Southern Africa’s amazing indigenous medicinal plants have been used by inhabitants for centuries

Buchu – Agathosma crenulata

buchu, long-leaf buchu (English); boegoe, langblaar boegoe, regteboegoe, anysboegoe (Afrikaans); buchu (Khoi); ibuchu (isiXhosa)

Buchu has been used in South Africa for centuries by the San and Khoi people for a variety of ailments. Buchu leaves steeped in vinegar (boegoeasyn) or brandy (boegoebrandewyn) were an essential part of the medicine chest of the early Cape colonist. It was used to treat stomach complaints, worms, indigestion, kidney and bladder ailments. It is an excellent anti-inflammatory. Buchu vinegar was also used to wash and clean wounds.

Buchu tea is used for urinary tract infections and mild digestive issues. It is also said to be an effective treatment for gout and rheumatism when taken daily. Make the tea by pouring a cup of boiling water over one or two teaspoons of dried or fresh leaves. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes then strain and drink.

Devil’s claw – Harpagophytum procumbens

devil’s claw, harpago, grapple plant, woodspider (English); duivelsklou, bobbejaandubbeltjie, kloudoring, veldspinnakop (Afrikaans); teufelskralle, trampelklette (German); sengaparile, kanako, lekgagamare, ghamaghoe (Setswana); //x’aatataba, tloutaxaba (San), otjihangatene (Herero)

Devil’s claw is found in most of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. In the latter it grows in the provinces of North-West, the western Free State and Northern Cape.

Devil’s claw has long been regarded as a cure-all medicinal plant, with the San of the Kalahari using it for centuries. In western medicine it is mainly used for arthritis and rheumatism. The main compounds are iridoid glycosides, including harpagoside, harpagide, and procumbide. Some of its listed properties are analgesic, anti-arrhythmic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic, diuretic, hypotensive, laxative, purgative and sedative.

Bitter aloe – Aloe ferox

bitter aloe, red aloe (English); bitteraalwyn, bergaalwyn (Afrikaans); iNhlaba (isiZulu); iKhala (isiXhosa)

This is one of the best known South African plants with a long history of medicinal use. The leaf gel of the bitter aloe has wound healing properties very similar to that of Aloe Vera. It is used in the same way in herbal remedies, food supplements and cosmetic products. It has a cooling and healing influence on the skin when applied externally.

Aloe gel is most powerful when squeezed directly from the leaf, as it quickly loses its potency through oxidation in storage. The gel may also be taken internally and has a soothing effect on the intestines.

Aloe ferox is famous as a purgative medication. The bitter yellow juice found just below the skin is extracted by boiling or tapping, and has been harvested as a renewable resource for at least two hundred years. The hard, black, resinous product known as Cape aloes or aloe bitters is used mainly for its laxative properties but it is also taken for arthritis. The famous Schwedenbitters or Swedish bitters contains bitter aloe and is a traditional herbal tonic found in many pharmacies.

African wormwood – Artemisia afra

African wormwood, wild wormwood (English); wilde-als (Afrikaans); umhlonyane (isiXhosa); mhlonyane (isiZulu); lengana (Tswana); zengana (Southern Sotho)

African wormwood is one of the most popular, best known medicinal plants in South Africa. It is still used effectively today by people of all cultures. The list of uses covers a wide range of ailments from coughs, colds, fever, loss of appetite, colic, headache, earache and intestinal worms to malaria.

It is used in many different ways and one of the most common practices is to insert fresh leaves into the nostrils to clear blocked nasal passages. The roots, stems and leaves are used in many different ways including as enemas, poultices, infusions, body washes and lotions. It is smoked, snuffed or drunk as a tea. Artemisia afra has a very bitter taste and is usually sweetened with sugar or honey when drunk. Wilde-als brandy is a very popular medicine.

Wild ginger – Siphonochilus aethiopicus

Wild ginger, Natal ginger (English); Wildegemmer (Afrikaans); indungulo, isiphephetho (isiZulu)

Wild ginger is highly prized for its medicinal properties. The highly aromatic roots have a variety of medicinal and traditional uses. It is a popular Zulu herbal medicine used as a protection against lightning and snakes. The rhizomes and roots are chewed fresh to treat asthma, hysteria, colds, coughs and flu. A preparation of this plant is administered to horses as prevention against horse sickness. The Swati use wild ginger to treat malaria and it is chewed by women during menstruation.

