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Dioscorea elephantipes (elephant's foot yam)

Elephant's foot yam is a spectacular shrubby climber from South Africa, which is threatened due to over-collection.
Dioscorea elephantipes flowers

Dioscorea elephantipes flowers (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Dioscorea elephantipes (L'Hér.) Engl.

Common name: 

elephant's foot yam

Conservation status: 

Considered to be threatened in the wild. Not yet evaluated according to IUCN criteria.

Habitat: 

Rocky slopes in dry soils, often derived from quartzite or shales. In thorny and succulent karroid bush (an area characterised by low winter rainfall and extreme summer aridity, and dominated by dwarf, succulent shrubs).

Key Uses: 

Medicinal.

Known hazards: 

Tubers can be safely eaten by humans only after significant processing to remove toxic compounds.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Dioscoreales
Family: 
Dioscoreaceae
Genus: Dioscorea

About this species

Elephant's foot yam is a slow-growing species from South Africa. It is unusual in its shrubby habit (its stems twine only towards the tips) and its bulky, largely above-ground tuber.

It is thought to be possible that Dioscorea hemicrypta may form part of the same species as D. elephantipes, and staff at Kew are currently working as part of a project to investigate this. D. hemicrypta, which also occurs in South Africa, is considered to differ from D. elephantipes in having a lobed tuber, less of which is exposed above the ground, and slightly differently shaped leaf-bases with a shallower sinus (area between the lobes of the leaf).

Elephant's foot yam contains very high levels of saponins (a class of chemical compounds from which steroidal drugs come, which aid healing). Wild plants are often dug up by unscrupulous succulent plant collectors, or harvested for indigenous medicines.

Genus: 
Dioscorea

main info

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