African Ethnobotany

African people have used indigenous medicinal plants for millennia to survive and have good health. This plant medicine has been around for much longer than western medicine, and complex interactions and effects from using different plants used in traditional medicine formulas have been known for thousands of years.

Various means are used to traditionally administer plant medicines: typically drinking infusions or decoctions, steaming, vomiting (emesis therapy), enemas and smoking. All these preparations have their place and for specific conditions. 

While steaming medicines are good for nervous complaints, and relax a person quickly, being absorbed through the mucousal membranes of the nose, other treatments such as drinking medicines such as imbizas (cleansing mixtures) are taken for longer periods (up to a week sometimes) to work internally to rebalance the digestive system.  

South African traditional plant incense

Hard medicines such as barks are usually first ground into smaller pieces by stamping and then are usually boiled into a liquid preparation, or if ground finely, taken orally as a powder. Ground medicines are often mixed with other medicines that have similar actions or effects, thereby strengthening the combined action. This is termed phytochemical synergy or complementary effects. I am currently studying synergy dynamics involved with South African traditional medicine. 

This synergy aspect of holistic medicine has been neglected in favor of ethnopharmacological studies focusing on identifying single active chemicals for western-allopathic medicine, or what I call isolate medicine production, e.g., for high blood pressure, or antibiotics. Yet, whole form plant medicines are known to act more holistically to encourage healing, unlike allopathic western medicines, that usually treat only symptoms. Therefore, traditional medicine has much to offer in the future production of synergy medicine.

Jean grinding South African plant medicines

Jean Francois Sobiecki taking photos for plant identification

African traditions have by and large not written their plant knowledge down and have relied on oral transmission from generation to generation, yet with acculturation: or the change of one culture by another, (in most cases western consumer culture changing indigenous tribal cultures), this oral knowledge does not get passed on to the younger people who are seduced by the materialism of western cultures and have no interest in upholding traditions. Thus, the traditional knowledge is lost with the dying of the old people.

Despite this loss of indigenous knowledge there still exist some individuals (often healers) with a long history of traditional plant use knowledge that have been passed down to them from their healer grandparents and continue to pass it on to their apprentices.

This knowledge needs to be preserved and understood by western culture for future application.

African traditional medicine from my experience is pragmatic and sensible: whatever problem is presented, the traditional healer finds the most effective and simplest solution to solve the problem. Talk therapy, the use of medicines and ritual are cleverly combined to reinforce the power of healing and get results. 

African medicine is often stigmatized by sensationalist stories of witchcraft. This does occur but not by authentic traditional healers who want to heal others but by those who want to do harm to others and this occurs in all cultures just in different ways. What is more common though yet less know and publicized are the healing dynamics involved with the regular use of complex plant formulas by thousands of South Africans each day, in order to harmonize the functioning of the body and mind. This is what needs to be studied more and appreciated. See African traditional medicine section for more examples.

Ethnobotanical research in South Africa.

The study of medicinal plants in South Africa has had a long history, with remarkable scholars such as Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk having compiled classics such as: The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa in 1962. Yet, ethnobotanical studies have been sporadic and never truly mainstream, many people do not even know what ethnobotany means.

A resurgence in ethnobotany interest has been catalyzed in South Africa by a few scientists like, Professor B.E-Van Wyk whose books on South African food and medicinal plants have promoted the commercialization of valuable species. This has created a much needed impetus for developing South African products for South African markets, though conservation and sustainable policies for the South African medicinal plant trade needs urgent address as part of this demand driven industry. There was also the inception of the pivotal Indigenous Plant Use Forum (IPUF) in 1993 through Anthony Cunningham, that stimulated networking among researchers, and a great thrust in ethnopharmacological studies driven by Professor J Van Staden (The Research Centre for Plant Growth and Development UKZN).

Other than the researchers mentioned above, active teams involved in ethnobotanically related work in South Africa include (though not exhaustive of individual researchers) include: include: University of Pretoria’s Phytomedicine program (Prof J.N Eloff), SANBI (novel drug development program (Dr N. Crouch), Fort Hares’ ethnobotany division (Prof A.J Afolayan) and Wits Universities (Prof Witkowski, Prof K. Balkwill and Dr V. Williams).  

Despite the great progress in ethnopharmacological research an analysis of Liengme’s (1983) survey of ethnobotanical research in South Africa shows that the majority of studies of indigenous plant use have focused on medicinal plants (16%) and food plants (20%), with only a few (7%) relating to the category “Magic, Ritual and Customs” (Dold et al., 1999). Thus, there is little research focus, yet immense knowledge, on spiritually used plants in South African traditional medicine, many of which have scientifically verifiable psychoactive effects (Sobiecki, 2002, 2008, 2012). These plants are used by the indigenous people of southern Africa to relax the nervous system, open dreaming so as to bring luck and treat mental disturbances (Hirst, 2000, 2005; Sobiecki, 2012). 

Therefore, there is an urgent need to integrate the cultural and scientific areas of ethnobotanical research in South Africa. 

 hypoxis hemerocallidea African potato


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