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Plants that heal

By Tom Kinniburgh


Since time immemorial, plants have been used by the indigenous people of every continent and island, not only as a food source, but for medicine.

Through the knowledge of shamans, sangomas and “medicine men”, botany and medicine came down the ages hand in hand until the seventeenth century; then in most parts of the civilized world both arts became scientific in their ways parted. Many of the botanical books compiled since then have largely ignored the medicinal properties of plants and most of the medical books in circulation contained no plant lore at all. Fortunately, there is now a global awaking happening, resulting in more people realizing that plants offer a more sensible approach to curing and treating almost any illness or ailment. Nearly half the medicines we use are herbal in origin, and a quarter of those contain plant extracts or active chemicals taken directly from plants.

Many more have yet to be discovered, recorded and researched; only a few thousand have been studied. Across the globe, the is on to find species that could form the basis of new medicines and more people are looking for alternative ways of dealing with health issues.

Healing Flowers

In the 1930s, the English physician Edward Bach developed a holistic system of healing based on plants. He believed that certain flowers give off “vibrations” that directly influence the human spirit. Through trial and error, he established 38 remedies to be used to correct various states of emotional stress, which he believed to be the root of all illnesses. Since then, many other ranges of flower essences have been developed using flowers from many countries. Among the most popular are the South African Flower and Gem Essences, and the Bach Flower Remedies, which are used around the world. The remedies are taken in form of drops that contain a floral elixir. Bach Flower Remedies have no adverse side effects and many people find that they help them to regain inner harmony and balance.


Aloes have been used for cosmetic, cultural and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The healing properties of Aloe Vera, which originates from the Arabian Peninsula, were known to many early civilizations throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Today, the centre of Aloe vera cultivation is Central America and the Southern USA, but South Africa’s Aloe ferox is making inroads into the traditional pharmaceutical and cosmetics markets that until now have been dominated by Aloe vera. The commercial extraction of components of the sap and leaf pulp of Aloe ferox for use in a variety of products is confined largely to the Albertinia-Mossel Bay area of the Southern Cape. Aloe vera and Aloe ferox are the two best known aloe species with medicinal and cosmetic applications, but Aloe davyana and Aloe alborescens display similar properties and are often used by those seeking alternatives to conventional medicines. In some rural areas, the leaves of the bergaalwyn (Aloe marlothii) are boiled up in sugar water to treat worm infestation.

In rural communities where access to medical facilities is limited and financial constraints mean making the most of what nature has provided, Aloe ferox is most often used, but other members of the aloe family may be utilized in areas where Aloe ferox does not occur naturally. Fresh leaves are boiled to make dried crystals which is taken as a laxative and a treatment for arthritis. The fresh bitteer sap is used to treat conjunctivitis and sinusitis. Leaf gel is applied as a remedy for sunburn, cuts, bruises, mosquito bites and stings. The pulp is also used in the manufacture of body lotions, soaps, shampoos and health drinks.

The compounds comprising the “bitter” ingredients in aloe sap display antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties and claims have been made that they display antiviral properties. South Africa has one of the largest selections of aloes in the world and almost all of then can be used medicinally.

Aloe ferox

South Africa has one of the largest selections of Aloes in the world and almost all of them can be used medicinally.

Cape Medicinal Succulents

Hoodia gordonni, or ghaap, is a hightly sought-agter succulent, regarded as one of the plant wonders of the 21st century. It grows in southern Namibia and the Northern Cape. The active ingredients in Hoodia gordonii is thought to affect the part of the hypothalamus that regulates blood sugar. It effectively tricks the brain into thinking there is enough blood glucose and shuts down the hunger mechanism. It is used as a appetite suppressant and is also eaten for abdominal pain resulting from stomach ulcers. All over the world, commercial exploiters and herbalists are acquiring Hoodia gordonni for the use in their weight-loss products.

Sceletium tortuosum, or kougoed, is a succulent groundcover indigenous to the Western and Eastern Cape. Traditionally dried plant material is chewed or smoked or used as a snuff. It is known for its central nervous system effects and appears to be a potent serotonin uptake inhibitor which explains its use in anxiety and depression. It has been used as a mood enhancer, sedative and an analgesic for toothache. It also has appetite and thirst suppressant effects. The plant is easier to grow from cuttings than from seeds. The active growing period is during autumn, winter and spring. Do not water in the summer. Do not use Sceletium in conjunction with other medicines acting on the centreal nervous system, i.e antidepressants or selective re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Hoodia gordonni

Sceletium tortuosum


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