© Martin von Flintel
This is the largest of our epiphytic orchids and grows in spectacular
clumps in trees in the subtropical areas of southern Africa.
orchid is an epiphyte, which means that the whole plant, roots and
all, grow above ground, attached to the branches of trees. The roots,
which anchor the plant to the tree, are specially adapted to absorb
water and nutrients very quickly. An unusual feature are the needle-like
roots pointing upwards which form in a dense mass around the pseudobulbs
and catch the rotting leaves and detritus upon which the plant feeds.
The plant flowers during the dry winter months in a mass of yellow
or greenish yellow blooms, which can be lightly or heavily marked
with brown spots. In the wild, plants live for a long time and can
become very large, some estimated to weigh over a tonne.
It is found in tropical Africa and into N Namibia, N Botswana, Swaziland,
and in South Africa in the Northern Province, the Lowveld and Kwa-Zulu/Natal,
mainly in the hot, dry river valleys.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
plant was named after John Ansell, an assistant botanist on an 1841
expedition to the Niger River. In South Africa we have only the
Nichols (2002) records that hawk moths visit the very sweetly scented
flowers at night and that a pair of eagle owls made their nest in
a huge clump of Ansellia africana in the hutted camp at Ndumu
Game Reserve. The roots of this species are especially adapted to
ensure its survival as an epiphyte.
Uses and cultural aspects
Traditional Ansellia africana is used as a love charm, as
an antidote for bad dreams and at homesteads to ward off lightning.
It is also much in demand as a specimen plant in gardens.
Growing Ansellia africana
is a plant for that specimen tree in the garden. Because it will
grow into a very large plant, it is best wedged into a fork or secured
onto a large branch. It is important that the plant does not move
about until new roots have secured it to the tree. This could take
up to two years depending on growing conditions.
During summer the plant should be watered regularly allowing it
to dry out between watering. Once new roots have formed, the occasional
application of plant food will speed up growth and improve flowering.
During the winter months the plant should be kept dry to allow the
canes to harden off and for flower buds to be initiated. It will
also grow in pots provided that coarse bark is used as a growing
medium. Although this is a subtropical plant, it will survive occasional
- Batten, A. & Bokelmann, H. 1966. Wild flowers of the
eastern Cape Province. Cape & Transvaal Printers, Cape
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1987. Origins and derivations of names of
South African plant genera. University of Cape Town.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa:
families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute,
Nichols, G. 2002. Indigenous Plant of the Month. The Grapevine
Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal
and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
Stewart, J., Linder, H.P., Schelpe, E.A. & Hall, A.V. 1982.
Wild orchids of South Africa. Macmillan, Cape Town.
Natal National Botanic Garden