Nylandtia spinosa

(L.) Dumort. (= Mundia spinosa )

Family : Polygalaceae (milkwort/false legume/butterfly bush family)
Common names : tortoise berry ( Eng. ); skilpadbessie (Afr.); Mmaba (Tswana);

In flowerThe tortoise berry is a striking plant when covered in its masses of dainty purple flowers. Attractive and unusual spiny foliage, pretty red edible fruits and water-wise attributes all combine to make it a great choice for the discerning gardener.

A much branched, stiffly erect, rounded shrub, 1 x 1 m, with arching, spine-tipped stems covered in small, narrow deciduous leaves. Sweetpea-like flowers, ( purple, pink or white ) cover the plant in a beautiful mass starting in autumn and continuing through winter to early spring (Apr. to Oct.).

The truly lovely flowers superficially resemble those of the pea and legume family but are actually quite different. All members of this genus have three to five sepals and three to five petals. The two lateral sepals are petal-like, larger than the others, coloured like the petals, and resemble the wing petals of a pea flower.Close up of flowers The lower 3 petals are fused in a boat-shaped structure and enclose the seven stamens and the style, and resemble the keel of a pea flower. Another distinguishing difference is that Nylandtia does not bear leguminous fruit. The fleshy fruits are bright red when ripe, edible, and produced throughout summer. This shrub has a moderate growth rate and is quite hardy.

Distribution and Habitat
A widespread species, commonly found on sandy flats and rocky slopes from Namaqualand, through the Western Cape and along the Eastern Cape coast. Found in the following biomes: Fynbos, Succulent Karoo and Savanna.

Best suited to a coastal situation, it will tolerate frost, average to little rainfall and a wide range of temperatures.

Derivation of name and historical aspects: Named after Pierre Nylandt, a 17 th century Dutch botanist. The species name is derived from the Latin, spinosa, meaning spiny. There are only two species in this genus.

The Polygalaceae (milkwort) family is a large, with 17 genera and 950 species found throughout the world in temperate and warm climates, but only five genera are found in South Africa with Polygala and Muraltia having the most species.

Fruits are edible and are eaten by tortoises (hence the common name) and birds, both of which help to disperse the seed.

Ripening fruits
Ripe fruit

Children who seem to relish the thirst-quenching astringent qualities of the fruit can also safely eat the berries. Nylandtia can be planted to help stabilize sand along the coast.

Uses and cultural aspects: Chewing on small amounts of fermented leaves can help with sleeplessness. A tea/infusion brewed from stems and leaves are used to assist with abdominal pain and tuberculosis, as well as a general tonic or bitter digestive. It is a remedy for treating colds, flu and bronchitis when brewed with Lebeckia multiflora . The Tswana people use the root in a preparation for the treatment of malaria. The fruits are rich in Vitamin C and are quite thirst-quenching.

Bush in flower in the wild

Growing Nylandtia spinosa

This plant grows very well in rockeries, on slopes, terraforce walls and any well-drained, sunny garden position, providing a beautiful display. Use in a mixed shrub border, as an accent plant in a shrubby garden or as a fynbos companion plant. It is also a good contrast foliage plant and can be used effectively to punctuate a soft landscape planting. Plant it where you can appreciate it in flower and fruit e.g. near the house, or beside the patio where you can enjoy looking at it and be able to enjoy the birds it will attract.

This hardy plant requires no special care, is fairly water-wise and pest resistant. Once established in the garden, it will tolerate drought, wind and some frost. As it grows naturally next to the sea it is also an ideal small shrub for coastal gardens. Give it a seasonal dose of compost and water moderately. A regular, light pruning of the tips will encourage a bushy growth.

Propagation is best from seed, as cuttings are slow and difficult to root. Sow fresh seed in spring or early summer using a well-drained soil mixture. First remove the fleshy covering. Germination should occur in 2 to 3 weeks and seedlings can be transplanted as soon as they are large enough to handle.

Plant the seedlings into pots to grow on until well established, before planting out into the garden. In the winter rainfall areas, plants should be planted in the winter to give the young plants time to establish before the dry summer months. In the summer rainfall areas, plant Nylandtia in a warm, dry, well-drained position and remember to water occasionally during the winter months.


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  • Joffe, P. 2001. Creative gardening with indigenous plants . Briza Publications, Pretoria .
  • Joffe, P. 2003. Easy guide to indigenous shrubs . Briza Publications, Pretoria .
  • Maytham Kidd, M. 1983. Cape Peninsula . South African Wild Flower Guide 3. Botanical Society of SA, Cape Town .
  • Powrie, F. 1998. Grow South African plants . National Botanical Institute, Cape Town .
  • Trinder-Smith, T.H. 2003. The Levyn's guide to the plant genera of the southwestern Cape . Bolus Herbarium, Cape Town .
  • Van Jaarsveld, E. 2000. Wonderful water-wise gardening . Tafelberg, Cape Town .
  • Van Rooyen, G. & Steyn, H. 1999. Cederberg. Clanwilliam and Biedouw Valley . South African Wild Flower Guide 10. Botanical Society of SA, Cape Town .
  • Van Wyk, B. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. A guide to the useful plants of South Africa . Briza Publications, Pretoria .


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