A popular herb in the Cape, Ballota africana is easy to
identify by its soft-grey, aromatic foliage and old brown calyces
that remain long after the flowers have lost their colour.
Ballota africana varies in height from 0.3 to 1.2 m tall.
Along the West Coast, within reach of the cool sea breeze, kattekruie
can grow into tall sturdy bushes, whereas in the hot Little Karoo
the plants tend to be much smaller, growing in the shade of other
bigger shrubs. Typical of the family Lamiaceae, the stems are square-shaped
and the leaves are formed in pairs opposite each other.
the stems and leaves are covered in short, white hairs, which give
the plant a grey colour. The soft grey or green leaves are round
to heart-shaped and can give the impression of drooping because
they point downwards. The edges are toothed and the surface of the
leaves is very uneven with strong lines and wrinkles formed by the
veins. When the leaves are squashed they give off a pungent smell.
The pink to purple flowers are formed in dense whorls along the
tip of the stems. The green, hairy calyx that holds the colourful
petals is the more prominent part of the flower and remains after
the smaller petals have fallen. The old brown calyces that remain
in small clusters down the stem make the plants easy to identify
even when not in flower. The main flowering season is from late
autumn to early summer (May to November), with a peak in spring.
The genus name Ballota is derived from ballote, the
ancient Greek name for Ballota nigra, which is commonly known
as black horehound in Europe. Smith (1966) gives the following explanation
for the Afrikaans common name, kattekruie, 'the name is applied
in Holland for Nepeta cataria and was transferred from this
to the Cape plants, probably in very early days, no doubt from some
resemblance between the flowers and smell'.
Ballota africana is the only species of Ballota in
South Africa. It is most common in the more arid, winter rainfall
areas of the Cape. Its natural distribution stretches from the southern
part of Namibia down to the West Coast and Cape Peninsula, throughout
the Little Karoo and further along to the Eastern Cape and Free
State. Along this wide distribution Ballota africana is usually
found along streams, in the shelter of rocks and bushes, and as
a pioneer in disturbed places.
There are 33 species in the genus Ballota that are mainly
distributed around the Mediterranean and Eurasia. In Africa, four
species are found in Ethiopia-Somalia other than B. africana which
is indigenous to South Africa.
Economic and cultural value
The use of Ballota africana as a medicinal plant has a long
history at the Cape. The Khoi and Nama often used the leaves in
combination with Salvia species, for fevers and measles.
Africans used it for relieving severe colic and as a snakebite remedy.
Other than learning from the local Khoi, the early colonists must
have recognized the similarity between B. africana and the closely
related European herb, B. nigra. In France, B. nigra
was used for insomnia and coughs, while in England it was used as
an antispasmodic, stimulant and vermifuge.
Traditionally, fresh or dry, the leaves of Ballota africana
were used as a tea to treat coughs, colds, sore throats, influenza,
asthma, bronchitis, colic, typhoid fever, hysteria, and over-excitement.
Margaret Roberts still recommends it for the treatment of coughs
and chest conditions. She gives a recipe for a cough syrup in which
she boils brown sugar, cloves, lemon juice and water with a few
sprigs of kattekruie (Roberts 1990).
The traditional use of making a brandy tincture with Ballota
africana is still popular today, especially for the treatment
of haemorrhoids. A single tot taken in the evening is said to be
good for colds and influenza, asthma, bronchitis, hoarseness, heart
trouble, hysteria, insomnia, typhoid fever, headaches, liver problems,
piles and as a foot bath for arthritis (Van Wyk et al. 1997).
Ballota africana must be one of the first indigenous plants
involved in a court case in South Africa. Pappe, a physician and
botanist at the Cape, recorded a trial in 1838 in which B. africana
was presented as a narcotic (erroneously) and used in the proceedings
against the accused, C.A. van der Merwe for the murder of his wife.
(Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962). In spite of its bitter taste,
there is however no record of B. africana being poisonous.
On a lighter note, children along the West Coast used to dance
around the plant, singing 'kattekruie, kattekruie, daar staan
die kattekruie, dis 'n lekker kruie'. The song translated means,
'kattekruie, kattekruie, there is the kattekruie,
what a lovely herb!'
Growing Ballota africana
At Kirstenbosch, Ballota africana is grown
in the herb garden and peninsula section. It grows best in full
sun to semi-shade and good drainage is essential. New plants are
propagated from cuttings, which root within two to three weeks.
The cuttings should not be kept too wet if they are placed in a
mist unit. B. africana can also be grown from seed, sown
in spring or autumn. In the wild, small seedlings are commonly found
around the mother plants.
Ballota africana is a valuable herb and a pretty perennial
for indigenous, especially dry gardens.
References and further reading
- Codd, L.E.W. 1985. Lamiaceae. Flora of southern Africa 28,4.
Botanical Research Institute, Pretoria.
- Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus
of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National
Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. 1981. Botanical exploration of
southern Africa. Balkema, Cape Town.
- Leistner, O.A.(ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families
and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute,
- Roberts, M. 1990. Indigenous healing plants: 110. Southern
Book Publishers, Halfway House, South Africa.
- Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs
of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35:285.
- Van Wyk, B., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal
plants of southern Africa: 54. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Watt, J. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. Medicinal and
poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa: 514. Livingstone,
Liesl van der Walt
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden