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Wild Rhubarb

Gunnera perpensa; Wild Rhubarb, River Pumpkin; Wilderabarber, Rivierpampoen (Afrikaans); qobo (South Sotho); uqobho (Siswati); rambola-vhadzimu (Venda); iphuzi lomlambo (Xhosa); imfeyesele, ugobho, uklenya (Zulu); uxobo (Xhosa & Zulu)


This species occurs in wetlands from the southern Cape all the way up the eastern parts of southern Africa into tropical East Africa. Humans in all these areas use the rhizomes as traditional medicine. As a young boy, growing up near Greytown, I remember seeing a Zulu herdsman using this peculiar “root” to rid one of his cows of a retained afterbirth. It was a good few years later that I again came across this plant when my late friend, Mkuluwe Protus Cele, a herbalist who taught me most of what I know when it comes to identifying medicinal plants, showed me this species as one of those plants that was beginning to disappear from the wetlands around Durban. In the wild, this species is only to be found inland from about Cato Ridge - that is beyond a radius of about 40 kilometres from the centre of Durban. That is the sort of pressure that urban settlements have placed on these and other medicinal plants in the Durban Metropolitan region and is also the pattern that occurs throughout Southern Africa, wherever there is a concentration of humans around urban centres.

This plant is tough and takes frost, although it may go down or drop its leaves due to the cold. However, I have seen it growing quite happily on the lower slopes of the Sani Pass and the interesting thing up at that elevation, is that the plant has silver grey leaves when compared to its cousins at the coast or midlands of KZN, with their dark green leaves.

These plants grow in colonies in damp areas and that is how to use them in a garden - as a group planting where the chunky, round leaves, very similar to pumpkin leaves, will be shown off to best effect and will add a lovely textural element.

The flowers resemble a shepherd’s crook, with the tip of the inflorescence turning back on itself. The tiny flowers are organised so that the male flowers are at the end of the flower and the female flowers are clustered around the lower section of the flower head. I suspect that the curling back of the tip is to place the male flowers closer to the females so that insects can carry the pollen across to the female flowers.

A nursery friend of mine Doug Cooke sowed seeds that germinated in the spring after being sown in late winter. Seedlings grow rapidly and develop into very presentable plants within a growing season.


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