Lessertia DC.

Family: Fabaceae

Lessertia - pressed herbarium specimen

This group of plants, similar to Sutherlandia (the cancer bush group), is reported to be useful medicinally and also good for pasture.

Lessertia species are mainly perennials with a few annuals. The genus consists of erect, prostrate or decumbent herbs and shrubs. It has compound or rarely unifoliate leaves, paired stipules, an elongated or subcapitate raceme, paired bracts. All these features are similar to Sutherlandia. The group differs from Sutherlandia in flower and fruit. In Lessertia flowers are small and they range from 6-10 mm long. They are pink, yellow or purple in colour. Fruits are either linear, compressed or subcompressed and few are inflated. In Sutherlandia (cancer bush group), flowers are very big, red in colour about 15 to 30 mm long. Fruits are also big, inflated and bladder-like in form. The name of the genus Lessertia was established in 1802 and it was named in honour of Benjamin Delessert, a Frenchman who edited the Icones selectae (1820-1846).

Lessertia DC. consists of about 50 species. The genus is mainly restricted to Africa with most of the diversity (about 46) centred in southern Africa, only four species extend into tropical Africa and they are L. benguellensis, L. pauciflora, L. incana, and L. stipulata. Species are found thoughout southern Africa: 24 species have been recorded in Western Cape, 18 in Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, 14 in Free State, 12 in Namibia, 10 in KwaZulu-Natal, seven in Lesotho, six in Gauteng, five in North-West and Botswana, four in Mpumalanga and one in Swaziland. This group of plants is found in rocky grassland areas, along streambanks and also in mountains.

Flowers are bird-pollinated and fruits are wind-dispersed.

Economic and cultural value
In the Western Cape few Lessertia species have been reported by farmers to be palatable for sheep grazing, for example L. diffusa, L. herbacea and L. excisa. An infusion of L. argentea Harv. is used as an eye lotion and mixed with an infusion of Stockholm tar, to relieve colic and flatulence. The leaf of L. stenoloba and L. inflata is said to be a purgative. L. tomentosa was applied by early Cape colonists to the eyeball in the treatment of ophthalmic diseases. L. macrostachya is used for stomach and liver pains. Dosage and regimen: one mug of water boiled with roots is taken twice a day. L. perennans is used for magic and it has the same common name as L. stricta (musa-pelo-oa-matlapa-o-moholo), which is drunk to cure some afflictions. L. benguellensis (a pulverized plant mixed with fat used as a salve), is used in treating syphilis, angina (hot root infusion is gargled) and bloody urine (root decoction is drunk), and the root is reported to increase potency.


Herbarium specimen L. benguellensis:
perennial, non-climbing herb, 0.2-0.5 m tall. Leaves 65-130 mm long, divided into 5-9 pairs of leaflets, hairless, strap-shaped, pale-green, fleshy and squared off at the tip. The inflorescence is, 8-12-flowered. Inflorescence stalks 6-20 mm long. The fruit is a legume, 13-43 x 15-20 mm, oblong, hairless and 6-7-seeded. Diagnostic characters: the plant has a very short inflorescence stalk; the fruit is a broad, oblong legume, which at times becomes whitish, with long flower stalk. Distribution: occurs only in Namibia and Botswana. Flowering time: November to July.
Herbarium Sheet L. diffusa:
perennial, diffuse or procumbent, 0.05-0.45 m tall. The stems, leaf stalks, and inflorescence stalks covered with white, short, spreading hairs. Leaves 35-72 mm long, divided into 8-12 pairs of leaflets (often alternate) elliptic-oblong, rounded or emarginate, with white soft hairs on one or both sides. Inflorescence densely many-flowered, elongating, ± 20-flowered. Inflorescence stalks 45-85 mm long. Fruit is a legume 18-20 x 15-17 mm, subcompressed, hairless, elliptic-oblong or suborbicular (almost flat with a ± circular outline), both margins more or less rounded. Diagnostic characters: It is distinguished from L. excisa by an elongating, densely-flowered inflorescence and the elliptic-oblong or suborbicular legume. Distribution: in Northern and Western Cape. Flowering time: May and July to October.
Herbarium Sheet L. excisa:
perennial, diffuse or procumbent herb, 0.2-0.4 m tall. The stems, leaf stalks, and inflorescence stalks covered with white, short, spreading hairs. Leaves 40-80 mm long, leaflets, closely 8-12 pairs, (often alternate) triangular, emarginate, hairless above, sparse, white soft hairs beneath. Inflorescence loosely several or many-flowered, ± 20-flowered. Inflorescence stalks 40-85 mm long. Fruit is a legume 21-30 x 10-12 mm, compressed, hairless, half moon-shaped. Diagnostic characters: L. excisa can be distinguished from L. diffusa by its half moon-shaped legume, by its loosely flowered raceme and calyx slightly covered with black, soft, short hairs. Distribution: Northern and Western Cape. Flowering time: August to November.
L. herbacea:
annual non-climbing herb, erect or ascending, 0.3-0.5 m long, with scattered, sharp-pointed, appressed (lying flat on the surface), straight and stiff hairs,. Leaves 55-95 mm, few and distant, 19-30 mm apart, divided into5-(7)-8 pairs of leaflets, often infolded, narrow-linear, rounded or with a shallow notch on a rounded apex, hairless above, with scattered, sharp-pointed, appressed, straight and stiff hairs beneath. Inflorescence stalks 61-92 mm, often much longer than the leaves. Inflorescence a loose raceme with many flowers, elongating, flowers purple. Fruit is a legume compressed, often veiny, 12-20 x 12-14 mm, hairless, shortly stipitate, obliquely ovoid-oblong, 2-6-seeded. Diagnostic characters: It can be distinguished from L. diffusa and L. excisa by hairiness, with scattered, sharp-pointed, appressed, straight and stiff hairs and the legume which is obliquely ovoid-oblong. Distribution: a Western Cape species, extending sparsely into the Northern and Eastern Cape.
Herbarium specimen L. inflata:
perennial, non-climbing herb, 0.1 -0.5 m tall, diffuse or decumbent, with loose hairs. Leaves 35-50 mm long, divided into 8-10 pairs of leaflets, short, obovate or obcordate, with loose hairs beneath. Inflorescence loosely racemose, 5-8-flowered. Inflorescence stalks 12-28 mm shorter than the leaf. Fruit is a legume 15-18 x 11-14 mm, hairless, obliquely round, bladdery. Diagnostic characters: L. inflata is near to L. capitata but it can be differentiated by its short inflorescence stalks and bladdery, small, membranous, round legumes. Distribution: Northern, Western and Eastern Cape. Flowering time: January, April, June to July and September to October.
Herbarium sheet L. macrostachya
perennial, non-climbing herb, 0.01-0.8 m tall. Leaves 33-100 mm long, divided into 3-10 pairs of leaflets, elliptic oblong, thinly silky on both sides, gradually smaller upwards. Inflorescence distantly many-flowered, 20-30 per inflorescence. Inflorescence stalks 30-62 mm long. Fruit is a legume 15-30 x 10-13 mm, elliptic-oblong, rounded at the ends, with a short stipe, hairy. Diagnostic characters: Oblong legume, thickly spotted with purple dots. Distribution: Namibia, Botswana and Northern Cape. Flowering time: January, February and November.
Herbarium specimen

