Melianthus major is a fast growing evergreen open shrub that grows up to 12 feet tall or more with slender light brown stems that
often arch and bend The one foot long bluish-green leaves have 10-15 serrated leaflets and when bruised have a strong salty peanut
butter like smell. Spikes of dark maroon colored flowers are displayed on stalks above the foliage from winter through spring
followed by papery seed pods. These flowers are variously described as ill or pleasingly honey scented but we find the flowers
only slightly fragrant (not bad or good) and hard to even discern over the scent of the foliage once it is brushed up against. Plant in full sun to part shade and water occasionally. It can rejuvenate if foliage is frozen,
tolerating temperatures down to about 16°F and the rootstock is reported as hardy to as low as 5° F if the plant is mulched.
This plant looks best if pruned hard and is often treated more like a perennial than a shrub.
It seems that more than any other plant we get asked about the poisonous nature of Melianthus major. This is likely because while
it can be a very attractive garden plant it is also a plant that is very poisonous if any portion is ingested. Most poisonous plant
references also note that domestic animals will not eat these offensively scented plants unless there is no other food available. We feel we
cannot suggest that people use this plant in their garden without providing as much information as we can. We therefore list below what is
written about this plant in two of the poisonous plant books that we have in our nursery.
"In Poisonous Plants of California" (UC Press 1986) authors Thomas C. Fuller and Elizabeth McClintock write in reference
to Melianthus major and M. comosus: "The entire plant is toxic, especially the root. It contains toxic bufadienolides (cardiac glycosides)
that produce, in humans and animals, increased salivation, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, cyanosis of the mucous membranes, rapid weak pulse,
and extreme exhaustion. Dead animals show hemorrhage and edema of the lungs, pericardial hemorrhage, general cyanosis and congestion of
the liver and kidney. The plants are extremely toxic, requiring only a small amount to produce poisoning. They are utilized medicinally
in South Africa where human fatalities have resulted from their improper use. Domestic animals will not eat these offensively scented plants
unless there is no other food available. Both species have black nectar and are attractive to bees. The honey is quite black and is considered toxic."
In "Poisonous Plant of South Africa" (Briza Publications, 2005) authors Ben-Erick van Wyk, Fanie van Heerden and Bosch van Oudtshoorn write:
"Melianthus species are very poisonous and have caused death in people and animals. M. comosus, M. major and other species are popular in traditional medicine,
mainly to treat sores, wounds, burns and rheumatism (external use relieves pain and promotes healing). Weak infusions are sometimes taken but internal use is
dangerous. Honey produced from the characteristic black nectar may be toxic. Livestock rarely ingest the plant because of the unpleasant smell, but may be forced
to during drought and scarcity of grazing. The roots are said to be particularly toxic."