African boxthorn

Lycium ferocissimum

An upright spiny shrub usually growing 2-3 m tall and spreading about 3 m across. Large spines (2-15 cm long) are borne along the stems and smaller spines are borne at the ends of short side-branches. Its hairless leaves are somewhat fleshy and are usually borne in groups of 5-12 at the stem joints. Its tubular flowers (8-12 mm across) are borne singly or in pairs in the forks of the leaves. These flowers are white or pale lilac with darker purple markings, and their petal lobes are bent backwards. Its egg-shaped or rounded berries (5-12 mm long and 5-10 wide) turn orange-red or bright red in colour when mature.

Common names 
Also known as: African boxthorn, box-thorn, boxthorn, box thorn, Cape boxthorn,
Flowering time 
Native to southern Africa (i.e. South Africa).
State declaration 
Category 3 - Must not be distributed or disposed. This means it must not be released into the environment unless the distribution or disposal is authorised in a regulation or under a permit.
Council declaration 
As per State Declaration
Known distribution 

Widely naturalised throughout large parts of Australia. It is common and widespread in New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Common in inland southern Queensland and south-western Australia, and occasionally present in other parts of these states as well as in the southern parts of the Northern Territory. Also naturalised on Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island.


A weed of semi-arid and arid regions and drier sub-tropical and temperate environments. It infests pastures, grasslands, open woodlands, roadsides, railways, disturbed sites, waste areas, coastal environs and inland waterways.


An upright (i.e. erect) and spiny shrub usually growing 2-3 m tall and about 3 m across, but occasionally reaching up to 6 m in height.

Impact and control methods 

African boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum) is regarded as a significant environmental weed in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, and as an environmental weed in New South Wales, the ACT, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. It is actively managed by community groups in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia and is listed as a priority environmental weed in 17 Natural Resource Management regions. Further information from the Queensland Government

Stem and leaves 

The stems are light brown and hairless (i.e. glabrous) when young, much-branched, and turn grey or brown and fissured as they mature. Spines up to 15 cm long are borne on the older stems, with much smaller spines on newer growth (about 2 cm long). Each small side-branch also ends in a small spine (about 13 mm long). The leaves are hairless (i.e. glabrous), slightly fleshy in nature (i.e. semi-succulent), and have entire margins. They are borne on short stalks (i.e. petioles) 1-10 mm long and are either alternately arranged or borne in groups of 5-12 at the stem joints (i.e. nodes). These small leaves (6-40 mm long and 2-20 mm wide) are sometimes egg-shaped in outline (i.e. ovate) to oval (i.e. elliptic) in appearance, but are usually wider near the top and taper towards the base (i.e. obovate).

Flowers and fruits 

The fragrant tubular flowers (8-12 mm across and 10-13 mm long) are borne singly, or in pairs, on short stalks (i.e. pedicels) 5-16 mm long that originate in the leaf forks (i.e. axils). They are white or pale lilac with darker purple markings and have five, or sometimes four, petal lobes. These petals are strongly bent backwards (i.e. reflexed) and surround five prominent stamens. Flowering occurs throughout most of the year, but is most abundant during spring and summer. The fruit is an egg-shaped (i.e. ovoid) or rounded (i.e. globose) berry turning from green to orange-red or bright red in colour as it matures. These fruit (5-12 mm long and 5-10 mm wide) are smooth and shiny in appearance and partially enclosed in the persistent fused sepals (i.e. calyx). Each fruit contains numerous (20-70) small seeds (2.5 mm long and 1.5 mm wide) that are light brown or yellow in colour and have small raised projections on their surfaces.

Reproduction and dispersal 

This species reproduces mostly by seed, which are commonly dispersed when the fruit are eaten by birds and other animals (e.g. foxes). Seeds may also be spread by water, machinery and in dumped garden waste or contaminated soil. Suckers are sometimes produced from root fragments and shoots may rarely also be produced from stem fragments.

Similar species 

African boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum) is similar to the native Australian boxthorn (Lycium australe) and other introduced weedy relatives such as Chinese boxthorn (Lycium barbarum). These species can be distinguished by the following differences: African boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum) has small leaves (6-40 mm long and 2-20 mm wide) that are relatively broad and only slightly fleshy. Its relatively large berries (5-10 mm across) are rounded (i.e. globose) or slightly egg-shaped (i.e. ovoid) and contain numerous (30-70) seeds.Australian boxthorn (Lycium australe) has very small leaves (3-25 mm long and 1.5-3 mm wide) that are relatively narrow and quite thick and fleshy in nature. Its relatively small berries (2-5 mm across) are oval (i.e. ellipsoid) or egg-shaped (i.e. ovoid) and contain only 5-20 seeds.Chinese boxthorn (Lycium barbarum) has small leaves (8-55 mm long and 2-15 mm wide) that are relatively broad and only slightly fleshy. Its relatively small berries (3-4 mm across) are oval (i.e. ellipsoid) or narrowly oval in shape and contain only about 20 seeds.