Gomphocarpus fruticosus is a herbaceous, perennial, spindly shrub, often with watery or milky sap. It has ovoid fruits (follicles) of a clear, pale green colour, covered with prickles and narrowing into a curved tip, and almost looks like a tiny swan!
The milkweed is a fibrous, multi-stemmed shrub, growing up to 1.5-2 m high. It is evergreen and hardy. Light brown stems branch higher up to form the crown. When cut, the stem exudes milky latex. Leaves are pale to mid-green, long, narrow and opposite.
Attractive, creamy yellow flowers are carried in pendulous clusters. The fruit, borne in autumn, is an inflated, light brown, papery follicle, covered with bristle-like hairs and containing dark seeds. The seeds are attached from cotton-like, silky hairs that aid in their dispersal.
G. fruticosus is widely distributed in the southern African region. It is often found growing in disturbed areas on the roadside and abandoned fields.
Uses and cultural aspects
The plant as a whole is poisonous to livestock. Foliage and the fruit are used in floral arrangements. Leaves are used as snuff and as a sedative in the treatment of headache ands tuberculosis. Roots are used to relieve stomach pain and general aches in the body. The floss is sometimes used for stuffing.
Growing Gomphocarpus fruticosus
The milkweed is rarely cultivated other than in native gardens and natural areas and it thrives in these habitats. Plants often increase rapidly from self-sown seeds. When cultivated, they generally succeed in ordinary soils in full sun. Because of their deep roots, they do not transplant readily. Best results are derived from raising plants from seeds or root cuttings and containing them in individual pots until they are planted.
References and further reading
- Endress, M.E. & Bruyns, P.V. 2000. A revised classification for the Apocynaceae s.l. Botanical Review 66:1-56
- Goyder, D.J. & Nicholas, A. 2001. A revision of Gomphocarpus R.Br. (Apocynaceae: Asclepiadeae). Kew Bulletin 56: 769-836.
- Jeppe, B. 1974. Trees and shrubs of the Witwatersrand, edn 3. Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg.
- Pienaar, K. 1992. The South African-What flower is that? Struik, Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wildflowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Van Wyk, B. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. A guide to the useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B-E., Van Oudtshorn, B. & Gericke, N. 2002. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Watt, J.M. & Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. Livingstone, Edinburgh and London.
Pretoria National Botanical Garden