Acokanthera oppositifolia, Bushman’s Poison, is typically a large evergreen shrub or small tree that grows beneath larger trees.

Acokanthera oppositifolia is evergreen, a large, shrub or small tree that has dark green leaves. In early spring, it gets lovely clusters of white and pink, fragrant flowers that are followed by attractive purple to black berries. Although poisonous, it is safe to touch and is certainly a worthy garden subject.

Family:                       APOCYNACEAE        (Amatungulu family).

Name Derivation:

  •  Acokanthera – from Greek ‘akis’, spike or ‘acoce’, pointed, and ‘anthera’ anther giving ‘a sharp or pointed anther’.
  • oppositifolia – ‘opposite leaves’ referring to the leaf arrangement on the stems.

Common Names: :

Bushman’s poison-bush (Eng), boesmansgif (Afr), mothoko-nyepe (Nso) inhlungunyembe (Swa & Zul), serokolo (Tsw), mutsilili (Ven), and intlungunyembe (Xho).

FSA Number:            639                  Zim Number:             838


Acokanthera oppositifolia Features

The bark on old Acokanthera oppositifolia plants is dark brown and deeply fissured.


An evergreen, multi-stemmed shrub, or small tree.

Size:                2 – 5 m (–7 m) by 3 – 5 m.


Stem and Bark:

  • Stem is fluted and twisted.
  • Dark brown bark,
  • Bark is deeply fissured on old stems.

Thorns:          No thorns.


  • Evergreen.
  • Leaves are simple, elliptic or obovate (4 – 14 x 2 – 7) cm tapering to a sharp, spine-like tip.
  • Margin is entire, rolled under.
  • Leaves are smooth and leathery, mid to dark green, purple or reddish when young.
  • Lateral veins often raised on both surfaces, reaching almost to the margin.

Acokanthera oppositifolia has simple leaves, oppositely arranged. The leaves taper to sharp, spine-like tip.

The densely clustered flowers of Acokanthera oppisitifolia, Bushman’s Poison-bush, are tubular, pinkish outside with white petal lobes.


  • The flowers are tubular (+/-1cm), pinkish outside with white petal lobes (.5 cm diameter).
  • The flowers are densely clustered in the leaf axils.
  • Plants in flower may be very showy.

Colour:                                   White tinged with pink.

Flowering Months:             Jun – Oct.

Fragrance:                             Sweetly scented.


  • The fruit is an ovoid drupe (1-2cm).
  • Green, ripening pinkish red to purplish black.
  • Plants in full fruit are very showy.

Cultivating Acokanthera oppisitifolia

In the Garden:

  • Its dark green leaves, scented flowers and attractive fruit make for a good garden subject.
  • A good understorey fill plant as well as a screen.
  • A good plant for a wildlife friendly garden, flowers attract insects and birds eat the fruit.
  • Can be planted close to walls and paving.
  • A water-wise choice.
  • May be pruned to retain it as a shrub.
  • Acokanthera oppositifolia makes a particularly good container plant.
  • Not a particularly fast-growing shrub, up to 50 cm a year.
  • Container grown plants may tolerate indoor conditions for extended periods.

Soil Needs:                 Grows best in humus rich soils.


  • A low maintenance plant.
  • Prune it to shape.

Cold Hardiness:

  • Cold hardy but protect young plants for 2-3 winters.

Water Requirements:          Drought hardy, water-wise.

Light Requirements:            Shade to full sun.

Space Requirements:           Plant 2 to 3 metres apart.

Roots:             The roots are not aggressive.

The fruit of Acokanthera oppositifolia start off green, but ripen to maroon, then purple and are almost black when fully ripe.

The fruit of Acokanthera oppositifolia start off green, but ripen to maroon, then purple and are almost black when fully ripe.

The densely clustered flowers of Acokanthera oppisitifolia, Bushman’s Poisonbush, are tubular, pinkish outside with white petal lobes

The scented flowers add an extra dimension to gardens.

Ecology of Acokanthera oppositifolia

The fruit of Acokanthera oppositifolia start off green, but ripen to maroon, then purple and are almost black when fully ripe.

The fruits are very decorative and rival most exotics that are grown for their attractive fruits.


  • The ripe fruit is eaten by birds.
  • Birds use these plants are used for nesting sites.

Bees:               Bees collect food from the flowers.

Butterflies and other Insects:

  • Butterflies, moths and other insects are attracted to the flowers.
  • Does not seem to host any butterfly or moth larva.


  • Please do not attempt these treatments at home, these plants are poisonous.
  • Dried leaves or roots are used in traditional medicine to treat headaches and snake bites.
  • Weak infusions made from leaves used to treat abdominal pain.
  • Plant is also used to treat tapeworm, anthrax, toothache and colds.


  • Poisonous.
  • Sap contains a toxic cardiac glycoside, acovenside.
  • Despite being poisonous, it is safe to touch plants.

Notes of interest:

  • The sap of all parts of this plant, except possibly the ripe fruit, is toxic.
  • Extracts of Acokanthera species are used as a component for arrow poison.
  • Although very poisonous, it tastes awful and one’s immediate reaction is to spit it out.
  • It is perfectly safe to touch and does not produce any known allergic reactions.

An Acokanthera oppositifolia growing in the shade of an Olea europaea cuspidata (Wild Olive).

Natural Distribution:

  • Found in WC, EC, KZN, Esw, G, NWP, M, L, Moz and central Zim.
  • Its range extends northwards into East Africa.

Natural Habitat:

  • Grasslands, thickets, forest, savanna-woodland and savanna-bushveld.
  • Found under or with other trees on rocky outcrops, forest, riverine and coastal bush.


Boon, Richard  “Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa, a Complete Guide”  2nd ed. 2010  Flora & Fauna Publications  Durban.

Hankey, Andrew,  “Acokanthera oppositifolia”  2001  PlantZA     Link Acokanthera oppositifolia

Joffe, Pitta & Oberholzer, Tinus  “Creative Gardening with Indigenous Plants, A South African Guide” 2nd ed. 2012  Briza Publications  Pretoria

Johnson, David & Sally & Nichols, Geoff  “Gardening with Indigenous Shrubs” 2002, Struik Publishers  Cape Town

Coates Palgrave, K C, edited Coates Palgrave, M C  “Trees of Southern Africa”  2002  Struik Publishers  Cape Town

Palmer, E & Pitman, N  “Trees of Southern Africa Volume 3”  1973  A A Balkema  Cape Town

Schmidt, E, Lotter M  Cleland W  “Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park  2002  Jacana  Johannesburg

Van Wyk, A, van den Berg, E, Coates Palgrave, M & Jordaan, M  Dictionary of names for southern African trees”  2011..Briza Publications  Pretoria

Woodhall, Steve  “Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa”  2nd ed 2020  Struik Nature  Cape Town


© Malcolm Dee Hepplewhite & Witkoppen Wildflower Nursery, (Text and Photographs) 2012 & 2021.