Before there were pills, medicine and injections, people relied on the age-old tradition of curing ailments with medicinal plants. And even though we have moved on and medical breakthroughs made life easier, people still rely on the tried and trusted plants our forefathers used.
With the renewed interest in alternative natural health remedies, plants with medicinal properties are as popular as ever.
During the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen people use everyday plants like garlic and ginger in an effort to combat the symptoms of the virus or boost their immunity. Ginger, for instance helps with nausea and to lower blood sugar, while garlic can lower cholesterol and is used for colds and flu.
Like these products you can buy anywhere or grow yourself, we also have a variety of indigenous plants that grow in the veld. Mzansi has a lot to offer and you can now grow some of them in your own garden.
“The medicine culture is very alive and there are big traditional medicine markets where huge quantities are sold. In the Cape the knowledge of medicine has been dwindling, but in the Nguni and Sotho cultures traditional medicine is very active,” says Prof Ben-Erik van Wyk, research professor of indigenous plant use at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and co-author of the book Medicinal Plants of South Africa.
Van Wyk lists artemisia (wildeals) as Mzansi’s number one medicinal plant. “It can grow anywhere and can stand the cold. It is one of the most popular plants to grow in your garden and it has a nice smell because it is full of essential oils,” he says.
Backyard gardener loves her herbs
Someone who grows, sells and uses artemisia, is Sharon Mothibe (51). ”Artemisia is very good and is used for a lot of illnesses like colds and flu. I like to drink artemisia as a tea, but you have to be careful because its strong and too much of it can cause damage to your kidneys,” Sharon explains.
She always loved gardening but when she started to experiment with herbs in her backyard, the seed was planted. This mother of two from Pretoria soon realised she could turn it into a business, and Shaz Garden was born.
Sharon specialises in organic medicinal and culinary herbs and what started as a side-hustle, is now her passion. ”I’ve been planting for years but it was for fun and for my family and friends. My friends enjoyed my herbs so much, so I started selling them this year,” she says.
Her medicinal herbs also include sage, lavender and moringa. When she is not busy with her day job as a business computer specialist, Sharon sells her products at the Hillside Family Market and Brooklyn Banting market.
Sharon’s top tips to grow your own herbs:
- Prepare your soil properly: “I use chicken and pig poop in my soil,” Sharon says.
- Seed is cheaper than seedlings.
- Do your research. If you don’t know something, google it!
- Don’t expect a miracle or overnight success. Sometimes it takes time and error.
- Have love and patience for gardening. And if something doesn’t work, try again!
Prof Van Wyk’s top five medicinal plants in Mzansi:
African wormwood or Artemisia afra is also known as wildeals (Afrikaans), umhlonyane (Zulu) and lengana (Sotho). It can be found across the country.
Used for: Common colds, flu, stomach aches
Cancer bush (Sutherlandia)
Kankerbos (Afrikaans), umnwele, unwele (isiXhosa and isiZulu), musa-pelo (Sotho) is very bitter and used as a tonic. The plant is popular in the Western Cape but is used nationwide. Planting can be done in spring and autumn.
Used for: It stimulates digestion, lowers blood sugar (diabetes), colds, flu, stress
Bitter aloe (Aloe ferox)
There are many different types, but the commercial one is Aloe ferox (Kaapse bitter-aalwyn in Afrikaans). The juice is extracted and boiled and the plant can be used both internally and externally.
Used for: A laxative for constipation, for burn wounds.
Boegoe (Afrikaans) is an aromatic plant. Aside from its medicinal properties, it was used by the Khoi and San as cosmetic skin treatment.
Used for: Urinary tract infections, to heal wounds, stimulate the appetite
Duiwelsklou (Afrikaans) is mainly found in the Kalahari. The root of the plant is used.
Used for: Lower back pain, rheumatism or arthritis, muscle pains
Other medicinal plants that are also popular:
Used for ointment to treat symptoms associated with arthritis, psoriasis and fibromyalgia. It is also beneficial against skin conditions such as eczema, acne, scars, burns, rashes, bed sores, warts, stretch marks, sunburn, insect bites and dry skin.
Honey bush tea has medicinal properties as an antioxidant.