Traditional Medicine: 9 Best South African Medicinal Plants


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African communities are known for their diverse and extensive medicinal plant life. Africans used traditional medicine to treat ailments and diseases long before the advent of orthodox medicine. These principles have been passed down from generation to generation. 

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South Africa has an indigenous flora and a rich biodiversity contributing to their notable curing plants. Correspondingly, there has been a greater need to incorporate the knowledge and use of traditional medicines in pharmaceutical knowledge. For instance, the estimated economic value of natural plant drugs is R4 million or $60 million annually.

Here is a list of 9 best South African medicinal plants.

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Pelargonium sidoides (South African geranium) 

Pelargonium-sidoides-plant. Image source: Wikimedia. Licensed Under CC BY SA 4.0

This is a South African medicinal plant commonly used for respiratory ailments. The infections include sinusitis, colds, and bronchitis.

The plant’s root and aromatic leaves contain bioactive compounds with anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and immunomodulatory benefits. Because of its benefits, Pelargonium sidoides have been incorporated into medicines. It’s used to make syrups and liquid extracts taken orally. Also, this plant is used to make tea, capsules, and tablets.

The Zulu people used this plant to treat infections such as dysentery, gonorrhea, and diarrhea. 

Sceletium (Sceletium Tortuosum)

Flower of Sceletium Tortuosum. Image source: Wikimedia. By Tommi Nummelin.  Licensed Under CC-BY-S.A-3.0

Traditionally, South Africans who were hunters and herders chewed raw sceletium tortuosum to help relieve stress. They viewed it as a mood-elevating plant. This plant has been used for centuries as anti-anxiety, anti-depression, and anti-stress medication. 

Nowadays, with the ever-increasing stressful way of life, people are looking for natural remedies for their well-being. Sceletium tortuosum is a stress reliever, dietary supplement, and natural medicine. 

Sceletium has a compound known as mesembrine, an alkaloid. This compound benefits the central nervous system and helps inhibit serotonin uptake. 

Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum Procumbens)

This unique and extraordinarily perennial rootstock plant is found in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. Harvested carefully as a tuber, it’s cut into slices with a stainless knife to ensure no contamination before drying up. 

It’s used for both human and veterinary products in the pharmaceutical arena. It’s incorporated in tablets, anti-inflammation gels, and topical creams. 

The active compound of the Devil’s Claw plant is a compound known as Harpagoside. This compound is rich in properties such as laxative, purgative, diuretic, hypotensive, antibacterial, sedative, and bitter tonic. 

Traditionally, South Africans used Hypagophytum Procumbens to treat blood-related ailments, fever, lower back pain, diarrhea, bleeding gums, diabetes, coughs, syphilis, gout, lumbago, arthritis, topical inflammation, and rheumatism.

Since this is a robust plant drug, consuming large doses, especially in its raw forms, can be harmful.

Hoodia (Hoodia Gordonii)

This succulent cactus-like drug plant is one of the wonder plants of this century. 

It’s effective in weight loss for its appetite-suppressant properties. It’s ideal for dealing with diabetes, obesity, and weight gain. It also helps to eliminate hypertension, reduce gastric gas problems, and prevent stomach disorders. 

It’s produced as Juices, Pills, diet supplements, or fancy lollipops. 

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Wild Dagga (Leonotis Leonurus)

This hardy evergreen perennial shrub is known as a lion’s tail or klip dagga. It’s used to treat different ailments. It’s also helpful in winter and autumn as a food and nectar plant for butterflies, bees, and sunbirds. 

Traditionally, the plant was used for the following purposes:

  • Reduce fever and inflammation
  • Assist in digestion
  • Alleviate respiratory challenges as it has expectorant properties
  • promote relaxation and reduce anxiety
  • analgesic and pain relief properties
  • address skin conditions, such as wounds and insect bites
  • contains psychoactive compounds which may produce mild euphoric and calming effects
  • used in traditional Rituals and ceremonies to induce altered states of consciousness and spiritual experiences

African Wormwood (Artemisia Afra)

This plant, also known as Wilde Als or Umhlonyane, is highly aromatic and one of the oldest South African medicinal plants. 

The leaves of the African Wormwood are heated or smoked to release vapor. It’s then inhaled to clear the respiratory tract relieving coughs, sore throat, asthma, and influenza. Similarly, one can insert the leaves in their nostrils. They clear a blocked nasal passage and help to stop nose bleeding.

Furthermore, people with sweaty legs can insert these leaves into their socks. They are a natural moth repellant and insecticide. 

The roots and stems are prepared as poultices, infusions, lotions, enemas, and body lotions. Besides, the plant is commonly used to address most female reproductive health concerns during childbirth during and after labor.  

Recent research is ongoing on how the plant can be used in cancer, cardiovascular, diabetes, and respiratory challenges. Similarly, such research has been ongoing for veterinary improvements. 

Rooibos (Aspalathus Linearis)

Dried Rooibos. Image source: Wikimedia. Licensed Under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) is a herbal plant from the Western Cape region of South Africa. It’s renowned for its use in producing a flavorful and caffeine-free red herbal tea, a preference of many health-conscious people. 

Women used the plant to relieve nausea and heartburn during pregnancy. Besides, it’s rich in iron. When given to babies, it helps alleviate colic. 

Rooibos is also used to make cosmetic products. It contains bioactive compounds that relieve itchiness and allergy. 

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Aloe Ferox

There are over 500 species of aloe plants. The most common ones are aloe vera and aloe forex. Ferox is usually bitter and taller among the aloe species. The succulent plant is among the oldest South African Medicinal Plants.

Aloe forex is rich in amino acids, minerals, and essential vitamins.  It helps to maintain and improve skin texture and appearance. It also maintains the oiliness and dryness of skin balance. In addition, it assists the skin in staying hydrated and reduces skin sensitivity. Besides the skin benefits, it’s used in beverages, usually tea, and it helps to detoxify.

African Potato (Hypoxis Hemerocallidea)

This perennial African star grass has been consumed as medicine for centuries in southern Africa. It’s one of the most traded medicinal plants at the muti markets in the Eastern Cape. 

The plant solves several challenges, such as:

  • Treatment of urinary tract issues such as prostate problems, including prostatic hypertrophy and prostate cancer, bladder infections, lung diseases, and other types of cancer
  • It builds up the immune systems of people suffering from cancer and HIV
  • Treat tumors of the testicles
  • Used as a laxative 

Al the above plants are part of more than 3,000 species with prolonged historical usage. However, their efficacy and safety varies from person to person. 

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