This beautiful plant, found along the coastal belt, from sea level to altitudes of 1 500 metres, is also known as the aambei- (see below) or bitterbossie (Chironia baccifera) and has a number of medicinal uses. It usually grows in dry, sandy soil or sand dunes, can withstand wind and is found in the shade of other plants.
The Christmas berry is a fast-growing plant which reaches an average height of 450 mm but it can get as high as a metre. From November to January, bright pink flowers cover the shrub at the ends of small, narrow leaves. Round, red berries characteristically follow the flowers. It looks beautiful when planted as a hedge or in rockeries and are easily grown from cuttings or seeds.
The scientific name, Chironia,is derived from Chiron, the Centaur of Greek mythology who studied medicine and refers to its medicinal properties. The word baccifera means berry-bearing. The red berries usually ripen at Christmas time which gives it its common name, but with our seasons being as “crazy” as they are, one finds the plants with flowers and berries in February and March.
This berry has been used to treat a variety of ailments by the Khoi people and the early European settlers followed their example. One of the main uses has been the treatment of piles (haemorrhoids) and that is where the Afrikaans name, aambeibossie, originated. It has also been used to treat acne, arthritis, bladder infections, boils, diabetes, kidney infections, leprosy, skin conditions, stomach ulcers, syphilis and as a bitter tonic and laxative. Infusions and tinctures are made or parts of the plant are fried in butter and then applied to sores.
Despite these medicinal uses, it is said to be very toxic to livestock and therefore farmers are not keen to have this plant growing where their sheep or cattle graze.