Chironia baccifera

Family: Gentianaceae
Common names:
Christmas berry (Eng.); aambeibossie, bitterbossie (Afr.)

Christmas berries ripening

The bitterbos is not only a highly ornamental plant, but also one that has many medicinal uses even though it is poisonous to stock.

FlowersThis is a fast-growing, rounded suffrutex (shrub with woody stems only at the base), which grows to an average height of 450 mm but can reach 1 m. The leaves are small, narrow and dark green. It has starry bright pink flowers, followed by red berries. It flowers from November to January.

It occurs from Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal, along the coastal belt south through Eastern Cape and Western Cape and as far north as Namaqualand in Northern Cape, from sea level up to altitudes of 1 450 m. It is usually found in dry, sandy soil or sand dunes, growing in the shade of other plants, it and can withstand wind.

The name Chironia refers to this plant's medicinal attributes. It is named after Chiron, the good Centaur of Greek mythology who studied medicine and other arts. Legend has it that after he died, the god Zeus elevated him to the southern sky as alpha and beta Centauri, the two pointers of the Southern Cross. The specific epiphet, baccifera, means berry-bearing.

The attractive red berries ripen at Christmas-hence the common name. The Afrikaans name aambeibessie refers to its use as a remedy for piles.

This is a African genus of approximately 30 species of which 16 are found in southern Africa. Another species suitable for gardens is Chironia linoides. In the wild C. baccifera sometimes crosses with C tetragona.

Uses and cultural aspects
The Christmas berry has been used to treat several ailments in traditional South African medicine. It was originally used by the Khoi and adopted by the early European settlers. One of the main uses is as a purgative. Infusions and tinctures are used to treat a range of ailments including haemorrhoids (piles), stomach ulcers, syphilis, leprosy, diabetes and kidney and bladder infections. It is also used as a bitter tonic and to expel a retained placenta after childbirth. Another use is as a blood purifier for skin conditions such as acne and boils.

Parts of the plant were fried in butter and applied to sores (Roodt 1994).

The side effects that are known include slightly loose stools and sleepiness.

A combination of bitterbos and wildeselery (Peucedanum galbanum) is a well-known Cape remedy for arthritis. Another interesting fact is that Chironia baccifera contains gentiopicroside and chironiocide, which are bitter substances traditionally used in the liquor industry.

Despite its medicinal uses, it is said to be toxic to small stock, and eating 250g of dry material is enough to kill a sheep (Burger 2002).

Shrub with berries

Growing Chironia baccifera

This fast-growing, ornamental shrub looks stunning when planted in groups as a hedge, in rockeries or as a border along the front edge of a flowerbed. It can be planted in full sun or partial shade. Plant in light, well-drained, composted soil. Keep soil moist throughout the year. Plants are at their best for 2 - 3 seasons, after which they need to be replaced.

Plants can be grown from seed as well as cuttings. When grown from seed, it is best to sow in spring. Sow seed in a tray filled three quarters with soil, lightly compacted and cover with a thin layer of soil, water well. Treat seedlings with a liquid fertilizer.

References and further reading

  • Burger, S. & Van Breda, B. 2002. Poisonous plants. 9. Farmer's Weekly 26 April 2020.
  • Dyer, R.A. (ed.). 1963. Flora of southern Africa 26. Botanical Research Institute, Pretoria.
  • Gericke, N. & Van Wyk, B. 2000. Peoples' plants. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Gericke, N., Van Wyk, B. & Van Oudtshoorn, B. 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town.
  • Joffe, P. 1993. The gardener's guide to South African plants. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
  • Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families and genera. Strelitzia 10. Natonal Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Roodt, B. 1994. Uit die veldapteek. Tafelberg, Cape Town.

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Berenice Carolus
Harold Porter NBG
April 2004
With additions by Yvonne Reynolds


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