Bulbine frutescens, snake flower or geelkatstert, is an attractive, succulent shrub that makes a very good groundcover.

The flowers are yellow or orange and are borne on slender spikes at almost any time of the year. The sap from the leaves has wonderful skin healing properties. As it is drought hardy and cold-hardy it makes a good plant for areas that are prone to neglect.

Bulbine frutescens used as a groundcover.

Family:                                 ASPHODELACEAE                (Aloe family)

Name Derivation:

  • Bulbine – bulbous plants.
  • frutescens – shrubby

Common Names: Snake flower, stalked Bulbine (Eng), geelkatstert, balsemkopiva (Afr), ibhucu and elimpofu (Zul).

Bulbine frutescens stems.

Bulbine frutescens stems branch from close to the soil and will root where they touch the soil.

Features of Bulbine frutescens

Form:

A small, shrubby, succulent groundcover.

Size:              40 cm by 60 cm.

Stem and Bark:

  • The stems are thin and brittle, a little woody.
  • Branched from close to the base.
  • Stems will root if they touch or are close to the soil.

Thorns:          No thorns.

Foliage:         

  • Evergreen.
  • The leaves are elongated and cylindrical, (up to 15 cm by .5 cm), tapering to a pointed tip.

Flowers:

  • Small, star-shaped flowers that have feathery stamens.
  • Borne on an upright inflorescence (30 cm).
  • Flowers open (and close) progressively from the bottom of the spike upwards.
  • Free flowering.
Bulbine frutescens forms a small, neat bush.t

Bulbine frutescens grows into a small, neat bush. With its attractive yellow or orange flowers it is a lovely addition to a garden rockery.

The orange flowered form of Bulbine frutescens.

The orange flowered form of Bulbine frutescens is popular with gardeners.

Colour:             Yellow or orange..

Flowering Months:     Sep – Jun. 

Fragrance:     No fragrance. 

Fruit:               The fruit is a small dry capsule.

Bulbine frutescens planted to great effect with Felicia ameloides.

Bulbine frutescens planted to great effect on a mixed embankment with Felicia ameloides and other indigenous perennials.

Growing Bulbine frutescens

In the Garden:

  • This plant is a useful groundcover in areas where regular maintenance is difficult.
  • Can be very showy when mass planted.
  • Very popular with landscape designers for dry and cold areas that require tough plants.
  • A very water-wise plant.
  • Planted with plants with blue flowers, like Felicia ameloides or blue Agapanthus can create a wonderful effect.
  • Plant a few plants close to the house as a medicine chest for burns, bites and stings.

Soil Needs:    Will grow in most soil types, but add compost.  

Care: 

  • A low maintenance garden plant.
  • Feed with a mulch of compost.
  • Plants respond well to fairly regular watering.
  • Remove the old flower heads to encourage more flowering and to keep plants neat.

Cold Hardiness:                 Very hardy. 

Water Requirements:

  • Very drought resistant but responds well to regular watering.
  • Water-wise.

Light Requirements:             Light shade to full sun.

 

Space Requirements:            4 per square metre.

 

Roots:                                          Not invasive.

Bulbine frutescens in a formal planting.

Bulbine frutescens planted with Watsonia pillansii and Tulbaghia violacea, in a formal garden at a housing estate enterance.

Bulbine frutescens flowers.

Although small, individual Bulbine frutescens flowers are beautiful.

Bulbine frutescens flowers attract bees.

The yellow flowered form of Bulbine frutescens, like the orange form, are a favoured food source for Honey Bees.

Juice oozing from a Bulbine frutescens leaf.

The soft, jelly-like sap of Bulbine frutescens leaves is used to effectively treat and reduce pain for many skin issues.

Ecology of Bulbine frutescens

Birds:     Not a recognized bird plant.

Bees:      Bees are attracted to the flowers.

Butterflies and other Insects:

  • The flowers attract adult butterflies

Medicinal:

  • The sap from the leaves is widely used as a treatment for cuts, burns, rashes, acne and eczema.
  • This sap will also bring relief to bee and scorpion stings and mosquito bites.
  • It can also be used to treat cracked lips.
  • An infusion of a few leaves in boiling water is used to treat coughs, colds and arthritis.

Poisonous:                 Not poisonous.

Notes of interest:

  • The leaves contain compounds that are very similar to those found in Aloe vera
  • It is often, incorrectly, been called Bulbinella.
  • An extract of Bulbine frutescens has been included in commercial shampoos as a moisturizer.

Natural Distribution:

  • Found in the western NC, WC, EC, Les, FS, KZN, Esw, M, L, G, and NW.
  • Endemic to southern Africa.

Natural Habitat:

  • Succulent Karoo, Nama-karoo, fynbos, grassland and bushveld-savanna.

 

References:

De Jager, Salomie  “Veld Medicine from the Klein Karoo”  2011 (?)  Drukkor Printing (?) George

Harris, Shireen  “Bulbine frutescens” 2003  PlantZA  Free State Botanical Gardens      Link: http://pza.sanbi.org/bulbine-frutescens

Honig, Marijke  “Indigenous Plant Palettes”  2014  Quivertreee Publications, Cape Town

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

Roberts, Margaret  “Indigenous Healing Plants”  1990  Southern Book Publishers (pty) Ltd for Woolworths  Halfway House

Smith, Gideon F, Crouch, Neil R and Figueiredo, Estrelia  “Field Guide to Succulents in Southern Africa”  Struik Nature  Cape Town

Van Wyk, Ben-Erik, van Oudshoorn & Gericke, Nigel  “Medicinal Plants of South Africa”  2nd ed. 2009 2012  Briza Publications  Pretoria

Wikipedia  “Bulbine frutescens”   Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulbine_frutescens


© Malcolm Dee Hepplewhite & Witkoppen Wildflower Nursery, (Text and Photographs) 2013 & 2021.