Tim EntwisleBrilliant salvia look-alike from Tanzania

The Uluguru Mountains of Tanzania are named after the local Luguru tribe, both of which are located in the middle-west of Africa, just south of the equator and east of the Congo, about a hundred kilometres from the Indian Ocean.

These mountains are best known for their wildlife – from odd sunbirds and shrews to rare frogs and millipedes – but it has an interesting flora as well. Over a hundred plant species are found only in the mountain range, most of them in the high-altitude (1200-2500 metres above sea level) rainforest.

Brillantaisia ulugurica 600x900Brillantaisia ulugurica, although named after the mountain range named after the tribe, is not restricted to just this area, extending elsewhere in Tanzania, as well as Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It seems to favour damp areas under or at the edge of tropical forests, and grows down to 700 metres above sea level. It’s large floppy leaves suggest a moist, protected habitat.

Brillantaisia ulugurica leaf_600x900It and other species of Brillantaisia (do take a look at my post* from Kew Gardens, about another species of this attractive genus) are often called Giant Salvia due to their big (up to 10 cm long), bold, salvia-like flowers. In fact they are classified in an entirely different family, the Acanthaceae (not the mint family Lamiaceae). The family Acanthaceae includes things like, well, Acanthus (Bear’s Breach) itself, but also ThunbergiaJusticia, and these days even the mangrove genus Avicennia.

Most of the family Acanthaceae have leaves in opposite pairs that alternate at right angles to the pair below and above – what we call decussate. You can see this pattern in the plant from our Melbourne Nursery, in flower and photographed in January this year.

Brillantaisia ulugurica at Melbourne nursery_600x1061The flowers are of course the main attraction, for us and bees. It seems this genus is mostly bee-pollinated, with the two halves of the flower articulated to make sure the insect visitor comes into contact with the plants reproductive bits (thereby carrying pollen from one flower to another – generally a good thing…). I wonder with a big flower like this whether humming birds get into the act as well. Or maybe its left to the bigger bees, like bumble bees.

Brillantaisia ulugurica_900x599In this close up, you can see two elongate stamen-like things (carrying the anthers, with their pollen) sticking out the top. I understand flowers of Brillantaisia have two fertile stamens and two that are just for display (staminodes), and that the latter are deeper within the throat of the flower.

If you look at the top picture, though, you’ll see the female receptive bit (style) way above the flower throat. There must be a bit of mechanical action going on when the bees visits the flower looking for nectar, bringing the style and the stamens closer to its body. I didn’t think to dissect the flower or watch a bee visit when I took these pictures. I was simply overcome by the giant, purple blooms!

And in case you are wondering, the genus name has not an illiterate reference to these rather brilliant flowers, but commemorates a 19th century French botanist and explorer of west Africa, Brillant-Marion. As he may have discovered on his travels, other species of Brillantaisia are included in a local plant and snail concoction to treat small-pox. Although my source seems to be a little sceptical, noting that this was ‘doubtless effective after the global eradication of smallpox in 1979’.

Brillantaisia ulugurica_900x600Note: Our specimen was kindly donated to the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria by our friend and supporter, Meg Bentley. It’s in our nursery at the moment but we hope to get it out into the public garden areas as soon as possible.

*I wondered then, in that first post on this genus, where the name Giant Salvia came from. I know know – a different species!

Like this post? Why not share it with a friend?


Tim Entwisle

About Tim Entwisle

Dr Tim Entwisle is a scientist and scientific communicator with a broad interest in plants, science and gardens, and Director & Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Previously he was Director of Conservation, Living Collections & Estates at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and prior to that, Director of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens for eight years. Read Tim's full blog at Talking Plants

5 thoughts on “Brilliant salvia look-alike from Tanzania

  1. marie on said:

    This plant is also at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and I found it at Raywood nursery south of Adelaide. Spectacular when in flower!

    • Good to hear. Should be planted more, at least in the south (seems like it might be weedy up north…). Tim

  2. chris on said:

    can be a weed in wet warm areas like here in north east NSW – every piece that falls to the ground takes root and grows extremely vigorously.

    • Hi Chris,
      We run all our plants through a weed assessment so I’m hoping we’ve done our homework on this one. I’m presuming it’s worse up your way but we’ll certainly watch out for it if planted outside our shadehouse.
      Tim

  3. Kate Wall on said:

    Hi Tim, love this plant and it is one of favourites here in Brisbane. I have not seen it become a weed but certainly grows easily enough to become one, it is actually not that common to see, but given how well it flowers in the shade and handles the heavy clay soils I am delighted with it. I have not had bits I drop grow, but can see how it might happen. I have found it very easy to get rid of when moving it from one spot to another.

Feel free to comment (no need to register)
For help to identify a plant, find a gardening product or for general gardening advice, please use the Gardening HELP page.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *