Bringing good cheer and nectar in the late autumn and early winter, the Wild Dagga’s bright orange flower clusters, arranged vertically on segmented tall stems, brighten wild grasslands and gardens alike.
Its botanical name is Leonotis leonurus. It is a tall, shrubby, frost- and drought-resistant plant that does well in full sun, which it seems to reflect back in its sunny presence when flowering. In South Africa, it occurs naturally from the coast to the lower slopes of mountain ranges in the summer rainfall areas. It is popular as a garden plant and was first collected to be grown in Europe in the 1600s.
Leononitis literally means lion’s ear, which the slightly fluffy fringed-edged flowers, rather fancifully I think, are said to resemble. Leonurus means lion-coloured, and although there is a tawny-coloured variant it is not as common as the orange variety.
The name Wild Dagga refers to the leaves which are reputed to be narcotic when smoked or chewed. The word “dagga” is a South African term mostly used today for cannabis (marijuana), and according to the Oxford Dictionary, it derives from an Afrikaans word, which in turn derives from a Khoikhoi word, dachab.
The Khoikhoi were among early southern African inhabitants who smoked or chewed the leaves of Leonotis leonurus as a kind of tobacco. It is unrelated to cannabis, and the smoke is acrid. According to People’s Plants, if smoked through a water-pipe, Leonotis leonorus produces a mild, sedated type of intoxication. It is thought that the term “dagga” (and other variations) was a generic term adopted to refer to plant-based narcotics, smoked or chewed.
In addition to its use as a kind of tobacco, Leonotis leonurus has been used traditionally to treat a variety of health conditions, including colds, ‘flu, coughs, bronchitis asthma, high blood pressure and headaches. Reportedly, it has also been used to treat asthma, dysentery and haemorrhoids, and as a remedy for snakebite and a charm to keep snakes away. In Namibia women use it for menstrual problems, because of its antispasmodic properties.
From the wildlife perspective, as it is nectar-rich, it attracts birds, bees and butterflies, and in turn it attracts insectivorous birds after the insects that are attracted to the plant. Leonotis leonurus is a source of nectar in early winter before the aloes flower later in the season.
In our garden several species of sunbird are daily visitors to the Leonotis leonurus through the months it is in flower. I am not sure if I correctly identify the sunbirds pictured below, so would be grateful for any comments pointing out if I have been mistaken.
The adult male Amethyst Sunbird (formerly known as the Black Sunbird) is unmistakeable. Less easy to identify are the females and the juveniles. I think that the bird pictured above is a juvenile male Amethyst Sunbird
I find it tricky to identify the less colourful females, but because of the pale moustachial streak, I think this is likely to be a female Amethyst Sunbird pictured above
An Olive Sunbird busily seeking nectar late one afternoon
The vivid colours of the tiny Lesser Double-collared Sunbird stand out against the flamboyant orange of the flowers
As the flowers start emerging, they resemble jewels in a crown as in this picture above. “Lion’s ears” from the lower flower-cluster on the same stem protrude into the picture
The seed capsules that remain after the flowers drop are also attractive. We leave the plants to go to seed as they self-seed profusely. We dig up the self-sown seedlings to transplant or to put in pots to give away. Once they have finished seeding, we cut the plants right back, simulating frost or fire, so that they can send out strong new shoots in the spring.
Flatau, Amy. 2009. The history of dagga in the Iron Age of Southern Africa. Honours project, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Joffe, Pitta. 2001. Creative Gardening with Indigenous Plants: A South African Guide. Pretoria: Briza; Pooley, Elsa. 1998. A Field Guide to Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Durban: Natal Flora Publications Trust; Van Wyk, Ben-Erik and Gericke, Nigel. 2007. People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa. Pretoria: Briza.
Posted by Carol