A very diverse and attractive group of plants with highly ornamental flowers, fitting into a variety of habitats and growth forms, hermannias are the little porcelain bells of the South African veld. These plants have high horticultural potential yet are sadly undervalued as a garden plant. In this issue, a few striking species of this genus will be discussed.
Hermannia is a genus of small shrubs, ranging from upright to sprawling prostrate shrublets. They are charachterized by the presence of minute glandular or star-like hairs on the leaves and stems. The stems often have a dark grey bark. Leaves are alternate and entire, lobed or incised. Flowers consist of 5 petals which are slightly or very strongly spirally twisted into an upended rose. Most Hermannia species posess a thick woody stem and root, forming an underground stem, which enables the plants to survive dry periods and fires. In the veld, hermannias appear woody, some species being very palatable to stock and browsed down to the main branches.
taxonomic study of the genus has shown that a surprising number of species have a very limited distribution. This indicates that these distinct species are very restricted, giving rise to their diversity, but also making them more vulnerable in the case of over-utilization and disturbance.
The genus consists of 154 species, which have a distribution mainly across the Flora of southern Africa area. There are 141 South African species alone, of which 81 are endemic to South Africa (occuring in South Africa only). The genus is also found in Madagascar, and extends through tropical East Africa (14 species, some shared with southern Africa) to North East Africa (four species, possibly more) and Arabia (one species, also found in Egypt and Sudan ). A single species ( Hermannia tigrensis ) is found in western Africa as well as southern Africa and North East Africa. There are three species in northern Mexico and adjacent parts of the United States, a single species in southern Mexico, and a single species in Australia. The greatest diversity is within the Western and Northern Cape and Namibia.
Hermannias possess strong, thick, rootstocks and underground stems, which enable them to withstand fires in the highveld and overcome times of severe drought in arid areas. They are mostly very palatable to stock and small game, and are generally heavily grazed. Some species are an indication of good veld.
Economic and cultural value
Many members of the genus are used medicinally, for anything ranging from respiratory diseases, coughs and internal aches, as stimulants or purgatives, to soothing wounds and cuts. The common name pleisterbos ( Hermannia cuneifolia ) refers to the use of the leaves as plasters. In some plants the leaves are infused in a tea, and used to clean the blood. A root infusion was used by the early European colonial settlers against epilepsy. A lotion of the leaf was used for eczema and shingles. Certain species have magical significance and are used to drive out spirits and to wash the divining bones. H. depressa is used as a protective charm by the Zulus. H. hysopifolia is used in making an aromatic tea. Only one species has been found to be toxic to stock ( H. tomentosa ), but it is doubtful whether animals will browse this plant in the veld.
H. depressa N.E.Br.
Herb with stems and leaves flat on the ground and spreading from a woody perennial taproot. They often grow clumped in patches. The leaves are carried on short stalks, are generally large and show a purplish to reddish brown tinge. The flowers are drooping, from short erect stalks, and vary in colour between orange, pinkish, mauve and yellow-cream. Distribution: common in grassland in the Highveld.