According to Kew Species Profiles[KSP]
- General Description
A bizarre, cushion-forming herb, Lepidagathis fischeri is resurrected annually following fire and subsequent rains in the woodlands and grasslands of eastern Africa.
Lepidagathis fischeri is a species of the Acanthaceae family, found in fire-prone habitats in east Africa. It has peculiar, dense, cushion-like heads of flowers held at the base of the plant, surrounded by radiating, leafy stems. The annual, leafy shoots are burnt off each year during the dry season, leaving only the woody base and the old, burnt flower-cushions, from which the new shoots emerge following the subsequent rains.
Dr Kaj Vollesen, Kew botanist and expert on the African Acanthaceae, has remarked that the flowers of this species resemble a group of baby birds begging for food from their woolly nest!
- Species Profile
Geography and distribution
This species is fairly widespread in the fire-prone miombo woodlands and montane grasslands of eastern Africa, occurring in southern Tanzania, Zambia, south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Malawi.
Miombo woodland is characterised by the dominance of Caesalpinioid legume trees, most notably Brachystegiaspecies, and has a more or less continuous grassy ground cover. It dominates large swathes of eastern Africa where rainfall is moderate but highly seasonal.
Regular dry-season fires play an important role in this ecosystem. A large number of species are adapted to these conditions in having large, woody, underground rootstocks which survive the burning. The annual shoots are produced either immediately after burning or after the following rainy season. The latter is typical for Lepidagathis fischeri which tends to flower following the main rainy season, although plants occasionally send up flowering shoots immediately after burning and before the leaves develop.
Overview: A herb producing trailing, ascending or erect, annual, leafy stems up to 40 cm long from a woody, perennial base and rootstock. The flowers are held in a dense, basal head or cushion, sometimes also with smaller heads at the lower leaf nodes.
Leaves: The leaves are unstalked and vary from linear to broadly elliptic, are 1.5–13 × 0.1–3 cm, and have three (rarely five) prominent veins running from the base, although only the midrib might be prominent in linear-leaved forms. The leaf surfaces are hairless or with scattered, long, white hairs.
Flowers: The inflorescences are very complex, containing many flowers held on one-sided spikes, which are aggregated together. The bracts are thin and quickly become dry and brown, though often have purple tips. They are lance-shaped with a narrow, tapered tip and are 11–26 × 2.5–6.5 mm, and usually have long, dense, white hairs along the margin. Immediately below each flower is a pair of bracteoles that are similar to the bracts but narrower (to 3.5 mm wide). The calyx is green with brown or purple tips and is divided into five lance-shaped lobes, 10–19 mm long. The dorsal (back) lobe is longest and widest, the lateral two lobes being narrowest, each with a linear tip and with long, white hairs along the margin and shorter hairs on the surface. The flower is 11–18 mm long and is two-lipped above a short tube, the lower lip being three-lobed, the upper lip being hooded. It is white or pale purple with yellow or orange markings centrally and red or purple markings towards the margin on the lower lip and throat. The lower lip also has two lines of dense, silky hairs running either side of the centre. There are four stamens, the lower pair longer than the upper pair, each with two-celled, hairy anthers.
Fruits: The fruit is a two-seeded, hairless capsule, 8–9 mm long, splitting into two valves with each seed held on a hook which helps to fling it from the fruit as it explodes open. The seeds are covered in long, silky, creamy-brown hairs.
Lepidagathis fischeriis a typical member of the genus Lepidagathis, which is recognised by the combination of a two-lipped flower with four stamens in two pairs of unequal length, a two- or four-seeded capsule lacking a narrowed basal stalk (stipe) and with hairy seeds, and usually having one-sided (scorpioid – the axis typically curved like a scorpion’s tail) inflorescence units. Lepidagathisfalls into the tribe Barlerieae of the Acanthaceae, together with the much larger genus Barleria.
Hybridisation and the miombo woodlands
Lepidagathis fischeri is one of a group of very closely related species of Lepidagathisthat occupy the woodlands and grasslands of eastern Africa and almost certainly hybridise freely in parts of their range, presenting a difficult challenge for plant taxonomists. Such species complexity is rather common in the miombo ( Brachystegia) woodlands, which is a relatively young habitat in terms of evolutionary history and is therefore still actively evolving.
Threats and conservation
Lepidagathis fischeri is not uncommon in suitable habitat within its range and appears to benefit from moderate disturbance, favouring bare, open ground, where it can compete for light and where its basal flowers are accessible to insect pollinators. Indeed, it is commonly encountered along the edges of dirt tracks.
Although high human population pressure has led to some habitat destruction in parts of its range, it is not considered threatened and no specific conservation measures appear necessary.
This species is not currently represented in any seed bank.
