7 Medicinal Plants of Southern Africa



Since antiquity, medicine has been of the utmost importance to all human cultures. It was primarily the role of the medicine men or woman, shamans or priest to further their knowledge of herbalism and medicine. This science only advanced as civilization and technology improved, eventually granting the ability to identify the exact compounds required for the desired healing outcome. Even so, traditional medicine and herbalism are commonplace and remains an integral part of many societies globally. Although some traditional medicines are questionable or ineffective, many are in fact useful in alleviating many common ailments.

Since plants are chemically complex with a multitude of possible effects on different individuals, the information provided here is not to give medical insight, but rather for interest sake. Therefore, what you do with this information is of your own volition and I do not accept responsibility for your actions.

The large diversity of plant species, coupled with many different ethnic and cultural groups in Southern Africa allow for a rich use of traditional medicines. This video will only take a look at seven of the many plants used for healing purposes. The specific chemical compounds responsible for each effect will not necessarily be named. Some of the information herewith is gathered from the work of Ben-Erick van Wyk, Bosch van Oudtshoorn and Nigel Gericke from their book 'Medicinal Plants of South Africa.' among other sources. Following are some medicinal plants of interest.

-Bullbine frutescens - This is a common garden plant frequently used for its topical healing effect. The fleshy leaves of this shrub are commonly used for skin ailments, such as burns, scratches, rashes, herpes and other irritants. The leaf sap is either used in raw form or as a poultice. Other sources document its use as a treatment for madness. Specific glycoproteins are responsible for the topical healing effect. Other compounds identified in the plant show antibacterial and antispasmodial properties as well.

Cotyledon orbiculata - The fleshy nature of this plant bears many medicinal uses. A raw leaf is simply eaten as a vermifuge to rid oneself of parasites. The juice, in raw or poultice form, is applied topically for a variety of skin ailments and for inflammation. The sap is also used as an analgesic, to remove ear and toothache. No compounds have been identified that could be responsible for the analgesic effect, however, poisonous compounds have been identified which could cause Cardiac Glycoside Poisoning and is therefore not a go-to medicinal plant for the inexperienced.

Elytropappus rhinocerotis - This common feature of the cape is often found in tinctures where folk medicine is abound. It is a plant valued by the indigenous San and Khoi peoples of the region. Concerning ailments of the stomach and digestion, tinctures or infusions are drunk to treat dyspepsia, ulcers, cancers, and loss of appetite. By European settlers, it was simply mixed with wine or brandy for treatment of the flu or to induce sweating as a diaphoretic. Chemical analysis shows its viability as an anti-inflammatory, but chemically not much is known about the supposed other effects.

Harpagophytum procumbens - This widely used medicinal plant is commonly named the Devil's Claw. It is used for an array of reasons and many products commercially sold boast about its lack of side effects. Besides being drunk as a general health tonic, its use globally is focused on increasing appetite, alleviating digestive issues, combating degenerative disorders of locomotor skills and as an analgesic for general pain relief. The dried and powdered root is traditionally drunk as an infusion, however, modern and more precise methods of ingestion are not uncommon as many pharmacies globally stock a variation of it. The compounds in Devil's Claw have been identified as mildly analgesic and anti-inflammatory.

Helichrysum ordoratissimum - This plant is a medicinal favorite and sacred incense to many Southern African cultures. It has an array of uses and methods of application. A poultice of the leaf material is used in wound dressing and for anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-infective purposes. A myriad of other uses includes the treatment of coughs, colds, fever, pain, tension, cramps, convulsions, insomnia and even for insanity. An infusion is either drunk, or the smoke inhaled as the method of treatment. Chemical analysis of this plant illustrates its effectiveness as a sedative and for the treatment of convulsions. While scientific inquiry also illustrates its effectiveness as an anti-bacterial, anti-infection, and anti-inflammatory.

Myrothamnus flabellifolius - Known as a resurrection plant due to its ability for going from seemingly dead to green after only minutes of sufficient water, this remarkable plant has many uses. Respiratory ailments are treated by drinking infusions or decoctions, or by simply smoking the plant material. This is said to alleviate ailments such as coughs, colds, and asthma. Decoctions are also drunk for kidney problems and menstruation pains. The dried powder of the plant is used to treat burns and abrasions. The essential oils have been shown to be bacteriocidal, while the healthy doses of the compound Trehalose act as an effective antioxidant.

Typha Capensis - This prolific river reed has primarily been associated with fertility and childbirth in medicine and culture. It is mostly the rhizomes that are boiled and drunk as a tea. This is said to promote female fertility, male virility, to ease childbirth, to strengthen uterine contractions and to treat venereal diseases. Other uses include the alleviation of dysentery, diarrhea, and dysmenorrhea. Not much has been studied concerning the compounds responsible for the proclaimed medicinal effects, however, specific steroid-like compounds in the plant are metabolized to androgen and estrogen in the mammal body, which may hold the answers related to its use in fertility medicine.

Again, this information is only for interest and all plant material must be consumed with care, for a medicine is a poison to a certain degree. Though I personally use base plant material as medicine from time to time, what you do with the information is of your own volition and all responsibility lies with you.

Latest Green Monkey Safari video. It covers seven plants used in traditional medicine in South Africa.

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