L. perennans:
perennial, non-climbing small bush, 0.1-1.6 m tall. Leaves 35-120 mm long, divided into 6-11 pairs of leaflets, ovate to slightly obovate or elliptic, apex rounded, base wedge-shaped, either both surfaces with sparse hairs or hairy on one surface. Inflorescence loosely racemose, 15-50-flowered. Inflorescence stalks 50-140 mm long. Fruit is a legume 11-20 x 6-11 mm, obliquely elliptic, sharply triangular at base, hairless. Diagnostic characters: L.perennans var. perennans can distinguished from L. stricta by its being hairy and silvery. Distribution: North-West, Mpumalanga, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and Eastern Cape. Flowering time: September to February, April and May.

Herbarium specimen L. stenoloba:
perennial, non-climbing herb up to 0.3 m, erect or diffuse. Leaves 50-75 mm long, divided into 5-10 pairs of leaflets, linear-oblong or sublanceolate, variably hairy. Inflorescence shortly racemose at the summit 10-30-flowered. Inflorescence stalks 25-120 mm long, longer than the leaves. Fruit is a legume 46 x 9 mm, linear, obtuse, nearly straight, four times as long as broad, with scattered, sharp-pointed, appressed, straight and stiff hairs, many-seeded. Diagnostic characters: Distinguished from L. brachystachya by having long inflorescence stalks and short flower stalks. Distribution: Western and Eastern Cape, extends sparsely into Northern Cape. Flowering time: May, July to September and November to December.
Herbarium sheet

L. stricta:
erennial, non-climbing herb, 0.5-1 m high. Stem prominently ribbed, hairless. Leaves 40-75 mm long, divided into 4-8 pairs of leaflets, hairless, oblong-lanceolate. Inflorescence loosely racemose, 10-20-flowered. Inflorescence stalk 55-95 mm, much longer than the leaves. Fruit is a legume 20-30 x 8-11 mm, hairless, obliquely obovoid-oblong, slightly sickle-shaped. Diagnostic characters: Close to L. perennans, can be distinguished by its short and more apressed hairs; more loosely racemose flowers; larger and longer legumes with many seeds (8-10). Distribution: Northern Cape, North-West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho. Flowering time: December to March.

Herbarium  sheet L. tomentosa:
perennial, diffuse or procumbent, 0.2-0.4 m tall. The stems, leaf stalks, and inflorescence stalks are covered with white, soft, short, spreading hairs. Leaves 50-60 mm long, divided into 8-12 pairs of leaflets, oblong, tapering gradually, rounded or notched at the tip, hairless above, with white soft hairs beneath. Inflorescence subcapitate, shortly 8-12-flowered. Inflorescence stalks 45-130 mm long, hairy. Fruit is a legume 10-20 x 8-13 mm, swollen, ovoid, with white hairs and a short stalk. Diagnostic characters: It is distinguished from L. capitata by a hairy legume. Distribution: Western Cape. Flowering time: January and from August to October.

These planrs are not grown in gardens at present, although Sutherlandia frutescens, which is sometimes called Lessertia frutescens, is a popular garden subject.

References and further reading

Balkwill, M.-J. & Balkwill, K. 1999. The genus Lessertia DC. (Fabaceae-Galegeae) in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). South African Journal of Botany 65: 339-356.

Bolus, L. 1915. Notes on Lessertia with descriptions of six new species and a key. Annals of the Bolus Herbarium 1: 87-96.
Harvey, W.H. & Sonder, O.W. 1862. Flora capensis.

Nkonki, T. 2003. Lessertia DC. In G. Germishuizen & N.L. Meyer, Plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14: 524-526.


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National Herbarium, Pretoria
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