This week we celebrate an indigenous shrub, well-known for its medicinal properties, interesting balloon-like fruit capsules and incredibly bitter taste. If you haven't guessed it yet, it's the Cancer bush (Lessertia frutescens).
A quick look at Cancer bush:
Latin name | Lessertia frutescens
Common names | Cancer Bush, Balloon Pea, Kankerbos, Blaasbossie, Gansies, Hoenderbelletjie
Family | Fabaceae
Lessertia frutescens (previously Sutherlandia frutescens) is a fast-growing, hardy shrublet that has been cultivated in gardens for many years. The silvery-grey leaves and loose clusters of luminous coral-red pea-shaped flowers appearing in spring to mid-summer makes it a very attractive garden subject. The distinctive inflated balloon-like seed pods also add seasonal interest and are often used in dry flower arrangements.
The inflated papery seed pods are responsible for the vernacular name ‘gansies’ as they resemble geese when floating on water.
Cancer bush occurs naturally in the dry parts of southern Africa and is one of South Africa’s most useful, multi-purpose medicinal plants, first used by the KhoiSan and Nama people. Decoctions of the intensely-bitter leaves were used for washing wounds, taken internally to bring down fevers and used in the treatment of eye troubles.
The common name ‘cancer bush’ alludes to its reputation as a potential cure for cancer. Although there is no scientific support for Lessertia as a cure for cancer, it has been proven to boost the immune system and activate the body's resources to combat disease and mental and physical stress of daily life. So, how about a warm brew of bitter-tasting Lessertia leaves after a long day of digging and pruning?
Although short-lived, Lessertia fructescens is a fast-growing, hardy plant, making it the perfect pioneer in a new garden where it provides cover and colour while slower perennials take their time to establish. Fortunately, plants seed themselves readily so older plants that look past their best can be removed. Cancer bush also grows well in containers, it is drought-tolerant, quite resistant to pests and grows in all soil types.
Growing Cancer bush
Lessertia fructescens grows easily from seed and can be sown in autumn or spring in well-draining soil. To improve germination, soak seeds for about four hours or overnight in hot water (not boiling). Seeds germinate between two to three weeks and the seedlings can be transplanted as soon as they are large enough to handle. Plant groups of five or more plants close together in rockeries or mixed shrub border for a fuller effect. Remember to water plants well in winter, especially in summer rainfall areas.
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