Erythrina zeyheri 


Fabaceae (Leguminosae)
Faboideae (Papilionoideae)
Common names:
harrow-breaker, plough-breaker (Eng.); ploegbreker (Afr.); khungoana, motumo (Southern Sotho?); umnsinsana (Zulu)

E. zeheri growing in Free State NBG

It is only in Africa where one can find this stunning, hardy, deciduous shrublet that produces brilliant scarlet flowers in late spring-local is lekker!

Close-up showing prickles on stalks and leafletsThis is a strange plant-most of it is underground! It is a very low growing, deciduous, suffruticose (woody stem only extends a few inches above ground) shrublet not reaching more than 300-600 mm in height. Shoots form every year from the underground stems and die down in winter. This plant has an enormous underground rootstock in which it stores food. The large leaves are compound, with three leaflets, and covered with large, recurved prickles on the midrib and larger side veins. They are light green and covered by rough hairs. The leaves are long-stalked and increase in size as the summer progresses.

It produces showy scarlet flowers forming upright inflorescences on long stalks over several weeks in summer (October to January). The fruit is a smooth black pod with a few orange-red seeds. Immature seeds are often attacked by insects.

Natural distribution
It occurs in grassland, but more frequently in moist vleis with clay soils, sometimes in sandy soils throughout the old Transvaal except in the north (the North-West, Gauteng and Mpumalanga), the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho. Plants are normally found in colonies.

The name Erythrina is derived from the Greek word erythros, red, and the Latin part, -inus, indicating possession, in this case, of colour. The flowers and seeds in both cases are red in colour, and zeyheri is named after Carl Zeyher, a German naturalist that collected plants in South Africa many years ago (1799-1858).

The common name refers to the large tuberous rootstock which damages the ploughs that farmers use to prepare their lands.

Erythrinas are normally pollinated by insects and sunbirds. The large rootstock has probably evolved to allow the plant to survive the frequent veld fires that sweep the grasslands and to store food and water in times of drought. The prickles on the leaves probably deter grazing animals.

Uses and cultural aspects
In the colonial days, asthma sufferers smoked the underground portion of this plant.

Growing Erythrina zeyheri

This shrublet is only propagated from seeds that have been immersed in boiling water overnight and soaked. Once the seeds have been soaked they are ready for sowing. Sow the seeds in 5 mm diameter seedling trays or pans. Use a sifted loam and bark mixture. The seeds should be covered with the mixture not more than 1mm thick; otherwise the seeds will not germinate easily. The soil medium should be keep moist at all times, but do not over-water. Use a mist or fine spray for watering.

When you water, water gently,otherwise the seeds will be washed out. Spring (late August to September) is the best time to sow the seed, because the soil is warm and it is the growing season.

The plants are not affected by the cold, as the above ground parts die down for the winter period. It is a wonderful plant for a small garden or town house, but very difficult to dig out as the rootstock becomes enormous. Select a site where it can expand without causing problems in your garden.

The plant will need excellent drainage if it is to thrive in areas with heavy winter rains (Mediterranean climates). You could try it in a large pot, where it would make a most unusual specimen plant.


  • Dyer, R. A. 1947 Erythrina Zeyheri. Flowering Plants of Africa. Plate 1011.
  • Germishuizen, G. 1982. Transvaal wild flowers. Macmillan, Johannesburg.
  • Hennessy, E.F. 1972. South African erythrinas. Natal Branch of Wild Protection and Conservation Society of South Africa, Durban.
  • Lucas, A. 1987. Wild flowers of the Witwatersrand. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Pienaar, K. 1992. The South African what flower is that? Struik, Cape Town.
  • Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Van Wyk, B. & Malan, S. 1988. Field guide to the wild flowers of the Witwatersrand and Pretoria region. Struik, Cape Town.

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    Elliot Lithudzha and K Behr
    Pretoria National Botanical Garden
    With additions by Yvonne Reynolds
    March 2004


To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.

This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website