Every autumn, Leonotis leonurus adds a splash of colour to the South African landscape with its rich orange flowers erupting above the grasslands in layer upon layer of living colour.
The compact whorled clusters of tubular blooms wind up the stem in intervals, giving the plant one of its names – the staircase plant. Leonotis, from the Greek for 'lion´ and 'ear', is also known as wild dagga, lions ear, lions tail, Wild Hemp, Minaret Flower, Flor de Mundo, and Mota. It is also found throughout the USA, Mexico and the Caribbean, and is a sought-after specimen for gardens due to its hardy nature and striking appearance.
Another benefit of growing Leonotis at home, is its appeal to butterflies, bees and birds. These creatures are attracted to the copious amounts of nectar produced by the plant and in turn assist with pollinating the plant by spreading its seeds far and wide. The tubular shape of the flowers, along with their orange colour, suggest that it co-evolved with the African sunbird, one of its biggest fans.
Adapted to grow amongst rocks in shallow, nutrient-deficient soils, Wild Dagga is a hardy and water-wise plant, and can reach heights of up to 3m in these less-than ideal conditions. The four-sided stem is woody and velvety, giving rise to long, narrow serrated leaves.
These leaves are usually dried and brewed into a tea which is used in the treatment of dysentery, fever, headaches and coughs amongst other things. Recent studies have shown that a decoction of the roots and leave is effective in managing pain and inflammation, as well as adult-onset type-2 diabetes mellitus.
In traditional medicine, wild dagga is used to treat snakebites, insect bites, eczema, and various chest complaints. It is believed that the presence of the plant can ward off snakes too.
Studies show that the leaf extract has anti-inflammatory, hypoglycaemic and anti-nociceptive properties, but can be toxic to the organs and both red and white blood cells in high doses. Due to this it is not a good idea to make use of this plant or recreational purposes. Although it does have a mild calming effect when smoked and can cause euphoria, you can also expect visual changes, light-headedness sedation, sweating, nausea and dizziness.
As it is not illegal, the leaves of the lion's ear are sometimes used as an alternative to cannabis, although the effects are nowhere near as potent.
We don't advise this, but you can still get a kick out of admiring this African beauty while out on a game drive, in your garden or as a roadside attraction.