Witsenia maura


Family name: Iridaceae (Iris family)
Common names:
Bokmakierie's tail (Eng.); waaiertjie (Afr.)
Conservation Status : Rare

Witsenia maura. Photo J Manning

This plant is one of the most striking woody iris shrubs; very different from the familiar herbaceous genera such as the Iris and Gladiolus, but equally beautiful. It grows in marshy conditions.

Witsenia maura. Photo: J ManningWitsenia maura is a shrubby, evergreen iris with clustered fan leaves similar to the other two woody iris genera, Klattia and Nivenia. They have hard, brittle stems rare in the monocots. It is an erect or sprawling plant growing from 1-3 m in height. The leaves are narrow, 100-150 mm long and 40-70 mm wide at the base. It has six to eight flowers shading from pale-green to black. They are up to 85 mm long, occurring in pairs that are held together by three to five bracts. Each flower has pubescent (hairy) outer tepals, blackish in the lower half and yellow in the upper half, creating a brilliant display in winter, March-August. Witsenia maura is severely threatened by coastal development for urbanisation and recreation.

It occurs from the southern Cape Peninsula through to Caledon, in marshy, low altitude locations. Records have been mainly in coastal areas with populations in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, Betty's Bay and Hermanus. It has a Rare conservation status.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Witsenia was the first woody Iridaceae genus to be described and was named Antholyza maura by Linnaeus in 1771. Its present name honours NicholasWitsen, an eighteenth century Dutch patron of botany. It is speculated that maura refers to the similarity between the yellow tepals and the turban worn by Jews in North Africa in past times. Maurus is an adjective for Moorish in Latin. The woody Iridaceae include only thirteen species. The genus Witsenia accounts for one, W. maura.

Pollinators include sunbirds, and sugarbirds that enjoy nectar with 11-13% sugar content.

Growing Witsenia maura

This plant is not easily cultivated, even if planted in the same soil type and in marshy conditions. It is not readily available commercially and is therefore very important to conserve the existing Fynbos plant communities where this plant occurs naturally.


  • GOLDBLATT, P. & MANNING, J 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape Flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria & Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Missouri.
  • GOLDBLATT, P., 1993. The Woody Iridaceae: Nivenia, Klattia & Witsenia. Systematics Biology & Evolution. Timber Press, Hong Kong.
  • JACKSON.W.P.U. 1987. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera.UCT, Rondebosch.

Antonia Xaba
Harold Porter National Botanical Garden
June 2003

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 www.plantzafrica.com