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.