South Africa has a magnificent diversity of plants and animals. As many South Africans have, until recently, lived close to the land, we have developed a rich store of knowledge on how to use these natural resources for the preparation of medicines, health foods and drinks, and grooming products.
South Africa has a magnificent diversity of plants and animals. As many South Africans have, until recently, lived close to the land, we have developed a rich store of knowledge on how to use these natural resources for the preparation of medicines, health foods and drinks, and grooming products. The Cape Floral Kingdom in the Western Cape is the smallest but most diverse of the five floral kingdoms in the world, with over 9 000 species of endemic indigenous plants. These plants have been used by the Khoi San for centuries, and entered the British pharmacopeia over 190 years ago. Indigenous knowledge is a precious technological heritage that can make an important contribution to global knowledge. However, if it is lost, it is not only a tragedy for the people who once owned it, but also for all humankind. It is important to capture this knowledge, and create products from it that people can use. Many indigenous South African plants, such as buchu, bitter ghaap, rooibos, honeybush, marula and aloes, which have been used for centuries by rural people, are now being harvested commercially to create products for world markets. Even the giant marine alga, kelp, is harvested commercially to produce plant growth regulators, soil fertilisers and conditioners, food gels, stock and shellfish feed, as well as pastes, spices, sauces and marinades. Buchu, also known as boegoe, bokoo or diosma, is a group of indigenous fynbos shrubs with small green leaves and tiny white and purple flowers that grows in mountainous regions of the Western Cape. The leaves have visible oil glands that release a strong aroma reminiscent of blackcurrant. Interestingly, there are differences in people's perceptions of the smell, possibly determined genetically rather than by familiarity. Some people find the smell to be repulsive, whilst others find it pleasantly herbal. One of the genera of buchu, Agathosma (which means ‘good fragrance’), contains over 135 species, of which two, A. betunlina and A. crenulata, have commercial value. The active ingredient in buchu is the volatile oil found in the leaves. Modern research has revealed that these oils have antiseptic, aromatic, diuretic and stimulant properties. The applications of buchu include infusions, teas, tinctures and capsules. The San and Khoi-Khoi people of South Africa have chewed the leaves of buchu for hundreds of years to relieve stomach complaints, rheumatism and gout. Buchu was also combined with wild garlic to treat colds and flu, and was rubbed into wounds to reduce infection and repel insects. The leaves were also mixed with oil and used as flavourings and perfumes. These practices were taken over by the Dutch colonists, whose ‘boegoe’ became a famous Cape medicine, condiment and perfume. Buchu was sent to England by Cape colonists as early as 1790, and was introduced into Western medicine by a London drug company, Reece Co., in 1821. Until recently, most buchu has been harvested from wild plants, but increasing profits have prompted many farmers to start cultivating the shrub in irrigated fields in the Cederberg and other regions of the Western and Northern Cape. A tea infusion is made with the leaves, and a tincture is traditionally made by placing leaves and stalks into brandy. ‘Buchu vinegar’, prepared by steeping the leaves and stalks in vinegar, is a traditional remedy that is used externally for treating bruises and strains. Tea and herbal extracts from buchu are used to stimulate kidney function, act as an appetite stimulant and laxative, reduce blood pressure, and treat colds, flu, nausea, urinary tract infections, rheumatism and gout. Buchu has strong diuretic properties arising from the active ingredient, diosphenol, or ‘buchu camphor’. When used as a diuretic, it can deplete the body’s stores of potassium, which should be restored by eating foods rich in potassium, such as bananas, dark green vegetables, whole grains or fish.