The glossy succulent leaves and bright magenta pink flowers are distinctive characteristics of Aptenia cordifolia. It is a well-known groundcover or creeping plant.
Aptenia cordifolia is an evergreen and fast-growing succulent, often a short-lived perennial, 250 mm high. The roots are fleshy and thick. The succulent stems are four-angled or rounded, 600 mm long, and grow flat on the ground. Bladder or water cells are closely arranged on the surfaces of the stems and shine in the sunlight. The green leaves are fleshy, flat, heart- to oval-shaped, 60 x 25 mm long, and are widely spaced in pairs or singularly arranged. Water cells are scattered on the leaf surface.
Flowers are purple to red, shiny, small to medium, 15 mm wide and borne singly or in clusters on short flower stalks. Terminal flowers are found in the forks of the branches. The flowers are self-fertilized and flowering occurs from spring to autumn (August to April). Flowers open during the bright hours of the day (midday to early afternoon).
The fruit is a capsule with four lidless chambers (locules). Each chamber contains one large black-brown seed with a rough surface.
Aptenia cordifolia is not listed as a threatened species on the Interim Red Data List (October 2007).
Distribution and habitat
Aptenia cordifolia occurs naturally in the summer rainfall regions of South Africa at an altitude of 20-800 m. It grows along the coastal regions of the Eastern Cape and is also found in KwaZulu-Natal.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Aptenia belongs to the Mesembryanthemaceae or vygie family. The family name is derived from the Greek word, mesembria, meaning midday, and anthemom, meaning flower, referring to the flowers that open in the afternoon (noon).
The genus name, Aptenia N.E.Brown, is derived from the Greek word, apten, meaning wingless, and refers to the wingless seed. The species name, cordifolia is derived from the in Latin words, cordi, meaning heart, and folium, meaning leaf.
This genus is endemic to South Africa and consists of four species, Aptenia geniculiflora, A. haeckeliana and A. lancifolia. They all occur in the summer rainfall regions of South Africa.
Aptenia geniculiflorais is an erect deciduous perennial with 4-angled branches. It bears white to pale yellow flowers and occurs on dry flats in scrambling bush found in Namibia to Eastern Cape.
Aptenia haeckeliana is a succulent perennial, grows flat on to the ground, and the stems are 4-angled. The leaves are flat; flowers are pale yellow. It occurs in karroid flats from Port Elizabeth to Alexandria.
Aptenia lancifolia (purple aptenia) is a perennial succulent, 300 mm high. It bears magenta flowers with narrow or lance-shaped leaves and occurs in the Northern Cape.
The shiny, bright flowers attract butterflies, bees and other insects. It is a drought-resistant plant, tolerates high rainfall and irregular watering.
Uses and cultural aspects
Aptenia cordifolia is used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory, as a dressing (poultice) and deodorant. The plant is also used as a love and good luck charm. Zulu medicinal uses include making a mild enema for babies; the black powder is used for vaccination and against witchcraft (sorcery). Burnt stems and leaves are applied to aching joints.
It is used as an ornamental plant and on dry slopes or steep embankments to hold the soil.
Growing Aptenia cordifolia
Aptenia cordifolia is a well-known groundcover. It is an ideal plant for coastal gardens as it tolerates sea spray and grows in sandy soil. It can be used in rockeries or outcrops, terraced slopes and along roadside embankments. It requires full sun or semi-shade; it can be planted underneath trees. If grown in unfavourable conditions, the plant will die.
Aptenia cordifolia is easily grown from seed and cuttings. Sow seed in summer. The plant can be divided and runners can be planted directly into the ground. Before planting, prepare the garden bed by digging over the soil; add compost and a slow-release fertilizer. Once established it requires less water. Trim or prune the plant to maintain its shape. The plant can become weedy.
References and further reading
- Bohnen, P. 1995. More flowering plants of the southern Cape. The Still Bay Conservation Trust, Still Bay.
- Court, D. 2000. Succulent flora of southern Africa. Balkema, Rotterdam.
- Goldblatt, P. & Mannning, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria and Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri.
- Herre, H. 1971. The genera of the Mesembryanthemaceae. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G. & Cunningham, A.B. 1996. Zulu medical plants: an inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
- Joffe, P. 2001. Creative gardening with indigenous plants. A South African guide. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wildflowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Rowley, G.D. 1980. Name that succulent. Stanley Thornes, Cheltenham, UK.
- Sajeva, M. & Costanzo, M. 2000. Succulents II. The new illustrated dictionary. Timber Press, Oregon, USA.
- Smith, G. 2005. Gardening with succulents. Struik, Cape Town.
- Smith, G.F. & Van Wyk, B-E. 2008. Guide to succulents. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B-E., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden