Written by: Justin Williams
Koekemakranka is a strange name for a plant. Sounding more like an incantation than a botanical variety, this attractive plant was held in high regard by man long before the first European settlers reached our shores. But before we get into what makes this bulb special, let’s delve into the origin of its odd-sounding title.
It is not entirely known how this plant got its unusual-sounding name, and it is quite possible that it may have been originally derived from a San name, but at least one author has speculated that it stemmed from the Afrikaans “goed vir my krank maag” – a nod to the medicinal qualities of the plant’s fruit and its reported qualities to combat stomach complaints, which I’ll cover in a moment.
At one point the name “Cape Crocus” was used to describe these star-shaped flowers but it never seems to have caught on, probably because it lacks the charm of saying the word koekemakranka as it rolls off one’s tongue with ease, likewise, the flowers have also been known as “Christmas Stars”, a term used particularly by children who would search the veld around Christmas time for these sweet-scented treasures in days gone by. In botanical circles this plant is known as Gethyllis, Greek for “little onion” or “leek”.
This clarifies the long neck of the koekemakranka bulb, and at the time of writing, there are currently up to 32 recognized Gethyllis species found throughout South Africa; from the Nama Karoo Biome to the Succulent Karoo Biome, down to the Fynbos Biome including the Cape Peninsula.
But why has the koekemakranka, probably more so than most other plants, been an alluring subject for folk around the Cape regions and beyond for so many centuries? What makes the sighting of a koekemakranka special? One wouldn’t expect such a spectacular flower to emerge in an arid habitat, but this is where they thrive.
There are three main stages in the cycle of a koekemakranka; in winter leaves are produced, some curled, twisted and spiralled in a peculiar fashion. But as winter dries out, giving way to spring, the leaves disappear. Then some months pass by before something quite special happens. Around December time delicate flowers appear from the place where the leaves disappeared into the ground, as if triggered off by an alarm unseen to us.
Modern-day science points to a change in barometric pressure as an explanation for this clockwork-like mass flowering. The koekemakranka flowers fleetingly when conditions are right, then wilting and vanishing nearly as quickly as the buds appeared. If your timing is right, you’ll notice the pretty little white or pink flowers with six narrow, ribbon-like petals and yellow anthers. Bees and moths are attributed as the main pollinators of the koekemakranka.
Once the flowers fade, it is several months before the third and final stage of the koekemakranka – fruiting. Around autumn time the club-like fruit begins to appear from the ground, protruding up from the general vicinity where the flowers fell. Slow to mature, the fruit of the koekemakranka takes several months to develop and ripen under the ground, where it is cooler and protected. Around finger-length size or just a bit larger, the fruits vary from a translucent colour to a pink hue, depending on ripeness and have the most magnificent smell, an aroma said to resemble strawberries or tropical fruit when they burst out of the ground.
It is this unusual fruit that makes the koekemakranka so desirable; highly sought-after in both the culinary and medicinal sense. In fact, so scented were these fruits that it was once commonplace to leave the dried fruits and flowers in a drawer as to impart their scent into clothing.
Koekemakranka brandy is a tonic that has held a place in Old Cape Dutch medicine for centuries, where an infusion of the fruit takes place in brandy, offering comfort to those suffering with cramps and other stomach ailments. A recipe published in the 1800’s in an edition of the Cape Agricultural Journal described the following:
Put a little of this highly scented fruit in a good brandy. The perfume will be transferred to the spirit within a few days and a beautiful nip will be at your command… This Cape liqueur rivalled imported yellow chartreuse. The astonishing name of the plant is of itself enough to create demand.
Not only are the fleshy fruits edible and delicious, but the flowers have been used to alleviate teething problems in children by an infusion made with boiling water. According to legend, a koekemakranka fruit worn in that hat of a prospective lover will give the wearer extra courage in his efforts to win the affections of a suitable partner.
We understand that today sustainability and conservation is everything, so perhaps these fragrant fruits, along with their flowers and gnarled leaves, are best left untouched, admired and preserved for generations to come.
Third party sources for the article: Conrad Lighton and Lawrence Green.