Fascinating facts and beliefs about the devil’s thorn

The devil’s thorn is a common, ground creeping plant with purple trumpet-shaped flowers that is often found in the Lowveld, in disturbed areas and on roadsides. For a guide, this pretty little plants offers a great opportunity to get your guests involved first-hand in some of the more surprising and useful aspects of the African Bush.

The devil’s thorn contains saponins. These are chemicals that react with water to produce a slimy mucilage that acts like soap. To demonstrate, one must simply pick some of the leaves, add a few drops of water and rub one’s hands together. This mucilage acts a great detergent, removing dirt particles and transporting them away from the surface, just like any household detergent!

Becoming sick while stranded in the bush is a recipe for disaster, so it’s good to know that Mother Nature has provided us with the ability to clean our hands before eating! Clothing can also be cleaned effectively using the devil’s thorn.


The name, devil’s thorn, comes from the shape of the seed, which is a robust oval parcel adorned with two sharp vertical-facing thorns. These thorns are reminiscent of the horns of the devil, and the plant’s scientific name (Dicerocaryum eriocarpum) also stems from the word “dikera”, which means “two horns”. These vicious-looking seeds are designed to stick into animals’ feet and hooves, in order to disperse them far from the parent plant.

There are many other beliefs and uses surrounding the devil’s thorn and its mucilage. Parts of the plant are soaked overnight in water, and the ensuing mucilage is used as a lubricant for both animal and human births. There are also reports that the birth canal can be dilated with its application. For livestock suffering from constipation, the mucilage can also be used to aid in remedying the problem.

In the Okavango Delta in Botswana, hunters believe that bathing in an infusion of the roots, mixed with some other plants, will mean that a hunt will be successful. The Bayei tribe believe that if a man has sexual relations with a woman who has miscarried, he will die within 24 hours. The only remedy for this unfortunate situation is to visit a traditional healer.

The roots of the devil’s thorn are chopped, dried in the sun and then burnt. The man and woman must sit over the smoke, facing one another, and inhale it. After this, the plants’ remains are ground into a powder and applied to incisions made on the joints of the couple.   Following this ritual, the man and woman are free to indulge in … themselves, without the danger of premature death!

Photo credit: Tigris