The hybernaceae family (or “African” family) includes approximately 80 genera and over 400 species. These plants are found throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.
There are two main groups of hyberniferous plants: those with male and female flowers; and those without either. The genus Hydnusa contains four genera, all of which have both male and female flowers. They include Hybrida, Hederacea, Hederaceae and Nannochloropsis.
Heterocarpus (also known as Hybendron or Dandelion) is one of the most widely distributed members of the group. It grows from southern Europe through northern Africa, south to Central America.
Its leaves are alternate, lanceolate or ovate-lanceolate, 4–6 inches long and 1/4 inch wide at their widest point. The petioles are narrow and erect. Flowers occur in clusters of five to fifteen flowers per cluster, borne singly or in loose racemes on short stalks up to 3 feet tall. The fruit is a slender achene which has elaiosomes.
The flowers are protandrous: the male parts develop first and persist in the female parts form later.
The plant is used as a tooth cleaner in some underdeveloped countries. The root contains a natural antibiotic, effective against strains of staphylococcus, a common bacteria found in human skin.
The plant is also used in herbal medicines as a pain killer.
Hydnora Africana Plant:
The hydnora africana plant has a number of different common names, including “African wart plant,” “Destroying Angel,” “inKego,” “tongue of dog,” and “nispero.” It is also sometimes referred to as the “snuffbox plant.” It is a purple flower that grows in hot, dry areas of South Africa.
It thrives in a dry, sandy area and produces a sweet smell similar to that of rotting flesh (or “angel’s breath,” hence another common name). The flower’s odor attracts insects, such as flies, which then pollinate the plant. Its large leaves give it the nickname “tongue of dog.”
The plant contains hydnocins, neurotoxins that attack the nervous system. These toxins are not destroyed by heat and can remain active even when the plant is dry.
These toxins are present throughout the plant, including the roots, leaves, flowers, and fruit.
The hydnora africana is also known as the “tongue of dog” for its large leaf that somewhat resembles a dog’s tongue. The flower has been given other names, such as “destroying angel” and “nispero.”
The hydnora africana grows as a short shrub. It has very large leaves, up to one meter long and up to 40 cm wide.
Its flowers grow singly or in groups of two or three from the leaf axils. It flowers from summer through to early winter.
The hydnora africana is native to the Western Cape Province of South Africa. It typically grows in sand, often in small clumps, and is common on the edges of fields, on roadsides and in open wasteland.
This flower is related to the common Dandelion, Taraxacum, which is sometimes known as the ‘Pissing Devil’.
The plant contains toxins called hydnocins, which are stored in all parts of the plant, especially the root.
When the plant is consumed by a grazing animal such as a cow or sheep, the hydnocins pass into the bloodstream and interfere with nerve function. This leads to confusion and dizziness, followed by agitation, rapid breathing, a fast heart rate, trembling and convulsions.
Death soon follows due to a shutdown of the organs.
During the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century, British soldiers sent to fight in South Africa noticed the flowers of this plant and their occasional death seemed a mystery. The plant was therefore given the name ‘Pofadder’ or ‘Destroying Angel’, though it is not actually related to the true angel plants (such as Deadly Angeled Trumpet) which are also known as ‘Pofadders’.
The poison works rapidly. After eating the plant, the victim experiences a burning sensation in the mouth and throat after 15 to 20 minutes.
Soon after, the victim will suffer convulsions and fall into coma. This is followed by paralysis of the central nervous system, leading to death due to paralysis of the respiratory muscles.
The poison attacks the central nervous system and causes an increase in muscle excitability, leading to convulsions. The effects are increased when the plant is consumed with alcohol.
This plant killed hundreds of Boer prisoners during the Anglo-Boer War.
The main toxic elements are hydnocins, alkaloids of the ergot and lindane classes. The toxin is present in all plant parts.
The leaves and stem contain the most toxin.
The toxic dose is between 10 and 40 mg hydnocins. Death has occurred in humans from ingestion of less than 1g of the poison.
The toxin is readily absorbed by all body tissues, but does not cause vomiting.
A victim will begin to experience nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and dizziness after 15 to 30 minutes. This is followed by muscle spasms and convulsions, leading to death by paralysis.
The poison also affects the cardiovascular system, causing a fall in blood pressure. It also increases body temperature, which can lead to brain damage, because the brain relies on a constant supply of oxygenated blood.
First aid involves immediately administering an antidote, activated charcoal and ensuring that the patient is kept quiet and warm. Artificial respiration and an injection of physostigmine may also be required.
Hydnora africana is found throughout the Western Cape and in the mountains of Natal. It is not common, but is sometimes found as a garden escape, especially in damp ground and on muddy river banks.
The plant is a fleshy tap root about as thick as a man’s thumb. It grows just above ground level and has a thick covering of brownish-grey bark.
The plant also produces long lateral roots which grow along the surface of the ground.
The plant is leafless, but it does have scales similar to leaves, which are a reddish-green in colour. In the middle of these scales are yellowish-white flowers, about 3cm across.
The flowers give rise to flattened, oval fruits about 3cm long and 2cm wide. These fruits contain many seeds.
The stem at the base of the fruit is grooved and curved like an elbow.
Sources & references used in this article:
Pollination Biology of Hydnora africana Thunb. (Hydnoraceae) in Namibia: Brood‐Site Mimicry with Insect Imprisonment by JF Bolin, E Maass… – … Journal of Plant Sciences, 2009 – journals.uchicago.edu
The antibacterial, phytochemicals and antioxidants evaluation of the root extracts of Hydnora africana Thunb. used as antidysenteric in Eastern Cape Province … by OA Wintola, AJ Afolayan – BMC …, 2015 – bmccomplementalternmed …
Bioactivity of Hydnora africana on selected bacterial pathogens: Preliminary phytochemical screening by BB Nethathe, RN Ndip – African Journal of Microbiology …, 2011 – academicjournals.org
Chemical constituents and biological activities of essential oils of Hydnora africana thumb used to treat associated infections and diseases in south africa by OA Wintola, AJ Afolayan – Applied Sciences, 2017 – mdpi.com
Hydnora johanm’s in Southern Africa by LJ Musselman, JH Visser – 1987 – nbri.org.na
On the female flower and fruit of Rafflesia arnoldi and on Hydnora africana by R Brown – 1844 – books.google.com