Bulbine frutescens (Snake Flower)
Plant image

This is a popular, waterwise garden plant, especially when planted en masse as a ground cover, or in rock gardens. It is also cultivated for its medicinal properties.

Name & classification

Botanical name:
Bulbine frutescens

Common names:
Snake Flower, Cat's Tail, Burn Jelly Plant (English); Balsem Kopieva, Geelkatstert (Afrikaans)

Plant family:
Asphodelaceae (as-foh-del-AY-see-ee)
- Includes genera Aloe, Asphodelus and Kniphofia

Plant categories:
Non-herbaceous Perennials; Groundcovers

Name derivation & history:
Bulbine comes from the Latin word 'bulbus' meaning an onion or bulb. This name is misleading, as plants do not have a bulbous base.



Leaf habit:

20 to 45cm

Plant shape:
Bulbine frutescens is a fast growing, branched, succulent perennial with fleshy green leaves that forms spreading clumps.

Leaf description:
Fleshy, linear green leaves in opposite rows and clasping the stems at the base. The plants are very variable in leaf length.

Flower description:
The small 6-petaled star shaped flowers are carried on an upright, spreading raceme during spring (or occasionally at other times). The petals are either yellow or sometimes orange, which combines attractively with the fluffy yellow stamens to give a bi-coloured look.

Flower colour:
Yellow or orange

Fruit description:
The fruit is a small, rounded capsule and contains black seeds.

Seed description:
Small black seeds are dispersed by wind.

Bark or stem description:
It forms spreading clumps with greyish stems often bearing adventitious roots.


Natural distribution:
Bulbine frutescens is widespread throughout parts of Northern Cape, Western and Eastern Cape; however, it reaches its peak in the succulent-rich, dry valleys of Eastern Cape.

Water requirements:
Waterwise (little water required)

Frost tolerance:
Semi-hardy (tolerates mild frost for short periods)

Light conditions:
Sun; semi-shade

Other Characteristics

Drought resistant
Wind resistant
Has non-aggressive roots
Disease resistant
Pest resistant
Low maintenance

Edibility & Toxicity

We have no confirmation that any part of this plant is edible
We have no confirmation that any part of this plant is toxic, however we urge caution as this information may be incorrect.


Interaction with physical surroundings:
The brightly coloured flowers attract bees.
Attracts insects

Other information

Uses & Cultural aspects:
Bulbine frutescens is often used in landscaping where a drought-resistant, tough groundcover is required. It also has its value in the home garden.

The fresh leaf produces a jelly-like juice that is wonderful for burns, rashes, blisters, insect bites, cracked lips, acne, cold sores, mouth ulcers and areas of cracked skin. This plant is ideal to grow and is a useful first-aid remedy for childrens' daily knocks and scrapes.

The Rastafarians make an infusion of a few fresh leaves in a cup of boiling water. The strained drink is taken for coughs, colds and arthritis.

This is a an easy to grow, waterwise, floriferous groundcover, which with the minimum of care, will look good all year round. It combines beautifully with blue dwarf agapanthus, flowering at the same time.

This succulent perennial multiplies rapidly. Prune it when untidy.

For best results it should be planted in well-drained soil preferably enriched with compost.

The dead flower heads should be removed to encourage further flowering.

These plants prefer full sun, but they will also grow in semi-shade for part of the day. Although it will grow indoors, it prefers maximum light.

Propagation is from seed, cuttings or either division of clumps, and should be done in spring. Once the seedlings have four leaves and the cuttings have a well-formed root system, they can be transplanted.

Joffe, P. 1993. The gardener's guide to South African plants. Table Mountain Publishers, Cape Town.

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