Lessertia frutescens (Previously Sutherlandia frutescens)

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Botanical Name
Lessertia frutescens (Previously Sutherlandia frutescens)
Fabaceae - The legume and pod-bearing family. (Pea & Bean Family)
suth-er-LAN-dee-uh froo-TESS-enz
Common Name(s)
English: Cancer Bush; Balloon Pea
Afrikaans: Kankerbos; Eendjies; Gansiesblom
IsiXhosa: umnwele
IsiZulu: umnwele
Plant Group
  • Shrub A woody plant of relatively low height, having several stems arising from the base and lacking a single trunk; a bush.
Plant Size
  • Small to Medium
    Tree8m to 15m
    Shrub75cm to 1m
    Perennial/ground cover20cm to 40cm
    Bulb30cm to 40cm
    Succulent20cm to 40cm
  • Partial Shade The area is in shade for part of the day and in full sun for part of the day.
  • Sun The area is in full sun for all or most of the day, all year round.
General Information
  • Attractive fruits, berries or seeds Brightly coloured fruits or berries increase and extend the visual impact of the plant and are especially attractive to birds and other small wildlife.
  • Deciduous Plants which completely lose their foliage for part of the year.
  • Drought Tolerance: Moderate The plant is moderately adapted to arid conditions and can survive short periods of drought and high temperatures without extra water.
  • Fragrant / Aromatic These plants posses a strong, usually pleasant odour.
  • Frost: Half-hardy The plant is able to survive low temperatures and some frost but requires protection against severe frost.
  • Prune hard after flowering Fast growing shrubs that grow lanky within a season. Cut off branches and stems of these plants to a third of their original length. This will increase the yield of flowers, improve the plants shape and enhance the structural strength of main branches.
  • Sand tolerant Plants adapted to survive in nutrient poor, very sandy soils.
  • Water Wise Plant species originating from low rainfall regions that require less water to survive and thrive than other plant species.
Specific Information

With its luminous red flowers, grey-green foliage and chubby, pale green seed pods, Lessertia frutescens can be used to fill and brighten any spot in the garden and especially dry spots where little else will grow. For a stronger statement it is best planted in groups of three to five. These are short-lived plants that seldom last more than a season or two but self seed easily. They are pest resistant and often visited by nectar eating birds.

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pea-like flower to 35mm long

  • Spring to Summer Plants will seldom bloom for the entire season as given in the list, but should flower during a period within these parameters.
  • red
Growth Rate
  • Fast Specifying growth rate can be very misleading as there is considerable variation of growth rate depending on type and species of plant, available water, supplementary feeding, mulching and general care, as well as the plants suitability and adaptability to the garden environment.
Plant Uses
  • Attracts bees, butterflies or other insects This plant attracts insects which can be food for birds or other creatures in your garden.
  • Attracts Birds This plant will attract birds.
  • Border A strip of ground, at the edge of a driveway or path in which ornamental plants or shrubs are planted.
  • Boundary A plant useful for planting around the edges of the property to form a green or colourful backdrop, an impenetrable hedge, to hide walls or create privacy.
  • Container Trees, shrubs and ornamental species that can adapt to growing in a restricted environment.
  • Filler Either a fast growing tree or shrub used temporarily to fill in an area while the permanent plants grow to a desired size, or a plant used to fill gaps in borders or beds.
  • Pioneer for new gardens A very fast growing plant, able to withstand hardship, that can be used to populate land that has recently been cleared of natural vegetation. These plants pave the way for slower-growing species by adding nutrients to the soil and creating leaf litter.
  • Rock Garden An area constructed of larger rocks, arranged naturally, to emphasise the use of stones as a main element. Generally plants used do not need a lot of care.
  • Suitable for coastal gardens Plants adapted to dry, sandy soil, forceful wind, limited rainfall and intense sunlight.
  • Suitable for smaller gardens Such plants do not have invasive root systems, remain small or controllable and can often be grown in containers.
  • Wild Garden An indigenous garden planted for the benefit of wildlife and birds. Provides food, water, a variety of mini-biomes and no poisonous chemicals are used.
Distribution and Habitat

Western Cape, up the west coast through the Northern Cape to Namibia and into Botswana, and from the western Karoo to the Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, in dry areas

Planting Suggestions

Lessertia frutescens is fast and easy to grow, but short-lived as a garden subject. Plant in full sun. It tolerates all soil types but will respond well to some compost, fertilizer and a little water. Mulch well around the roots. Do not over water if growing in a container. The last two photos above show specimens in my garden, one in good soil, well mulched and given occasional water. The last picture shows a group of three plants, the same age as the previous one. They are in full sun, in nutrient poor soil, have no mulch and are only watered with the rest of this bed when it is critically dry.

The cancer bush grows easily from seed planted in autumn or spring in well-drained soil. Soak the seeds for about 4 hours or overnight in water hot enough for you to put your hand in then plant immediately.  Keep the seed trays warm (not hot) and damp but not wet. Seeds should germinate in 2 to 3 weeks and seedlings can be transplanted when they are 8 - 10 cm tall. It is a good idea to plant them in groups of 3 or 5, depending on how much space you have, for a fuller, more attractive bush. Plant the seedlings about 30 to 40 cm apart from each other.

Medicinal Uses

A much used and respected medicinal plant in southern Africa. The Khoi San and Nama people used it mainly for the washing of wounds and internally to bring down fevers. The early colonists used it in the treatment of chicken pox, stomach problems and internal cancers. It is also been used in the treatment of eye troubles, to treat colds, 'flu, asthma, TB, bronchitis, rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, liver problems, hemorrhoids, piles, bladder, uterus & 'women's' complaints, diarrhea & dysentery, stomach ailments, heartburn, peptic ulcers, backache, diabetes, varicose veins and inflammation. It is also used in the treatment of mental and emotional stress, including irritability, anxiety and depression and is used as a gentle tranquilizer. Research on its properties as a cure for cancer and as an immune booster in the treatment of HIV/AIDS is ongoing.

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Looking for advice as to how to grow a already excisting plant purchaced from a supplier and is still in plastic wrapping. How deep must I plant and how big surrounding area. Will the plant totally die and when since I just purchace a single plant. How much must I plant.Al sorces indicate it is a short live plant. How short etc

Hi Jackie

Plant the shrub so that the soil level in the bag is level with the ground in which it is planted. The hole must be a little bigger than the bag. The plant will only last a year or two, sometimes even three. It should grow about 1 meter tall and about 75 cm across. Make sure you collect the seeds so that you can grow more plants. They are easy to grow from seed. The number you need to plant will depend on what you want to use it for (medicinal or ornamental) and how much space you have got. As an ornamental I like to grow three plants together about a meter apart from each other. It is a good idea to plant some seeds every year so if a plant dies you will have a replacement ready.

Hope this helps.

Kind regards

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