I vividly remember running barefoot through the sandy dune-veld of Klein Brakrivier as a child and landing up in a patch of duwweltjies. It hurt like crazy, especially at the beginning of the summer holidays when my feet were still soft from city life. You can’t go forward, nor backward – either way it’s strewn with the devil’s thorn. 

Tribulus terrestris has ‘devil’s thorns’ (duwweltjies) on its seeds that are arranged to point in three directions.

I’m of course referring to the vicious thorns of Tribulus terrestris, known in Afrikaans as duwweltjie, derived from the word duiweltjie, meaning ‘little devil’. And they really hurt like the devil. The thorns on the seed are arranged to point in three directions, so whichever side they land up on, there is always one needle-sharp thorn sticking straight up – into an unwary foot. This is of course the plant’s seed dispersal mechanism – stick into anything that passes by like feet or fur – and get carried somewhere else to grow a new colony.

Fortunately, even we stadsjapies knew that you could soothe all manner of assaults to the skin – thorns, bluebottle stings, sunburn, mosquito bites – with an application of juice from the leaves of the Suurvy or Sour Fig, growing right there on the sandy flats or on dunes. The name of this Carpobrotus species refers to its edible fruits (the Greek words karpos meaning fruit and brota meaning edible).

There are two species of Carpobrotus that grow predominantly in the south-western Cape. Carpobrotus edulis has yellow daisy-like flowers (or sometimes pink) and Carpobrotus acinaciformis bright magenta pink flowers. 

The fruits of both species are delicious to eat. Wait until the fruit turns deep yellow or brown, then bite off the bottom (stem end) of the fruit and suck out the seeds, which are embedded in a sour gelatinous pulp. This pulp is also very popular boiled with sugar to make a jam. So popular are these fruits that there is widespread poaching of it on private land in the Western Cape.

Is Sour Fig an acquired taste, nurtured from childhood, or does anything gathered from the veld taste good? This may account for the recent popularity of veldkos forage and cuisine – maybe an example of our hankering to reconnect with nature.

The Suurvy or Sour Fig (Carpobrotus species) grows on sandy flats or on dunes. Its juice has antiseptic properties that make it one of those miracle ‘rescue remedies’ freely available from nature. Carpobrotus acinaciformis grow predominantly in the south-western Cape.

Traditional uses 

Undoubtedly though, the medicinal uses of the Sour Fig plant are the most important of all – a wonderful legacy from the Khoi people, who called the plant ghaukum. As far back as the mid-17th century, when records first started, the Khoi were already using ghaukum for healing wounds. 

Still today a pulp or juice from the leaves is applied to wounds, burns, open sores and skin conditions like eczema and athlete’s foot. It is also a very effective treatment for bluebottle stings and insect bites. I have first-hand experience of how the juice of many of our succulents like Carpobrotus, Bulbine or Cotyledon can instantaneously soothe a burn or a wasp sting.

Carpobrotus edulis grow predominantly in the south-western Cape.

The highly astringent leaf juice has been shown scientifically to have antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. It is effective on wounds and burns in the absence of mainstream medicines because it acts as a vasoconstrictor, which reduces fluid loss and enhances tissue regeneration. 

In the Cape, small quantities of fresh juice are frequently used for babies suffering from nappy rash or mouth thrush.

Sour Fig is undoubtedly one of those miracle ‘rescue remedies’ freely available from nature. It can be propagated from cuttings; it will grow in poor sandy soil and needs very little water – it just needs sun for the flowers to open. These beautiful pink and yellow flowers are pollinated by bees and beetles, spreading their bounty to insects as well.

Other succulents such as Cotyledon orbiculata can also be used to soothe burns or insect bites such as wasp stings. PHOTO: Anina Lee

Carpobrotus has its dark side too – as an alien in foreign lands. For the very reasons that it grows so easily in poor soils with little water, it was imported by other countries to bind sandy soils. We now know, of course, that one should never introduce species from elsewhere, for without their natural enemies they soon become invasive weeds. 

Where the plants encountered Mediterranean-type climate, like the west coasts of Australia and the USA, they took hold and are now a threat to indigenous vegetation. In Australia, Carpobrotus is called Pig Face (you need a lot of imagination to see why); while in California it’s the Ice Plant (from acinaciformis). 

Whatever the name, this plant is an indigenous treasure.

About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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