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There is some confusion about its name; it is wrongly named African potato. It is not actually a member of the potato family. It is suggested that the incorrectly used name ‘African potato’ was introduced by South African media in early 1997, when the hype around the plant arose, possibly after the Afrikaans ‘Afrika-patat’, since the plant stem called a corm, found underground, resembles the tuberous root of the ‘patat’ or sweet potato.
The name ‘Hypoxis’ was given to the species by Linnaeus in 1759 and is derived from the Greek words ‘hypo’ (meaning below) and ‘oxy’ (meaning sharp), in reference to the ovary which is pointed at the base. The specific epithet is derived from the Greek ‘hemera’ (meaning day) and ‘kallos’ (meaning beauty), presumably referring to the pretty flowers which are short-lived during the day.
African potato has many uses in traditional medicine. The corm (hard, fleshy, mucilaginous compressed plant stem found underground) is commonly used as a strengthening tonic and during convalescence, as well as a remedy against tuberculosis and cancer. It is also used to treat prostate hypertrophy, urinary tract infections, testicular tumors, as a laxative and to expel intestinal worms. Anxiety, palpitations, depression and rheumatoid arthritis are further ailments treated with the plant.
Hypoxis hemerocallidea is also used to build up the immune system of patients suffering from cancer and HIV. It can be consumed to treat diabetes and high blood pressure, as studies have shown that it reduces hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemic-induced oxidative stress.
African potato is noted to be a powerful immuno-enhancer that strengthens the immune system and enables faster recovery after sickness. It is one of the most commonly used and traded plants in Traditional African Medicine. It has even been recommended by the South African Minister of Health for inclusion in a daily diet for patients living with HIV.
African potato grows throughout most of South Africa and neighboring countries. It occurs in open grassland and woodland. The plant is incredibly resistant to wild fires and even relies on this natural process for population growth. African potato lies dormant underground during fire season and resprouts after the fires have subsided.
It is fairly common in the wild, but due to its popularity in traditional medicines, African potato can be overharvested. It is easy to grow at home in pots or in the garden. It can survive for long periods of time without water and is frost-resistant. The plant prefers full sunlight and well-drained soil. The tuber remains dormant during the winter months and needs to be kept dry. The leaves will perish after summer but will reappear in late winter just before the first rains. Wildfire promotes the growth of new leaves and stimulates the spread of seeds and germination.
H. hemerocallidea is not listed as threatened. However, its natural grasslands in urban areas are under extreme pressure due to urban growth. Since the plants do not reseed easily, the demand for the tubers may cause the plants in the wild to decline.
African potato is a beautiful perennial. Its yellow star-like flowers bloom with the arrival of spring rains. The plant has long spear-shaped leaves that stack one atop of the other and grow outwards in a neat triangular pattern. The undersides of the leaves are very hairy. The short-lived flowers usually close at midday and only one to three remain open at any one time to encourage cross-pollination.
The large underground corm is dark brown and covered with bristly hairs, but when cut with a knife, it appears bright yellow inside. Although the rootstock resembles a sweet potato, it has a hard, fleshy, mucilaginous compressed stem (corm) that develops vertically, not like a tuber that develops horizontally. The seeds of the plant are hard, black, smooth and glossy.
Weak infusions and decoctions of the corm are used as a tonic. The roots can be dried and used in a tea-like infusion containing hot water. The plant should not be consumed raw as it contains toxic substances; once the plant is dried and processed, it is safe for consumption.
Hypoxoside, which is converted into rooperol. Sitosterol or phytosterol can also be isolated from the plant.
It displays anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic and antidiabetic properties.
African potato faces threat from expanding urban populations and over-exploitation.
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