Cadaba aphylla

(Thunb.) Wild
Family: Capparaceae
Common names:
desert broom (Eng.); swartstorm, bobbejaanarm (Afr.)

Cadaba aphylla: Photo copyright: Rod Saunders
© R Saunders

This is one of South Africa's most tenacious and most versatile plants, as it survives in the harshest conditions including severe frost and drought.

FlowersThe plant is an evergreen and leafless, many-branched, perennial shrub with a straggly growth habit and protruding stems that may reach up to 2 m. The flowers are normally borne in summer and may vary from a deep red to yellow colour with stamens that characteristically protrude from the petals. Fruits are up to 90 mm long, green and turn a rusty brown when ripe, and resemble peas that curl inward with glistening, sticky hairs on the skin. The small black seeds are covered with a bright orange and sticky pulp that dries as the seeds fall to the ground in late summer. Cadaba aphylla is a relatively slow-growing plant and is not considered as rare or endangered.

Plants are not restricted to a certain geographic area. They occur in a wide variety of habitats from arid summer rainfall areas, the Karoo, southern and eastern Cape in seasonal streams, flats, mountain slopes and dry ravines. They can withstand long periods of drought and are also frost resistant. C. aphylla flowers profusely when planted in full sun in fairly dry conditions.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The family name is from the Greek kapparis and Latin capparis. The genus name, Cadaba is from Greek meaning without leaves and the species name, aphylla means the same. The family Capparaceae consists of 46 genera and about 700 species from warm and tropical countries. Other well-known genera include Cleome, Capparis and Boscia. There are 30 species of Cadaba which are found in tropical Africa, Arabia, India, Australia, Madagascar and the islands of the Indian Ocean.

Ants as well as sugarbirds relish the nectar that is produced by the flowers. The stamens are carried in an exposed manner raised from the bright red petals, which serves as advertisement to pollinators. Pea-shaped fruits split in two, exposing the seeds, which are small and surrounded by a sticky pulp. It is possible that this may help the dispersal of seeds as the pulp sticks to mammals and birds. Leaves are reduced to spiky stems, which fulfill the role of photosynthesis and so limit transpiration, allowing the plant to survive intense heat and periodic droughts. Cadaba aphylla is not palatable to livestock. .

Uses and cultural aspects
Some authorities claim that this plant is poisonous but there is no real proof of this. It is however known to possess medicinal properties. The moist, powdered plant is applied as a poultice between gauze to draw boils and abscesses. The root is used in small doses as a tonic and also as a purgative but an overdose might be toxic. A local superstition states that burning wood from this plant will make the wind blow. Plants are occasionally grown in gardens, but not as often as it warrants.. It shows particular potential as a plant for dry, arid gardens and will also survive in areas with frost.

Growing in its natural habitat: Photo: R Saunders
© R Saunders

Growing Cadaba aphylla

The plants can be grown from seeds, which are sown from April when the climate cools down. A coarse medium such as river sand is ideal and seedlings must be kept moist. It is best to transplant seedlings when they are very young, to avoid disturbance to the established roots. Root cuttings from large plants will also grow.. In the garden these plants can be complemented with other arid plants species such as Nymania capensis, (Chinese lantern tree), Sutherlandia africana (cancer bush), Aloe microstigma (spotted aloe), Schotia afra var. angustifolia (small-leafed Karoo boer-bean), Rhigozum obovatum (wild pomegranate), Tylecodon paniculata (botterboom/ butter tree), Hermannia cuneifolia var. cuneifolia (agtdaegeneesbos).

Not many pests are known to attack Cadaba aphylla except for the occasional outbreak of scale which can be controlled with an oil emulsion pesticide.

References and further reading

  • Dyer, R.A. 1975. The genera of southern African plants, vol. 1: Dicotyledons. Botanical Research Institute, Pretoria.
  • Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town.
  • Sheering, D. 1994. Karoo. Wild Flower Guide No. 6. Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
  • Van Wyk, B-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. Briza Publications, Pretoria.

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Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden
May 2004


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