Snake Flower – Bulbine frutescens

[Fam. Asphodelaceae]

bulbine frutescens flowerOther Names / Related Species

  • Afrikaans: balsemkopieva, copaiba, geelkatstert, katstert
  • English: cat’s tail, bum jelly plant, stalked bulbine, grass aloe
  • Sotho: Khomo-ya-Ntsukammele, sehlare-sa-pekane, sehlare-sa-mollo
  • Tswana: Ibucu
  • Xhosa: intelezi, ingelwane
  • Zulu: ibhucu, intelezi

Note: The name Bulbinella is often used –even by Margaret Roberts – to name many of this large group of plants. This is incorrect as Bulbinella is a completely different species.

There are more than 50 Bulbine species and several are used medicinally by South African traditional healers. These include B. asphodeloides (wildekopiva), B. alooides (rooistorm), B. narcissifolia (geelslangkop), B. natalensis (rooiwortel), and B. latifolia.

There is also a variety with orange flowers.


Bulbine frutescens is indigenous to South Africa and it occurs naturally in the Orange Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and parts of all the Cape Provinces.


Bulbine frutescens is an aloe-like succulent plant with a rosette of fleshy, thorn less, straw-coloured leaves.

The many small (about 10mm) yellow (or orange) flowers are borne in elongated clusters on long, thin flowering stems. The hairy stamens are an easy way to distinguish Bulbine species from similar plants.

The fruit is a 3-chambered capsule containing ovoid, black seeds.

Parts used

The fresh leaves and roots are used.


Most nurseries and garden centres stock plants. Indigenous seed suppliers stock seeds.

Economic value

B. asphodeloides, B. natalensis (rooiwortel), and B. latifolia are harvested in the wild and sold on the various muti markets.

Bulbine frutescens is a popular groundcover.

Materia medica – Medicinal uses


The stems and roots contains anthraquinones such as chrysophanol and knipholone but according to Van Wyk et. al. these compounds are probably of minor importance in the healing of wounds.


Bulbine frutescens is mainly employed as a vulnerary. It also has antibacterial properties.

Therapeutic Uses

Bulbine frutescens is one of nature’s finest medicinal plants. It’s a remarkable first aid medicine chest all in one.

Externally the freshly squeezed juice, frequently applied, is amazingly effective to take care of a wide range of skin conditions and wounds.

The list is almost endless: acne, burns, blisters, cold sores (even in your mouth and nose), cracked lips, cracked fingers, nails and heels, insect bites, itchy places, fever blisters, mouth ulcers, sunburn, rashes and ringworm.

It’s also very effective for treating wounds, sores and rashes on animals.

You can also make a warm poultice and apply it to the affected area to treat any of the above as well as eczema and arthritis.

Internally an infusion (sometimes a brandy tincture) of a few fresh leaves in a cup of boiling water is taken for coughs, colds and arthritis.

Wise-use Guidelines

Used externally Bulbine species are reasonably safe. Check for allergic reactions.

Use with caution internally.

Preparations and Dosage

The fresh leaf sap is applied directly to the skin or in the form of a warm poultice.

For internal use, an infusion of the roots or a brandy tincture, is taken two or three times a day.

Bulbine Growing Tips

Position and Soil

Bulbine frutescens is drought, heat and frost resistant and can be grown almost anywhere. Even flat dwellers will find that they can easily grow a specimen or two on a sunny windowsill or in a large pot on a balcony.

It thrives in any soil and is extensively used by the landscape industry in places where little else seems to grow such as road islands and rocky hillsides.

It likes full sun and needs very little water.

Space plants 20-30cm apart.


Propagation is very easy from seed or from the division of clumps. Any piece pulled off a clump with a bit of stem will root in no time at all. The best time to propagate is in spring.


Just give it the odd spadeful of compost and a thorough watering once a week and you’ll have a most handsome and rewarding garden plant.

It grows so easily that it can become untidy. So it needs regular pruning.

Container growing

It makes a superb and interesting container subject. Use a good potting soil with some compost added, and a medium to large container.

It will soon tumble over the edges and reward you with a joyful abundance of yellow flowers for most of the year.

Harvesting and Preserving

Simply cut off a piece whenever needed. As it is best used fresh don’t try to dry it. You can make a tincture with brandy.


Dyson, A. 1998. Discovering Indigenous Healing Plants. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.

Hutchings, A. et al. 1996. Zulu Medicinal Plants. Natal University Press, Pietermaritzburg.

Pujol, J. 1990. Naturafrica – the Herbalist Handbook. Jean Pujol Natural Healer’s Foundation. Durban.

Roberts, M. 1990. Indigenous Healing Plants. Southern Book Publishers. Halfway House.

Van Wyk, B. et al. 1997. Medicinal Plants of Southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.

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