Mackaya bella Harv.

Family name: Acanthaceae
Common name: Forest bell bush, River bell

Mackaya bella

Mackaya bella is a beautiful shrub or small tree with slender branches bearing dark green leaves. The leaves are simple and oppositely arranged. Small, hairy pockets are often found in the axil of the veins. It has beautiful, large and attractive mauve to white flowers in terminal racemes usually marked with fine purple-pink lines.

The genus Mackaya was named after James Townsend Mackay, author of Flora Hibernica. There is only one species in the genus Mackaya. The genus Mackaya was once included in the genus Asystasia.
Its specific name bella means "beautiful", a tribute to its large bell shaped flowers.

The forest bell bush occurs naturally in the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu Natal, Swaziland and Northern Province in evergreen forest, often along the edges of stream. This plant occurs nowhere else in the world except in Southern Africa which means is endemic to this region.

Mackaya bellaMackaya bella is commercially available in almost any local nursery in South Africa. It makes a stunning display if planted in a pot and can also serve for screening in a semi-shade area. The river bell is a desirable garden plant, which thrives in shade but flowers best with more sun, although this may cause leaves to yellow. The wood was once used to kindle fire by friction. The beautiful Blue Pansy butterfly caterpillars (Precis oenone oenone) feed on this shrub.

Gowing Mackaya bella

Growing Mackaya bella is easy from semi-hardwood stem cuttings taken during spring and autumn. Plants can also be propagated from seeds. Cutting materials may be treated with root stimulating hormone and should be planted in washed river sand. Rooting can be hastened by keeping the cuttings in a misted bed.

In the garden forest bell bush should be planted in well-drained soil, with plenty of compost. Water well in summer, but less frequently in winter. To encourage bushiness plants should be pruned often. Mackaya bella is frost tender and it is advisable to plant it in a protected spot in cold regions. If is frosted, it should be drastically pruned to encourage new growth from the base.

Mackaya bella performs best in sub-tropical to temperate regions.


  • Joffe, P.1993. The gardener's guide to South African Plants. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
  • Kroon, D.M. 1999. Lepidoptera of Southern Africa, Host-plants and other associations. Lepidopterists' Society of Africa & D.M. Kroon. Jukskei Park & Sasolburg.
  • Migdoll, I.1987. Field Guide to the Butterflies of Southern Africa. Struik. Cape Town.
  • Pooley, E.1997. The complete field guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora publication, Durban.

Thompson T. Mutshinyalo
Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden
September 2001

To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.
This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website