The Irishman's beautiful South African plant

While we are on South African plants (last week it was yet another Salvia), here's an old favourite with a melodious name - Mackaya bella. It might be a greeting from your gorgeous Italian girlfriend, or perhaps her name.

The 'bella' part is clearly are reference to this plant's beauty (you'll recall of course that rather attractive seaweed, Entwisleia bella), while Mackaya celebrates the botanist James Townsend Mackay, founder of Trinity College Botanic Garden in Dublin and author in 1836 of Flora Hibernica (Hibernica being Ireland). 

While I don't think Mackay has anything to do with South Africa or this plant, it was named after him by compatriot William Harvey, who collected plants from the Cape in the 1830s, writing a flora of the region with Otto Sonder (the gentleman who sold my predecessor Ferdinand Mueller 300,000 or so specimens from his massive herbarium).

So as with Entwisle's beautiful alga, this name can be read as Mackay's beautiful shrub. Also like Entwisle's alga, there is only one species in this genus. Although, unlike that algal beauty, there are many more genera in Mackaya's family, Acanthaceae, such as the Oyster Plant (Acanthus mollis).

The beauty in this plant, also called the Forest Bell Bush, is mostly to do with its flowers. Out of flower it's a compact shrub or small tree with quite nice dark-green leaves but nothing to earn the epithet bella

A curious, but perhaps not particularly beautiful, characteristic of these leaves is an ocassional 'hairy pocket' on the undersurface, where the veins in the leaves connect. This is a picture I took back in my office using a small magnifying lens attached to my phone...

It's actually a little dimple, which you can see poking through as pimple-like projections on the upper surface in this next picture.

I'm presuming these pockets provide homes to insects that on the whole are beneficial to the plant. Certainly the flowers attract plenty of insect visitors, including most notably in South Africa, the Blue Pansy Butterfly.

And it's the veins that deserve mention here as well. In the flowers, the beautiful flowers, the petals like a thin parchment or membrane etched with purple veins.

They say, and it seems to be true in Melbourne Gardens, it does best in shade but flowers more with sun. It's clearly a tough plant and one that we use a bit as a filler around the botanic gardens, but odd that it isn't in more gardens. Perhaps that's because it's considered 'rather old fashioned'. Climate change may well bring it back into fashion but could also encourage its potential as an environmental weed (it is already one in New Zealand).


Helen Young said…
Thanks Tim, I never noticed those 'pockets' before. I recommend this plant a lot in Sydney. It's one to use in impossible spots like filling in under a hedge that has lost its foliage below fence height. Not many plants can do that. It's fast, never seems to get any pests or diseases and is flowering beautifully now, even in shade. You just have to tip prune it when young or the canes grow too lanky.
Tim Entwisle said…
Thanks Helen. I hadn't noticed them either, until I started reading about the plant then trying to find the various bits and pieces in the bit I collected. Then of course you often find things lurking in photographs that you didn't see the first time... Yes a tough and handy plant in Melbourne, albeit needed a bit of control now and then.. Tim
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