in clusters at the end of the stems. The long trailing and twirling petals are creamy-yellow, with orange splotches at the base. Very striking and fragrant. The buds are twisted before opening. The genus name stophus which means twisted cord, refers to this feature of the flowers.
After flowering, a greenish yellow two-horned fruit develops, then splits to release seeds that fly away in the wind to germinate. Strophanthus speciosus is found on forest margins in KwaZulu-Natal and all the way Zimbabwe. Of the 38 known species, 6 species occur in southern Africa.
Even though the seeds, leaves and latex of this plant are poisonous, the root is used to treat snakebite. Chewed by humans or pounded and fed to cattle. In times gone by, apparently the seeds were used to prepare arrow poison and the fruit as a spear poison.
Zulu names for Strophanthus are : amaSebele, umHlazazane, isihlungu