Although not currently cultivated, Lepidagathis fischeri would make an interesting curiosity in tropical gardens, with its unusual inflorescences and intricately patterned flowers. This also applies to some of its close relatives such as L. andersoniana and L. eriocephala, both of which have even more strikingly coloured and patterned flowers and a more erect habit.
This species at Kew
Lepidagathis fischeri is well-represented in the collection of pressed and dried specimens housed in Kew’s Herbarium. The original type specimen of this species, housed in the Berlin Herbarium, was destroyed when the building was bombed during the Second World War. A replacement type specimen was therefore recently selected on which to base our future understanding of this species, and this is housed in Kew’s Herbarium.
The details, including images, of specimens of many other Lepidagathis species can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.
- Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia
- Miombo woodland (dominated by Caesalpinioid legume trees, such as Brachystegia species), usually on rocky slopes or on laterite outcrops; fire-prone montane grassland; and often on disturbed open ground such as roadsides.
- Not considered to be threatened. Least Concern (LC) according to IUCN Red List criteria.
According to Flora Zambesiaca[FZ]
- Suffruticose herb with prostrate, decumbent or erect leafy stems branching from a woody base and/or rootstock, leafy stems 5–40 cm long, rarely undeveloped at flowering; stems 4-ridged, sparsely or rarely densely pale pilose when young or glabrous throughout.
- Leaves (sub)sessile, linear to broadly (ovate-)elliptic, 1.5–13 × 0.15–3 cm, base cuneate to rounded or subcordate, margin entire, apex acute-apiculate, glabrous or sparsely pale-pilose, rarely densely so when young; prominently 3(5)-veined from base, then often with scalariform tertiary veins visible, sometimes only midrib prominent in linear-leaved variants.
- Inflorescence basal and/or at lower, usually leafless nodes, often compounded into dense cushion-like synflorescences, 3–11.5 cm in diameter, subsessile or on short peduncles with reduced sterile bracts; sterile floral bracts brown-scarious or green to purple-brown when young, lanceolate, 11–25.5 × 2.8–6.5 mm, apex attenuate to acuminate, margin white-pilose to -plumose, surface glabrous or often minutely pubescent; fertile bracts similar but often thinner, 12–22.5 × 2.5–4 mm, acumen often more pronounced, often with long pilose hairs along midrib; bracteoles as fertile bracts but 2–3.3 mm wide, those on exterior of inflorescence often green with a darker acumen, with fewer hairs on midrib.
- Calyx lobes green, usually with dark purple or brown acumen, surface with short or mixed short and long ascending white hairs, margin with dense long ± spreading hairs, often shorter on acumen; anterior lobes (elliptic-)lanceolate, 10.5–18 × 2–3.7 mm, acumen linear, ± straight; posterior lobe 12–19 × 2.5–5 mm, with 5 or 7 parallel veins ± prominent.
- Corolla 11.5–18 mm long, white or pale purple, palate of lower lip with yellow to orange markings centrally and with purple markings towards margin and/or in throat, limb silky-hairy externally; tube 5.5–11 mm long; upper lip 3.5–5 mm long; lower lip 4.5–7 mm long including lobes 2.5–3.7 mm long.
- Anterior (longer) stamens with filaments 3.5–4.5 mm long; thecae 1.3–1.8 mm long.
- Ovary glabrous; style with few hairs and subsessile glands in lower half.
- Capsule 8–9 mm long, glabrous; seeds c.5 × 3.5 mm.
- Also in Tanzania and D.R. Congo.
- In miombo woodland and grassland and recently burnt areas, typically on rocky hillslopes or over laterite, also on roadsides, bare or disturbed ground; flowering after main rains or immediately following burning, Apr–Aug(Nov); 1000–1700 m.
- Conservation notes: Rather common in miombo woodland in N Zambia; assessed as Least Concern in F.T.E.A.
First published in Fl. Trop. Afr. 5: 123 (1899)
-  (2015) Flora Zambesiaca 8(6): 1-314. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
-  —Darbyshire in F.T.E.A., Acanthaceae 2: 322 (2010).
-  Darbyshire, I., Vollesen, K. & Kelbessa, E. (2010). Acanthaceae (part II). In: Flora of Tropical East Africa, ed. H. Beentje. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
-  in F.T.A. 5: 123 (1899).
International Plant Names Index
The International Plant Names Index (2016). Published on the Internet http://www.ipni.org
[B] © Copyright 2016 International Plant Names Index. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0
Kew Species Profiles
Kew Species Profiles
World Checklist of Selected Plant Families
World Checklist of Selected Plant Families(2016). Published on the Internet http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
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[F] © Copyright 2016 International Plant Names Index and World Checkist of Selected Plant Families. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0