Pycnostachys urticifolia

Today I am inspired by this lovely photo of Pycnostachys urticifolia, taken by Christopher Young (aka c.young@Flickr). This entry is complemented by another photo showing the leaves and stem of this species, taken by Vojtěch Zavadil (aka vojtechzavadil@Flickr). Thank you for sharing, Christopher!

Pycnostachys urticifolia is a beautiful plant, with a mouthful of a name. While trying to find a more melodious way of referring to this species, I came across a number of equally-difficult common names; you may also call this species dark blue pycnostachys, groot ystervarksalie, or unkungwini. It is also known by some as simply “hedgehog sage”, so I will stick with that one.

Hedgehog sage is an aromatic perennial herb in the mint family. It grows ubiquitously in South Africa but even though it is a common plant (and in the mint family, known for medicinal and herbal uses), it does not appear to be used as food or medicine. It does have potential as an ornamental species complete with wildlife value; the PlantZAfrica web site lists it as a nectar source for butterflies and bees, as well as food for grasshoppers. The book Chewa Medical Botany mentions that hedgehog sage is used as a fly repellent in Chitipa, Malawi.

Hedgehog sage grows to a height of 1-2.5 meters. Its petiolate leaves are similar to those found in nettles (Urtica spp.), hence the specific epithet urticifolia (“nettle-like leaves”). The bright blue inflorescence is the part of the plant most likely to excite a gardener; dense terminal spikes burst forth from this shrub in great number late in the autumn. After flowering, the calyx (the sepals, collectively) becomes sharply spiny; all of the sources that I found describe the sepals as reddish-purple, but Vojtěch Zavadil’s photo (linked above) clearly shows them as light green, with only a purple tinge at the very tips. I find it interesting that the sepals are both able to protect the unopened flowers and (later) the maturing seeds by converting into spiky herbivore-deterrents. How efficient!

Pycnostachys urticifolia

3 responses to “Pycnostachys urticifolia”

  1. Janie Civille

    Yikes! So very beautiful, but looks like an excellent candidate for an extremely invasive species. Those armored sepals, like many thistles, will take those seeds far and wide. I love seeing plants from all over the world, but hope that folks will pause to think about our wild areas and North American species before bringing it here.

  2. Joanne Whitney

    I have used it as a picture for a presentation on Halloween and called it witch’s cap.

  3. Sue Frisch

    That lovely shade of blue is hard to photograph.

Leave a Reply