Trail Plants

Our green friends make up a huge element of why and where we run trail. Their beauty and seasonal changes contribute to trail running in many conscious and subconscious experiences. But they are both friend and foe to trail runners. Some heal, some harm, and some might even save your life. From the Blister Bush of Table Mountain, to the Aloes of the Eastern Cape, there is no shortage of interesting plant life on South African trails.

Blister Bush

Darryn Patterson narrowly escaping a Blister Bush on the Nose - Photo credit: Nicholas Lykiardopulos

Notobubon galbanum, re-classified from Peucedanum galbanum in 2008, but better known as the Blister Bush. This bad boy is known to cause extreme skin blistering that lasts up to 6 months, and may result in scarring if not correctly managed. It is endemic to Table Mountain and the Fold Belt region of the Western Cape, where it appears most frequently at medium to high altitudes in partially shady and damp areas. However, it has been spotted in areas of direct sunlight at lower levels. It generally grows in winter rainfall areas in soil that is well-drained.

The plant is in the family Apiaceae, subfamily Apioideae. Although it is in the same family as edible plants such as the carrot and herbs such as fennel and dill, it is not edible and touching it can cause severe blistering which is worsened when the irritant chemicals are exposed to sunlight.

Whilst it has the innocuous appearance of Italian Parsley, the surface of Blister Bush is covered in a mix of chemicals including psoralen, xanthotoxin and bergapten that causes a phototoxic reaction. It can take a few days for skin blisters to appear. The actual moment of exposure can go by unnoticed, but it is triggered by ultra violet light leading to itching and then blisters. The welts range from coin-sized to larger areas, and some unlucky recipients of the Blister Bush dusting will remain scarred. This can be dramatically reduced by immediately washing the affected area, but most importantly, covering it to reduce or eliminate blistering. A night time encounter with this plant will go entirely unnoticed, which makes night time trail running rather an attractive idea!


Aloe Africana overlooking the Swartkops Estuary - Photo credit: Beth Forbes

Eastern Cape trail enthusiasts will be very familiar with the Aloe africana of the Asphodelaceae family. Other names include: Aalwyn (Afrikaans); Aalwee (Afrikaans; Dutch); Hlaba, lekhala (Southern Sotho); Icena (Ndebele) and imboma (Zulu).

Its growth is restricted to the south eastern and southwestern parts of South Africa, in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, and is particularly common near Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage and the lower Gamtoos River. It is mainly confined to hills and flats, growing in thicket and renosterveld vegetation.

Parts of the leaf, but especially the leaf sap and the leaf pulp or gel, is variously used as a laxative and to treat arthritis, conjunctivitis and sinusitis. It displays antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties and is recently also claimed to have antiviral properties.  This makes it a very useful trail running remedy for skin irritations, cuts, abrasions, minor burns, sunburn and bruises. Not just a pretty face!


Photo credit: Justin Cornish

Ok, this one is actually just a pretty face, but they have a unique and beautiful story, and a mountain mission to photograph a Disa is always worthwhile. Disa uniflora is a spectacular red orchid also known as "The Pride of Table Mountain.” During the first few months of the year, this bloom one of the greatest attractions of the Cape’s great flat rock. Relatively rare, this bright flower is the floral emblem of the Western Cape and features in the Western Province Rugby jersey logo. Places to see the Disa on Table Mountain are in the perennial streams or permanently damp areas. Try the Aquaduct, Window Gorge, and Myburghs Waterall. It is strictly protected, so take only photographs. It generally appears in shades of red, pink and very occasionally yellow during summer from December to March.

Climbers Friend

Photo credit: Mark Sampson

The scientific name for this plant is Cliffortia Ruscifolia but the poor plant suffers from an identity crisis because it is quite used to being called names like “sh*t” or “bl*ksem” and far worse. Its more common name, however, is “climbers friend”  It is found all over Table Mountain, lining the paths in deep soil and on many hostile ledges where it seems to grow out of the rock itself. On first hearing its name it is easy to assume that it is some form of sarcastic joke.  If you have ever grabbed this plant in a moment of free-fall panic, you’ll know all about its unfriendly spikes. But it is a steady plant, not easily moved from its roots, and so it acts as a stabiliser on an exposed climb or scramble, and this scrubby, hardy, not-terribly-pretty plant has saved more than a few lives over the years.

Black Jack

Blackjacks having a party on Bennie Roux’s sock during last year’s Munga Trail - Photo credit: Debbie Mostert Agenbag

Reverse this one’s name, and you get a rather nice South African craft beer. The plant, however, is nothing near as rad as a cold brew. The common blackjack (Bidens pilosa) is well-known to trail runners of the Lowveld and other Gauteng areas.  Other names include muxiji and gewone knapseherel. They merrily destroy technical running kit and post-run happy vibes, leaving runners to spend hours picking them out of their shorts, tights and socks. Legend has it that, like the khakibos, this weed was brought into South Africa in the feed of horses imported from South America during the Boer War. However, the plant is listed as being indigenous to tropical Africa, so may have already been in South Africa at the time.

The common blackjack is an annual plant belonging to the Asteraceae family. In the young plant, leaves are flat and a dark purple-green. The white yellow-centred flowers with distinctively long, thin stems appear in late summer to autumn. They mature into star-like fruiting bodies. The typical ‘blackjacks’ that attach themselves to passing animals and people radiate outwards as 1cm-long spiny seeds. 

Before you write these guys (and yet another pair of socks) off… Like many indigenous African vegetables, blackjack has an impressive nutritional profile that comes with a very wide variety of benefits. Firstly, blackjack is rich in fibre and is said to contain a nutrient that makes insulin more efficient at controlling blood sugar.  Blackjack also packs a powerful antioxidant punch and the warmed juice of the fresh blackjack needle plant is used to treat earache and conjunctivitis, and functions as a styptic on wounds.


So, friend or foe, the flora out there certainly holds ancient secrets as well as lotions, potions and countless reasons to hit the trails across the seasons.

Words: Kim Stephens