Hyndora africana is one of the most bizarre-looking plants on the African continent and certainly not the most common of plants to be encountered in the veld on any casual hike.
Hydnora africana is a parasitic plant on species of the genus Euphorbia. It has such an unusual physical appearance that one would never say it is a plant. It looks astonishingly similar to fungi and is only distinguishable from fungi when the flower has opened.
The plant body is completely leafless, void of chlorophyll and is brown-grey. As it ages, the plant turns dark grey to black. A network of thick rhizophores or subterranean stems and roots traverse the soil around the host plant. These fleshy, angular, warty stems bear a series of vermiform (shaped like a worm) outgrowths commonly referred to as roots, ± 10 mm that connect to the roots of the host. The plant body is only visible when the developing flowers push through the ground.
The buds of these bisexual flowers develop underground and eventually emerge, reaching a height of about 100 to 150 mm. The flower is spherical, brown on the outside and bright salmon to orange on the inner surface, and has 3 or 4 thick, fleshy, perianth lobes, fused in the beginning but later rupturing vertically as the flower matures, at which point the bait bodies are exposed. The exposed inner surface of the perianth lobes are covered by many stout bristles. The stamens are peculiar and situated halfway down the perianth tube which is 10-20 mm wide. Flowers may not appear for a number of years until sufficient rain has fallen. The fruit is a subglobose (half-round), underground berry with a thick, leathery wall epidermis/skin?. The seeds are numerous and small and embedded in a gelatinous, edible fleshy pulp which is rich in starch.
Hydnora africana is not endangered and although not often encountered, is thought to be fairly common in semi-arid vegetation which is associated with species of Euphorbia.
Distribution and habitat
Hydnora africana is specifically associated with species of Euphorbia, commonly E. mauretanica and E. tirucalli, found in the dry and semi-arid parts of the Succulent Karoo, Little Karoo, Eastern Cape Karoo, and the dry coastal thickets between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. It grows very close to its host plant but may not be seen in the drier parts of the year. It occurs in both winter and summer rainfall areas with the most common vegetation being the Succulent Karoo, and Eastern Cape Karoo.
Hydnora africana is found from the western coastal areas of Namibia, southwards to the Cape and then northwards throughout Swaziland, Botswana, KwaZulu-Natal and as far as Ethiopia. A sister species, H. johannis is found in the arid parts of the Richtersveld.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
There are two genera that belong to the Hydnoraceae family; Prosopanche which is restricted to the eastern half of South America and Hydnora which is a strictly African genus. Collectively Prosopanche and Hydnora contain between 10 and 15 species.
The genus name Hydnora is taken from the Greek word, hydnon, which means fungus-like and refers to the resemblance that this species has to the fungus genus Hydnum.. The specific name africana means from Africa.
For hundreds of years, jackal food was well known by the indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa. It was only from 1774 that the plant was introduced to science in the western world by the father of South African botany, Carl Thunberg. This very active and well-travelled Swedish botanist discovered and collected the first known records of H. africana near Calvinia in the Hantam District of South Africa. When he first saw the plant he thought it was a fungus and named it Hydnus after the fungus group. Subsequently the genus name changed to Hydnora.
No leaves or chlorophyll are visible on Hydnora africana plants. Plants only become visible when the flowers protrude through the soil after good rains have fallen. Under favourable conditions it takes at least one year for a bud to develop into a mature flower.
The flowers bears no resemblance to normal flowers except for its bright salmon to orange red colour on the inside which fulfils the same purpose as normal flowers which is to advertise the plant. White bait bodies are found on the inner base of the flowers. The bait bodies play a very important role in the life cycle of the plant. They omit a putrid odour to attract various carrion beetles and other insects which become trapped in the flowers. Numerous stiff bristles are found on the inner surface of the perianth lobes which restrain the trapped insect from escaping. After feeding on the bait bodies, the trapped insect drops down the flower tube onto the anthers collecting pollen all over its body. It then drops even further down onto the soft cushion-shaped stigma thus pollinating the flower.
Fully grown, ripe fruits of Hydnora africana may measure up to 80 mm across and contain up to 20 000 seeds per fruit. The brown pinhead-sized seeds are embedded in an edible gelatinous pulp with a slightly sweet and starchy taste. These fruits are favoured by mammals such as porcupines, moles, baboons, jackal and also birds. The seeds are not digested and thus are in an ideal state for germination when excreted by animals.
Not much is known about the germination of the seeds except that the seeds are more likely to germinate in close proximity to the host plant. The germinated seed develops a primary root (primary haustorium) which establishes the first attachment point to the host. After the plant has grown and spread, it may develop several secondary haustoria, attaching itself to the same or different host nearby.
The plants have modified their roots in such a way as to ensure invasion of the potential host's tissue. It is thought that the plant excretes powerful enzymes that dissolve away the hard tissue of the host in order to attach itself. The point of attachment is called the haustorium (haustorial roots) and is similar to a graft where two separate members of the union develop together in harmony. Once established, the plant is able to live off the nourishment from the host and quickly develops a matrix of underground stems from which the flower buds develop and eventually emerge above the ground.
Contrary to Hydnora africana, the sister species, H. johannis parasitizes the more superficial roots of Acacia karroo (sweet-thorn). The host specific preferences of these two related species are very interesting and say a lot about the evolution and adaptability of the genus.
Uses and cultural aspects
The fruit of Hydnora africana is said to be a traditional Khoi food, but there are no recorded details to confirm this. The fruit is delicious when baked on a fire and has a sweetish taste. Jackal food is used in a series of Cape dishes as recorded in the recipe book of Betsie Rood, Kos uit die veldkombuis (Rood 1994). One of the recipes describes how the fruit pulp can be mixed with cream to make a delicious dessert. The fruit is extremely astringent and has been used for tanning and preserving fishing nets. Diarrhoea, dysentery, kidney and bladder complaints are all treated with infusions and decoctions of Hydnora africana. Infusions used as a face wash also treat acne.
Growing Hydnora africana
Hydnora africana is not grown as a cultivated plant due to its dependence on its Euphorbiaceae hosts. In the wild it grows primarily by means of seeds which are dispersed by birds and small mammals that feast on its fruits.
References and further reading
- Fox, F.W. & Norwood Young, M. 1982. Food from the veld. Delta Books, Johannesburg.
- Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. (eds). 2003. Plants of southern Africa : an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town Ecolab.
- Leistner, O.A. 2005. Seed plants of southern tropical Africa : families and genera. Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report No. 26. SABONET, Pretoria.
- Rood, B. 1994. Kos uit die veldkombuis. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of south Africa No. 35.
- Van Wyk, B-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. A guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Visser, J. 1981. South African parasitic flowering plants. Juta, Cape Town.
- Williamson, G. 2000. Richtersveld. Umdaus Press, Hatfield, Pretoria.
Harold Porter National Botanical Garden