Tim EntwisleThe Irishman’s beautiful South African plant

There are many South African plants in flower right now and here’s an old favourite of mine with a melodious name – Mackaya bella. It might be a greeting from your gorgeous Italian girlfriend, or perhaps her name.

Mackaya bella flowering in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens

Mackaya bella flowering in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens


The ‘bella‘ part is clearly are reference to this plant’s beauty (you’ll recall of course that rather attractive seaweed, Entwisleia bella), while Mackaya celebrates the botanist James Townsend Mackay, founder of Trinity College Botanic Garden in Dublin and author in 1836 of Flora Hibernica (Hibernica being Ireland).

While I don’t think Mackay has anything to do with South Africa or this plant, it was named after him by compatriot William Harvey, who collected plants from the Cape in the 1830s, writing a flora of the region with Otto Sonder (the gentleman who sold my predecessor Ferdinand Mueller 300,000 or so specimens from his massive herbarium).

So as with Entwisle’s beautiful alga, this name can be read as Mackay’s beautiful shrub. Also like Entwisle’s alga, there is only one species in this genus. Although, unlike that algal beauty, there are many more genera in Mackaya’s family, Acanthaceae, such as the Oyster Plant (Acanthus mollis).

Dark green glossy leaves on Mackaya bella

Dark green glossy leaves on Mackaya bella


The beauty in this plant, also called the Forest Bell Bush, is mostly to do with its flowers. Out of flower it’s a compact shrub or small tree with quite nice dark-green leaves but nothing to earn the epithet ‘bella‘.

A curious, but perhaps not particularly beautiful, characteristic of these leaves is an occasional ‘hairy pocket’ on the undersurface, where the veins in the leaves connect. This is a picture I took back in my office using a small magnifying lens attached to my phone…

Small dimple on the back of Mackaya bella leaves

Small dimple on the back of Mackaya bella leaves


It’s actually a little dimple, which you can see poking through as pimple-like projections on the upper surface in this next picture.

Pimple-like projections on Mackaya bella leaves

Pimple-like projections on Mackaya bella leaves


I’m presuming these pockets provide homes to insects that on the whole are beneficial to the plant. Certainly the flowers attract plenty of insect visitors, including most notably in South Africa, the Blue Pansy Butterfly.

And it’s the veins that deserve mention here as well. In the flowers, the beautiful flowers, the petals like a thin parchment or membrane etched with purple veins.

Mackaya bella flowers

Mackaya bella flowers

Thin, parchment-like petals on Mackaya bella

Thin, parchment-like petals on Mackaya bella


They say, and it seems to be true in Melbourne Gardens, it does best in shade but flowers more with sun. It’s clearly a tough plant and one that we use a bit as a filler around the botanic gardens, but odd that it isn’t in more gardens. Perhaps that’s because it’s considered ‘rather old fashioned’. Climate change may well bring it back into fashion but could also encourage its potential as an environmental weed (it is already one in New Zealand).


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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

4 thoughts on “The Irishman’s beautiful South African plant

  1. Rosemary Martin on said:

    Have tried to get this plant as I have often read that it is a great addition to the garden. But no luck at all.

    • Hi Rosemary – can maybe help you find it if you say where are you located

  2. Kate Wall on said:

    thanks Tim, one of my favourite groups of plants, my garden would be a tad drab without the wonderful Acanthaceae! I love seeing them brought to the attention of gardeners

  3. Tim Entwisle on said:

    A forgotten or overlooked beauty this one. Thanks Kate.

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