Beautiful silky silver leaves and dark mauve-purple flowers in early summer, Vernonia natalensis is an eye-catching plant for the sunny garden.
An upright herbaceous perennial covered in silvery silky hairs. It is dormant during winter, sending out annual stems from woody perennial rootstock every spring, growing 0.1 - 1.5 m tall. Leaves are simple, have no stalk and are covered with silver hairs.
The flat, mauve to purple inflorescence is made up of many branched flowerheads. Silver-white buds open to frilly dark mauve to purple flowers - look closely to see that the flowers that make up each flowerhead are all disc-florets with no ray-florets, and each tiny floret has pointed petals that add to the overall frilly effect. Purple stigmas stick out above the florets adding to the tousled look. It flowers during mid-summer (Nov-Dec) at Kirstenbosch and in spring to mid summer (Aug-Dec) in its natural habitat.
By January the flowerheads have turned into fluffy silver-white seedheads. The seeds are very light in weight and have a pappus of silver-white hairs.
Vernonia natalensis is seen growing in clumps, sometimes in colonies, among rocks and on open grassy slopes from 5 up to 2200 m, widespread in the Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West and Swaziland and in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.
Butterflies, beetles and bees are seen visiting Vernonia natalensis flowers at Kirstenbosch. The feather light seeds with their hairy parachutes are dispersed by the wind.
Derivation of the name & historical aspects
The genus Vernonia is named after William Vernon, died 1711, an English botanist who collected in Maryland in the late 1600s. The species name natalensis means from the province of Natal, now KwaZulu-Natal.
Vernonia is a large genus of over 1000 species. There are approximately 40 in southern Africa, occurring throughout southern Africa but not in the winter-rainfall region. At Kirstenbosch, you can also see Vernonia glabra, V. myriantha, V. mespilifolia, V. neocorymbosa and V. stipulacea.
Uses & cultural aspects
Vernonia natalensis is used in traditional medicine to treat coughs, malaria and other feverish conditions, headache, pains in the loins and pain in the kidneys, and to bathe haemorrhoids. It is an ingredient in medicines known as isihlambezo that are prescribed for pregnant women and taken during pregnancy to ensure a healthy mother and baby. A mixture of leaves and roots is sometimes used by the Venda to induce abortion, a treatment that has occasionally also killed the mother.
The leaves and roots are used as charms against lightning and in Zimbabwe the leaves are burned and inhaled to drive away evil spirits.
Many other vernonias are used medicinally or to make tea and three species are used as poisons in Africa : V. hildebrandii, V. macrocyanus ( Angola ) and V. wakefieldii ( Tanzania ).
Growing Vernonia natalensis
Vernonia natalensis requires fertile well-drained soil, plenty of water in summer and a sunny situation. It is dormant during winter and is frost hardy but in very cold climates it should be protected with a generous mulch of straw or hessian. If not cut down by frost, prune hard in winter and it will shoot strongly again in the spring or early summer.
Plant the silver vernonia in clumps in the herbaceous border, in the rockery or in containers. Use its striking silver leaves to create contrast. When not in flower its foliage is very decorative and it is extremely attractive when dotted with purple flowerheads in midsummer.
Propagate by seed or cuttings. Seed is best sown in spring-early summer. Vernonia natalensis roots quickly and easily from tip cuttings taken from the new growth in spring or early summer. Treated with rooting hormone and placed in a standard mist unit, cuttings root in roughly 2 weeks.
- Hutchings, Anne 1996 Zulu Medicinal Plants, an inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990 Origins and Meanings of Names of South African Plant Genera. U.C.T. Printing Dept., Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 2003 Mountain Flowers, A Field Guide to the Flora of the Drakensberg and Lesotho. The Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. (eds) 2003 Plants of southern Africa : an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria
- Germishuizen, G. 1997 Wild Flowers of Northern South Africa. Fernwood Press, Cape Town.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden