Indigofera jucunda


FAMILY: Fabaceae ( pea family)
River Indigo, Rivierverfbos

Indigofera frutescens

Indigofera jucunda is a scrambling shrub or small graceful tree (1-4m ). The main stem is greyish brown and the leaves are dark green and compound with leaflets, occurring in pairs of 4 to 7 plus a terminal one. Flowers are small, pink or white and sweetly scented. They are borne from December through to April in lovely dainty spikes up to 5cm long. Smooth, reddish-brown cylindrical pods with 8 to 10 seeds each, occur from May to July.

This plant was formerly known by the name Indigofera cylindrica. Botanical investigation in the 1990's found that the name I.cylindrica had been incorrectly applied to this species and that the name was synomous with Indigofera frutescens which is a shorter plant from the fynbos with bright pink, purple flowers in a lax racemes. This popular garden plant received the new name of Indigofera jucunda. Confusion still occurs in the nursery trade over the name of this plant unfortunately and you may find it incorrectly labelled.

Indigofera frutescensRiver indigo occurs naturally in riverine forest or scrub and on sandstone outcrops in Transkei and southern Kwazulu-Natal.

Several species of butterflies including the common Lucerne Blue, Lampides boeticus, and the Drakensberg Blue, Lepidochrysops niobe, breed on members of the genus.

Growing Indigofera jucunda

Indigofera is not a striking plant, but it is dainty and showy when in flower, making it an interesting garden subject.

Flowering in FebruaryI. jucunda is semi-deciduous and prefers a warm, sunny position in the garden, although it will tolerate semi-shade conditions. It grows easily in good, loamy soil. It will grow easily from seed that should be sown in September and takes from 3 to 6 weeks to germinate. The seedlings should be pricked out and planted in individual containers until they are about 20cm in height. They will flower in the 2nd or 3rd year. These plants may also be propagated by means of cuttings.

More about the pea family

Members of the pea family include a wide range of plants including economically important crops such as beans, peas and clover, as well as herbs, shrubs and a few beautiful flowering trees. The characteristic sweet-pea flowers of this family have a large upper petal (the standard), two side petals (wings) and two lower petals that are fused to form a 'keel' enfolding the stamens and pistil.

The genus Indigofera has a long history in trade because one of the species from the East Indies, I. tinctoria, yields the dye Indigo."Indigo" referring to the colour and the Latin "fero" meaning "to bear". Indigo is one of the oldest colouring agents known to man. The leaves are the main source of the dye but roots are sometimes also used. It gives a light purple to mauve colour or sometimes dark brown or grey, depending on the dyeing time. Natural indigo was originally produced for commercial use through a complicated process of aerobic fermentation and agitation, followed by heating the precipitated sludge, which was then formed into cakes for shipment.

Other species of Indigofera have medicinal uses such as helping with infertility and menstrual cramps. One is even believed to be able to change the sex of a baby before birth. Another species has its twigs used as toothbrushes and it's sap used as mouthwash.

Indigofera is a large genus of over 800 species, mostly herbs and undershrubs, with two tree-like species. They are to be found in all tropical and subtropical countries with over 200 species in South Africa alone.

Author: Cherise Dorfling
January 2001

With additions by Yvonne Reynolds 2008.

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