The bitterbos is not only a highly ornamental plant,
but also one that has many medicinal uses even though it is poisonous
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
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
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
The side effects that are known include slightly loose stools and
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
Growing Chironia baccifera
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,
- Roodt, B. 1994. Uit die veldapteek. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
Harold Porter NBG
With additions by Yvonne Reynolds