Family : Mesembryanthemaceae (Aizoaceae p.p.)
Common names : mesemb ( Eng. ); vygie (Afr.)

Malephora framesii near Strandfontein
M. framesii

Species of the mesemb genus Malephora enliven some of the most arid gardens of southern Africa with their bright-coloured flowers and vigorous, creeping succulent growth. Without special care, and in almost any garden, these plants will flourish and delight.

Description: Species of Malephora are creeping, sometimes upright shrubs with distinct internodes from which roots may arise. Leaf pairs are slightly fused at the base. Leaves are smooth-textured, bright to bluish green, fleshy (succulent), soft and usually covered with a thick, waxy bloom that is easily rubbed off. Their showy flowers are golden yellow, deep orange or reddish purple and occur singly or in small clusters. The undersurfaces of petals are often a rich purple colour, differing from the orange or yellow upper surfaces. Four or five unequal sepals enclose the buds. The ovary consists of twelve parts and numerous golden yellow, pollen-laden, stamens encircle twelve feathery stigmas. The fruit capsules are corky (as opposed to woody), and contain twelve covered seed chambers. The fruit are hygrochastic (opening when wet) and the flattish, rough-textured seeds are mostly dispersed by rain. As in some other mesembs belonging to the tribe Apatesieae, a few seed are held back in secret chambers at the base of the ovary, these are dispersed at a later stage.

Distribution and Habitat: Species of Malephora occur naturally from southern Namibia to Namaqualand, in the Northern Cape , South Africa . Inland, they occur in the Little Karoo, the Great Karoo, the Eastern Cape and the Free State . The genus is relatively widespread in the southern African subregion, to which it is nevertheless endemic.

Malephora purpureo-croceo in Knersvlakte
M. purpureo-crocea

Derivation of name and historical aspects: Aiton described the earliest known species, now known as Malephora mollis , in 1789. Jacquin and Haworth described Malephora species in the early 1800s and Sonder's species; M. verruculoides dates from 1862, in the Flora capensis treatment. All these earlier names were assigned to the umbrella genus Mesembryanthemum and were later transferred to the genus Malephora , erected by N.E. Brown of Kew , in 1927. The derivation of the name Malephora is, according to Herre (1971), from the Greek male , meaning armhole and pherein , meaning to bear. The orange-flowered M. crocea has been in cultivation in many parts of the world for almost two centuries. In contrast, the white-flowered M. pienaarii was described very recently, in 2001. The genus contains a total of 17 species, some of which are difficult to identify due to a lack comprehensive published work on the genus.

Ecology: As with the majority of mesembs, the flowers of Malephora open around noon. Pollinators may include flies, bees, butterflies and wasps. No detailed pollination studies have been done on species of Malephora . The hygrochastic fruit are typical of most mesembs, and rain is the main agent for dispersal of seed.

Uses and cultural aspects: The only known use of species of Malephora is in horticulture.

Malephora luteola
M. luteola

Growing Malephora species

Plants belonging in the genus Malephora are easily propagated either from seed or by making cuttings. They grow with ease and flower within the first year and prefer direct sunlight and well-drained, sandy soil. Over-watering, however, is not a good idea as plants typically inhabit areas of winter or summer rainfall with less than 500 mm of precipitation per annum. A few species are popular in rockeries, notably M. crocea . One species, M. herrei , which originates from central South Africa where temperatures may drop below zero during winter, is extremely tolerant of frost and may be suitable for gardens in regions that experience low winter temperatures.

The author wishes to thank Priscilla Burgoyne for providing images for this page.

References and further reading

  • Chesselet, P. 2004-onwards. Interactive Mesembs: an illustrated comprehensive nomenclatural database for the entire family Mesembryanthemaceae. http//
  • Hartmann, H.E.K. 2001. Illustrated handbook of succulent plants . Aizoaceae F-Z. Springer-Verlag, Berlin .
  • Herre, H. 1971. The genera of the Mesembryanthemaceae . Tafelberg, Cape Town .
  • Smith, G.F., Chesselet, P., Van Jaarsveld, E.J., Hartmann, H., Hammer, S., Van Wyk, B-E., Burgoyne, P., Klak, C. & Kurzweil, H. 1998. Mesembs of the world . Briza Publications, Pretoria .
  • Van Jaarsveld, E.J. 2001. South African succulent plants: two new species and two new combinations. Haseltonia 8: 37-41.

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Pascale Chesselet
Compton Herbarium. Kirstenbosch February 2005


This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website