In general it was found to aid digestion, relieve sinusitis and asthma as well as to reduce fevers by inducing sweating. It is an excellent anti-inflammatory and has also been used for its antibacterial, anti-fungal and pain-relieving properties.

Wild ginger grows in Mpumalanga and the Northern Province but over-harvesting the root has caused the plant to be wiped out in KwaZulu-Natal.

Sutherlandia – Lessertia frutescens

sutherlandia, cancer bush, balloon pea (English); umnwele (isiXhosa & isiZulu); kankerbos, blaasbossie, blaas-ertjie, eendjies, gansiekeurtjie, klappers, hoenderbelletjie (Afrikaans)

Lessertia frutescens, previously known as Sutherlandia frutescens, has long been known, used and respected as a medicinal plant in southern Africa.

The original inhabitants of the Cape, the Khoi San and Nama people, used it mainly as a decoction for the washing of wounds and took it internally to bring down fevers. The early colonists used it as a treatment for chicken pox, stomach and digestive problems as well as an eye wash. It is also used to treat colds, flu, asthma, bronchitis, rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, liver problems, haemorrhoids, piles, bladder, diarrhoea, heartburn, backache, diabetes, varicose veins and inflammation. As a gentle tranquillizer, it is used for stress, anxiety and depression.

There is as yet no scientific support for the numerous claims and anecdotes that this plant can cure cancer.

Sutherlandia’s real benefit is as a tonic that will assist the body to mobilize its own resources to cope with illness. It is also known to improve energy levels and induce a sense of well-being.

Bushman’s tea – Athrixia phylicoides

Bushman’s tea (English); Boesmanstee (Afrikaans); Icholocholo, itshelo, umthsanelo (isiZulu)

Traditional uses include it being brewed as a tea, chewed or gargled for relief of sore throats by the Sotho and Xhosa peoples, while the Venda drank extracts of the roots and leaves to expel parasites. It was also used for purifying the blood and treating headaches. In some parts of southern Africa it is believed to be an aphrodisiac. The stems, stripped of the leaves, are made into sturdy brooms.

Hoodia gordonii

bitter ghaap (English); bitterghaap, muishondghaap, wolweghaap, bobbejaanghaap, bergghaap, bokhorings (Afrikaans); khobab (Khoi)

Hoodia gordonii has been called one of the wonder plants of the 21st century. It occurs in the north-eastern part of the Western Cape, the north and north-western regions of the Northern Cape and southern Namibia. It is used to extreme heat (above 40°C), but it can survive in relatively low temperatures (-3°C). Unusually, the plants are mainly pollinated by flies.

Several species of Hoodia are eaten raw after the spines have been removed. Hoodia is known as an appetite suppressant. The plant’s appetite suppressant properties have been developed and Hoodia derivative products are marketed in many countries.

Imphepho – Helichrysum petiolare

silver bush everlasting, herbal helichrysum, bedding helichrysum (English.), kooigoed, kruie (Afrikaans), imphepho (isiXhosa)

This plant occurs in the drier inland parts of the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The smoke is used as a sacred incense or smudge to call the ancestors and to invoke trance states. It is used to cleanse energy and spaces and as an offering when praying. The smoke is sedative. Imphepho is traditionally burned on a potsherd when offered to the ancestors. New born babies are washed in imphepho to cleanse and protect them.

The plant is stuffed in bedding for both humans and animals to repel insects. Wounds are washed with infusions of Imphepho to clean and sterilize them and a dressing of leaves are placed on the wounds. The smoke is inhaled for headaches. Tea is made from the leaves for fever, coughs, colds and flu and also to cleanse the liver and kidneys. In woman’s health it is used for menstrual pains. The parts of the plant used are mainly the leaves, stems and flowers and sometimes the roots.

Sour fig – Carpobrotus edulis 

sour fig, Cape fig, Hottentots fig (English); ghaukum, ghoenavy, Hottentotsvy, Kaapsevy, perdevy, rankvy, suurvy, vyerank (Afrikaans); ikhambi-lamabulawo, umgongozi (isiZulu)

This succulent is generally grown as a ground cover. It is a useful first-aid plant with edible fruits. The leaf juice is astringent and mildly antiseptic. Mix it with water and drink it to treat diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Chewing a leaf tip and swallowing the juice relieves a sore throat. It is also used as a gargle to relieve a sore throat and mouth infections. The leaf juice is used as a soothing lotion for burns, bruises, scrapes, cuts, grazes and sunburn. It also relieves the itch from mosquito bites. A syrup made from the fruit is said to have laxative properties.

Source: Capricorn Review