Osyris compressa


Osyris compressa – This large, hardy, fast growing shrub which grows up to the size of a small tree, about 1-2 metres tall, is an incredibly interesting plant. Growing naturally over a large area in South Africa it occurs from the south in the Cape right up the the east coast as far as Kosi Bay – roughly a 2,000 kilometre range.

This is a real pioneer plant in the way it is able to survive our harsh climate. The grey-green leaves help it to withstand strong winds and the hot dry climate. Its small leaf size and waxy layer helps reduce water loss and its leaf colour helps to reflect heat. It is also both hemiparasitic and hermaphroditic.

Being hemiparasitic (or semi-parasite) means that it draws water and mineral nutrients from nearby plants roots, never killing its host but rather living in a sort of symbiotic state, yet it is also able to photosynthesis by itself, immediately putting it at an advantage in growth and survival rate compared to other plants in the dry seasons.

Another superpower putting it ahead of the game would be its seed production and dispersal.

Because it is hermaphroditic it has male plants, as well as plants that are both male and female. The insects love the Osyris flowers and are especially favoured by the common dotted border butterfly (Mylothris agathina), aiding in the pollination process. It fruits for eight months of the year, never all ripening at the same time, giving it a long period of seed production, and much joy to us foragers. It is much loved by all birds, who relish the berries and spread the seed over a wide area. All these facts increase the chance of seed germination and area of dispersal.

After the tiny multicoloured flowers appear, the tear drop shaped fruits develop, ripening from green to red through to a juicy dark purplish-black. Inside the fruit, the unripe white seed covered in its thin brown shell can also be eaten fresh like a nut. Traditionally, the seed was removed and the berry pressed and dried for preserving and eating. The leaves and bark were used for tanning leather – the fresh leaves for light brown and the bark for a dark brown hue.

One terribly windy, blustery summers day I went for a walk in the mountains behind our house and we discovered two huge bushes dripping with Osyris berries. Hats came off, jacket pockets opened, branches were climbed and shoulders were stood on – all of us dancing in time with the swaying branches trying to capture the fat little purple jewels at the end of the branches. Back in the kitchen twe washed the berries and put in the freezer, with the idea to try and mimic Sloe berries after the first frost…yes, this batch was destined for gin, with enough left over for syrup. Simple syrup requires equal amounts of fruit to sugar to water, boiled down till it bubbles away stickily, then strained and bottled.

This cocktails name was created with a little word play on sloe and a big salute to the pioneer spirit of this plants ecology.

Two weeks later, the Botanist gin that I had popped the frozen Osyris berries and a little caster sugar into was already a gorgeous deep, dark purple. Time for a taste. This cocktails name was created with a little word play on sloe and a big salute to the pioneer spirit of this plants ecology.

Slow Survival (makes two foraged serves)

  • 50ml osyris berry infused Botanist gin – Osyris compressa
  • 45ml osyris berry syrup
  • 1 lime
  • 3 tbs wild flower honey
  • ½ handful of wild mint – Mentha longifolia
  • 45ml extra strength honeybush chai tea – Cyclopia genistoides
  • tonic water
  • ice blocks
  • 2 x pelargonium flowers to garnish
  • 2  lime twists

To make your tea, steep three tea bags in 45ml water for six minutes. Peel the rind off one of the limes for the twists, then cut each lime in half and squeeze out the juice into a jug. Take two of the empty lime halves and place cut side down in a pan over a medium heat for about 15 minutes until caramalised.

Put these, the honey and mint into the jug and muddle with a pestle, until you can taste all the flavours coming through in the juice. Double strain into a glass and add the gin, syrup and tea. Leave in the fridge until chilled. To serve, pour into two glasses, top with tonic, add ice and garnish with the flowers and lime twist.

Tasting notes: Sweet, smoky, tart, fruity and floral. The initial lime and honey taste fades out into mellow floral notes, leaving you reaching out for another sip. Cheers!

Footnotes: Four months down the line, the gin was absolutely outrageous. The berry flavour had taken over with hints of nuttiness – it had reached the kernel and was mature enough for a myriad of new cocktail creations. An unexpected bonus was the alcoholic berries left at the bottom of the bottle. Having stewed for so long in the gin that the kernel had softened, eating one of these morsels with its nutty crunch and an explosion of Osyris gin, was just begging for a coating of chocolate to become a wild chocolate liqueur.

Gin Infused Chocolate Coated Berries

  • 1 cup wild berries – frozen
  • ½ bottle of The Botanist gin
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 8 oz good quality dark chocolate

Place the berries and caster sugar into the gin to infuse for 1-4 weeks (the softer the berry, the shorter the infusing time). Drink all the berry gin, leaving the berries behind. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler untll the temperature reaches 115F and then remove from heat and whisk to temper, and the temperature drops to 92F. Drop in the berries and swirl them around until completely coated in chocolate. Quickly remove berries with a fork and place on a foil lined tray and let them set in the fridge. Try not to eat them all at once!

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