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Dorstenia elata Gardner 1840
pronounced: door-STEE-nee-uh uh-LAH-tuh
(Moraceae — the mulberry family)
common names: Mattress Button Plant, Congo Fig
Dorstenia is named for Theodor Dorsten (1492 – 1552), a German botanist and medical professor at Marburg; elata is from the Latin elatus, exalted, lofty, high. The first of the common names is obvious to those who remember the old studded mattresses, but the second is hard to explain, as the plant is neither African nor a fig!
This is a perennial evergreen herbaceous plant with a subterranean stem, native to the Atlantic forest ecoregion of Brazil, where it is an endangered species. It is found in the states of Espirito Santo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro.
The glossy dark green lanceolate leaves, up to 25 cm long and 10 or 11 cm wide, create a beautiful rosette of foliage. Petioles are up to 15 cm long, and the plant usually grows to between 30 and 45 cm tall, with a spread of 45 to 60 cm.
It will produce its weird flowers and fruit all year long. The flowering structure is called a hypanthodium, in which the receptacle is fleshy and forms a hollow ball-like structure with an apical opening. Three types of flowers develop on the inner surface of the receptacle: the female flowers are towards the base, the male flowers are towards the orifice, and short-styled sterile flowers are in between. The inflorescence is held on a sturdy stalk, and peaks above the foliage.
Propagation is by seed. At maturity, the seeds are ejected up to about a metre from the mother plant, and the plant will spread rapidly through volunteer seedlings. It is wise to dead-head the plant before the seeds mature.
In the garden the plant prefers sandy moist locations. It makes a great low-light houseplant, being able to endure wet soil, dry soil, bright light and near darkness. It does best with filtered light and moist soil that is allowed to dry out a bit between waterings. It will not tolerate overly wet soils.
Over time, the single stalk loses its lower leaves and becomes less attractive. It can then be thrown away and replaced by one of the seedlings. Alternatively, the plant can be repotted a little more deeply.
The plant is used in traditional medicines due to its high antioxidant activity, and there are also reports of its use as a culinary herb.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographed in Picnic Bay 2018
Page last updated 4th June 2018