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the web of life in southern Africa

Boophone disticha (Fan-leaved boophone, Poison bulb, Sore-eye flower, Tumblehead)

Gifbol, Perdespook, Seerooglelie [Afrikaans]; kxutsana-ya-naha, leshoma, lesoma, motlatsisa [South Sotho]; incumbe, siphahluka [Swazi]; incotho, incwadi [Xhosa, Zulu]; ibhade [Zulu]

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Monocotyledons > Order: Asparagales > Family: Amaryllidaceae > Boophone

Boophone disticha (Fan-leaved boophone, Poison bulb, Sore-eye flower, Tumblehead) Boophone disticha (Fan-leaved boophone, Poison bulb, Sore-eye flower, Tumblehead)

Boophone disticha, South Africa. [photo H.G. Robertson, Iziko ©]

Boophone disticha near Rusape, Zimbabwe. [photo Bart Wursten ©, Flora of Zimbabwe]

Boophone disticha (Fan-leaved boophone, Poison bulb, Sore-eye flower, Tumblehead)

Boophone disticha flowering in summer in the Montagu mountains, Western Cape, South Africa. [photo Colin Paterson-Jones ©]

Boophone disticha (Fan-leaved boophone, Poison bulb, Sore-eye flower, Tumblehead)
Boophone disticha in leaf with a loose, dry old flowerhead amongst dolerite boulders on the trekpad near Nieuwoudtville on the Bokkeveld Escarpment, Northern Cape, South Africa. [photo Colin Paterson-Jones ©]

Distribution and habitat

Widespread in southern Africa where it  is found mainly on rocky slopes and flats. Distribution extends further north into East Africa.

Life cycle

Information from Manning et al. (2002) unless otherwise indicated.

  • Has a large bulb ranging in size from 5 to 18 cm in diameter.
  • The leaves form in a distinctive fan shape that is reminiscent of an open book . The Xhosa name for this plant, incwadi, means 'book'. The leaves are usually dead at the time of flowering.
  • Flowers from September to March. The flowers are on the end of long pedicels, together forming a ball shape.
  • I have not come across any information on the pollinators of Boophone disticha flowers.
  • Once the fruit start developing, the pedicels grow further forming a large ball-shaped structure. This eventually dries out and the force of the wind breaks it off at the top of the scape. It is blown around on the ground with seeds dislodged from their capsules onto the ground. This form of wind-driven seed dispersal is also found in the amaryllid genera Brunsvigia, Crossyne, Hessea and Strumaria but in these the scape breaks off at its base rather than at the top.


Information from Hutchings et al. (1996) unless otherwise indicated.

Bulbs contain the following alkaloids:

  • buphanamine. Evidente et al. (2009) have shown in vitro that buphanamine shows strong anti-invasive activity  in cancer cells, meaning that it seems to stop the cells from migrating from one type of tissue to another (migrating from one tissue type to another is termed metastasis). With this property and the fact that it is also non-toxic to cells, even at high doses, makes it a hopeful candidate as a cancer-reducing drug. In addition, there is evidence (Neergaard et al. 2009) that buphanamine binds to the serotonin transporter (SERT), which is a membrane protein  that transports the neurotransmitter serotonin from synaptic spaces into presynaptic neurons. Thus, by binding with this protein, buphanamine is prolonging the presence and effect of serotonin in the synapse. This is the mechanism used by selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) anti-depressants.    
  • buphanidrine. Like buphanamine, also binds to the serotonin transporter (SERT) (Neergaard et al. 2009).
  • buphanine. Causes dilation of the pupil; paralyses salivary secretions; paralyses vagus nerve terminations in the heart; causes death from respiratory failure.
  • buphanisine. Like buphanamine, also binds to the serotonin transporter (SERT) (Neergaard et al. 2009).
  • buphanitine
  • distichine
  • haemanthamine
  • haemanthine
  • nerbowdine
  • undulatine

The bulb also contains a small amount of volatile oil containing:

  • furfuraldehyde
  • acetovanillone (4-hydroxy-3-methoxyacetophenone)
  • chelidonic acid
  • copper
  • laevulose
  • pentatriacontane
  • a phytosterol
  • a mixture of free and combined fatty acids



Toxic effects

The bulb contains poisonous alkaloids including lycorine and buphanine (resembling hyoscine) and consumption thereof can result in death.

Pictures and information in field guides

See KwaZulu-Natal Wildflowers by Elsa Pooley p. 346; Wild Flowers of the Highveld by Braam van Wyk and Sasa Malan p. 188; Southern Overberg wild flowers by Penny Mustart et al. p. 68  



  • Dyer, R.A. 1953. Boophone disticha. Flowering Plants of Africa 29: pl. 1141.
  • Evidente A., Kireev A.S., Jenkins A.R., Romero A.E., Steelant W.F.A., Van Slambrouck S., Kornienko A. 2009. Biological evaluation of structurally diverse amaryllidaceae alkaloids and their synthetic derivatives: discovery of novel leads for anticancer drug design. Planta medica 75(5): 501-507.
  • Neergaard J.S., Andersen J., Pedersen M.E., Stafford G.I., Van Staden J. and Jäger A.K. 2009. Alkaloids from Boophone disticha with affinity to the serotonin transporter. South African Journal of Botany 75(2): 371-374. doi:10.1016/j.sajb.2009.02.173