Gloriosa superba (flame lily)
Flame lily is a climber with spectacular red and yellow flowers, but all parts of the plant (especially the tubers) are extremely poisonous and can be fatal if eaten.
About this species
Flame lily is a tuberous herb, which is widespread in tropical and southern Africa and in tropical Asia. The generic name Gloriosa means ‘full of glory’ and the specific epithet superba means ‘superb’, alluding to the striking red and yellow flowers. All parts of the plant, but especially the tubers (swollen, underground stems), are extremely poisonous and the ingestion of flame lily has caused many accidental deaths. It has also been used to commit murder, suicide, to induce abortions and to poison dogs. African porcupines and some moles are reputed to be able to consume the roots with no ill effects.
Geography & Distribution
Native to tropical and southern Africa, and temperate and tropical Asia (where it occurs in China, Indochina and from the Indian Subcontinent to the Lesser Sunda Islands). It has been found up to 2,500 m above sea level. It is widely naturalised (including in Europe and Australia) and is listed as a weed in Australia and in some parts of the USA. Gloriosa superba is common throughout much of its range. However, in some areas of India (Patalkot, Chhindwara District), Bangladesh and Sri Lanka it has been assessed as rare, and natural populations are believed to be in decline. In the Indian state of Orissa, for example, where G. superba used to be common, it is now on the verge of extinction according to the Wildlife Institute of India.
A perennial, tuberous, climbing (sometimes erect) herb, up to 4 m long. The leaves are simple (undivided). The leaf blade has strong, parallel nerves and ends in a tendril-like spiral. The solitary flowers are bisexual, showy, pendulous and 4.5–7 cm in diameter. The pedicel (flower stalk) can be up to 20 cm long. The flowers are usually red and yellow with crisply waved margins. The fruit is a large (up to 6 cm long), oblong capsule. It is thought that pollination is probably carried out by butterflies and sunbirds.
Threats & Conservation
Flame lily is in decline in some areas of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and southern Africa, due to over-collection of the seeds and tubers. Although commercially cultivated in southern India, it is estimated that pharmacies and drug manufacturers in India fulfil up to 75% of their raw material demand from wild populations.
Conservation assessments carried out by Kew
Gloriosa superba is being monitored as part of the Sampled Red List Index Project, which aims to produce conservation assessments for a representative sample of the world’s plant species. This information will then be used to monitor trends in extinction risk and help focus conservation efforts where they are needed most.
Flame lily has a wide variety of uses, especially within traditional medicine as practised in tropical Africa and Asia (including Ayurvedic medicine in India). It contains the alkaloid colchicine, which has been used effectively to treat acute gout, intestinal worms, infertility, wounds and other skin problems. It has also been used as an antidote for snake bite, as a laxative, and to induce abortion. It has proven useful in the treatment of chronic ulcers, arthritis, cholera, colic, kidney problems and typhus.
Colchicine is widely used as an experimental tool in the study of cell division, as it can inhibit mitosis (a type of cell division), induce polyploidy (cells containing more than two sets of chromosomes), and has been used in the treatment of cancer.
Gloriosa superba is widely cultivated as an ornamental for its stunning flowers. It is the national flower of Zimbabwe (where it is protected from illegal harvesting under the Parks and Wildlife Act).
This species at Kew
Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Gloriosa superba are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers from around the world, by appointment. The details of some of these, including images, can be seen on-line in the Herbarium Catalogue. Specimens of flame lily tubers are also held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available for study, by appointment.
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