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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.

Red and yellow flame-like flowers of the flame lily

Gloriosa superba (Image: Macvivo at en.wikipedia)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Gloriosa superba L.

Common name: 

flame lily, glory lily, climbing lily, creeping lily

Conservation status: 

Least Concern according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: 

Sparse savanna woodlands, grasslands, sand dunes, in abandoned fields or at the boundaries of cultivated ground and roadsides; in sandy-loam soil.

Key Uses: 

Medicinal, ornamental.

Known hazards: 

All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous due to the presence of toxic alkaloids, including colchicine; ingestion can be fatal; contact can result in skin irritation.

Taxonomy

Sub class: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Liliales
Family: 
Colchicaceae
Genus: Gloriosa

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.

Synonym: 

Methonica superba, Eugone superba

Genus: 
Gloriosa

Discover more

Geography and 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.

Description

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 and 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.

Learn more about this project

Uses

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

Flame lily can be seen growing in the Temperate House, Palm House and Waterlily House 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.

View details of these specimens online

Specimens of flame lily tubers are also held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available for study, by appointment.

References and credits

Contu, S. (2008). Gloriosa superba. Assessment using IUCN Categories and Criteria 3.1 (IUCN 2001). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. [SRLI conservation assessments, pending approval by IUCN, can be viewed here].

Dauncey, E.A. (2010). Poisonous Plants: A Guide for Parents & Childcare Providers. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Jana, S. & Shekhawat, G.S. (2011). Critical review on medicinally potent plant species: Gloriosa superba. Fitoterapia 82: 293-301.

Nellis, D.W. (1997). Poisonous Plants and Animals of Florida and the Caribbean. Pineapple Press Inc.

Rawat, G.S. (ed.) (2008). Special habitats and threatened plants of India. ENVIS Bulletin Wildlife and Protected Areas 11(1). Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun.

Wikimedia - Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2011). Gloriosa superba. Published on the Internet by the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/namedetail.do?name_id=307988 (accessed 28 March 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Patricia Malcolm
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions. Full website terms and conditions.

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