Jamesbrittenia breviflora

(Schltr.) Hilliard

Family : Scrophulariaceae
Common names : there are no recorded common names for this species; other Jamesbrittenia species are sometimes known as verfblommetjies (little paint-flowers)

In flower

Jamesbrittenia breviflora grows wild in the Drakensberg and has beautiful reddish purple flowers with a bright lemon-yellow centre.

Jamesbrittenia breviflora is a leafy perennial herb. The stems are up to 600 mm long and often sprawl along the ground. The leaves are soft and bright green and the stems are covered in long glandular hairs.

Long hairs on stems

The flowers are borne towards the ends of the stems forming a loose, leafy display. Individual flowers are up to 20 mm across and are dark red, brick red, terracotta or rose pink with a bright yellow centre.


In the wild, flowering occurs mainly between October and March. The seeds are minute (about 0.4 mm in diameter) and contained in small capsules less than 5 mm long.

Jamesbrittenia breviflora is easily distinguished from other species in the genus by its sprawling habit, glandular-hairy stems and leaves, and the (relatively) large, distinctive reddish flowers. Plants last about three years before they start to decline due to old age.

Conservation status
This species is not listed on the Interim Red Data List.

Distribution and habitat
Jamesbrittenia breviflora occurs on grassy and often rocky slopes as well as on bare soil at elevations between 1 370 and 3 000 m in the Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Lesotho. It is essentially a summer-growing plant, capitalizing on the increased warmth and moisture. It is a high-altitude plant so is not accustomed to very high temperatures (above 35º C) but should handle light frosts in winter. It grows in nutrient-rich soils that remain moist during summer but are very well drained.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
In 1807, Otto Kuntze recognized Jamesbrittenia as being distinct from Sutera and named the new genus in honour of Mr James Britten, Keeper of Botany at the British Museum of Natural History. There are 83 species in the genus, distributed mainly in tropical and southern Africa (one species occurs in North Africa and eastwards to India ). In 1992, Olive Hilliard recognized Sutera breviflora (an earlier name for this plant), as belonging to the genus Jamesbrittenia. The name breviflora is derived from the Latin words brevi, short, and flora, flower, and refers to the unusually short floral tube.

Long hairs on stems
Tube of J. breviflora

Tube of J. grandiflora

Members of Jamesbrittenia frequently hybridize and it is thought that geographic separation is important to maintain species boundaries. For example, J. breviflora hybridizes naturally with J. pristisepala (see below ) where they co-occur. Various insects pollinate members of the genus, but the pollinator of J. breviflora is unknown.

Above a hybrid between J. breviflora
and J. pristisepala (left)

Uses and cultural aspects
Many species of Jamesbrittenia are used in horticulture including J. grandiflora, and several hybrids are advertised on horticultural websites where they are erroneously known as Bacopa. A cultivar derived from J. breviflora is marketed as African Sunset Red Improved.

The flowers of J. atropurpurea are used as a saffron substitute and J. fodina from Zimbabwe, which grows on soils high in heavy metals, accumulates nickel and chromium in its tissues.

Growing Jamesbrittenia breviflora

This herbaceous perennial does most of its growing during the warm spring and summer months. It will, however, happily flower all year round given favourable growing conditions. It can be grown successfully as a potted plant or as a colourful component in a herbaceous border in the garden, and displays best where the masses of small flowers can be readily seen. It prefers full sun for most compact growth, but in very warm and dry climates a partially shaded position is recommended.

This species enjoys a rich, well-drained soil medium that requires a fine balance between not getting waterlogged, especially in winter, and not drying out too quickly in the hot summer months. Both can have dire consequences. Plants need to be watered daily in summer and once per week in winter.

Pruning should take place in late winter to encourage a flush of new spring growth. A fairly hard prune is recommended on older plants.

This species is prone to dying in 2 ways:
1. In summer it has the tendency to flower itself to death-it will literally put out so many flowers that the slightest drought causes severe branch loss or usually death of the whole plant, and this can happen literally within a few hours of hot dry weather. If this is noticed, immediate immersion of the entire pot (if it's growing in a pot) into a basin of water and drastic pruning might just save it.

2. Plants only last about three years before they start to decline because of old age.

Cuttings: These can take the form of softwood heel cuttings on a heated humid bench at any time of the year, but preferably summer. Rooting hormone is recommended for quicker rooting.

Seed: Sometimes plants will produce seed, the size of large grains of sand, which can be sown in spring. Fill a seed tray with a good growing medium and place a 1 cm layer of pure sharp sand over the surface. Sow the seeds evenly and cover them with a very fine layer of sand. Water the tray with a fine rose nozzle so as not to disturb the seeds or stand the tray for a while in a shallow tray of water so as to soak up water from the bottom. Germination should take place within about 3-4 weeks.

References and further reading

  • Hilliard, O.M. 1994. The Manuleae: a tribe of Scrophulariaceae. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Mabberley, D.J. 1997. The plant-book. A portable dictionary of the vascular plants, edn 2. Cambridge University Press.

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Compton Herbarium
Adam Harrower
Kirstenbosch NBG
October 2007








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