Bushman Poison Bush

Thousands of years before other hunters moved in on their hunting grounds, the Bushmen (San) were expert toxicologists. Whether hunting or waging war, their light weaponry would have been hopelessly inadequate without the toxic potions they used to coat their arrowheads.

There are hundreds of plants and combinations of plants used to produce effective arrow poisons. Three of the most popular or poisonous are from Strophanthus sp., Acokanthera sp. and Euphorbia sp.  Every hunter or clan had its own way, ritual, additives and method of making poison. A.oblongiflora,   A. oppositifolia, and A. schimperi in general known as Bushman’s poison, poison bush, poison tree or winter-sweet  were the most popular three for the extraction of arrow poison.

Acokanthera oppositifolia

All parts of the plant can be used. Stems, roots, or even leaves, but wood chips are preferred, which are put in a large container, filled with water and boiled for up to 12 hours. Additional water is added in case the water evaporates before this time period is attained. Once all the water has evaporated, a thick sticky black substance is left in the container. The plant parts are  then discarded. This substance is  cut into pieces, put into containers or wrapped and stored away from people where it can later be mixed with water or tree gum to form a thick paste which can be applied to the arrows. This poison are extremely poisonous and can kill a 50 kg animal with ease in less than 20 minutes

A request from a Leisure Isle resident to identify this lovely small tree growing in the Steenbok Indigenous Garden prompted me to write this article. The Bushman’s poison bush is a beautiful medium to large woody shrub with attractive hard dark green leaves. Clusters of pinkish white, sweetly scented flowers are borne in late winter and spring and are followed by large plum coloured berry-like fruits which are relished by birds.

It is usually found growing the shade of other vegetation on forest margins woodland and bush clumps, this species is widespread over many parts of the country with the exception of the drier parts. All parts of the plant are highly poisonous with the possible exception of the ripe fruits.

The plant was also used medicinally to treat snake & spider bites, intestinal worms and also for aches and colds.

The name Acokanthera is derived from the Greek and refers to the sharp anthers of the flowers. The species name refers to the opposite arrangement of the leaves.

This shrub is one of three South African members of the genus, Acokanthera. It belongs to the same family as many popular sub tropical ornamental plants such as frangipani, allamanda and oleander as well as the impala lily and num num. This family is characterized by having sweetly scented flowers and sticky milky sap which is often poisonous.