Healing power of indigenous South African herbs. Image via @skimmelberg/Instagram

These indigenous South African herbs have healing power

‘South Africa is home to a wide variety of indigenous medicinal plants that have been used safely and effectively since time immemorial.’


Healing power of indigenous South African herbs. Image via @skimmelberg/Instagram

In recent years there has been a resurgence in traditionally used medicinal plants to improve health – either alone or in combination with conventional medicine.


One of the main reasons for seeking herbal therapy or other alternatives to conventional medicine, is the belief that it will promote healthier living. Herbal medicines are, therefore, often viewed as a balanced and moderate approach to healing. With the many side-effects of modern medicines and growing antibiotic resistance, people the world over see herbal medicine as a safe way to stay healthy and to treat and prevent illness.

Dr Caren Hauptfleisch, Chairperson of the SA Association of Registered Phytotherapists (SAARP), who has more than 30 years of herbal medicine experience, says the steady increase in the use of herbs can be seen throughout the world.

“The introduction of modern healthcare as we know it has led to the disappearance and displacement of many indigenous health practices, however scientists worldwide are now looking to plants and herbs to formulate new phytotherapeutic agents (plant-based treatments) to prevent and treat disease.

“South Africa, and in particular the Western Cape’s floristic region, is home to a wide variety of indigenous medicinal plants that have been used safely and effectively since time immemorial. Science and clinical use are confirming their medicinal value.”

These herbs include Rooibos, Honeybush, Buchu, Aloe ferox and Devil’s claw, among others. Marketers all over the globe are clamouring to include them in their products as the demand for herbal medicine and natural health products grow.

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RooibosRooibos (Aspalanthus linearis):

Rooibos is a herb of great significance. It is rich in antioxidants, also referred to as polyphenols, which are compounds that allow plants to resist infections and insect infestations. Drinking it regularly may help to:

–        Enhance immunity.

–        Reduce the incidence of cancer due to its cytoprotective effect.

–        Regulate blood glucose.

–        Protect the heart from degenerative damage.

–        Slow the ageing process, since it is able to reduce oxidative stress, and in turn reduce free radical damage.

–        Prevent certain skin cancers.

–        When used topically, its anti-inflammatory properties can soothe skin irritations, such as eczema and dermatitis.

“Rooibos is a good daily supplement to improve overall health in combination with a healthy lifestyle.”

Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens):

Dr Haupfleisch notes that herbal medicine should only be used if it is able to be sustainably grown. Human use and trade in a plant should never threaten its existence in the wild.

“Herbs like Devil’s Claw, that has been used in the treatment of pain associated with arthritic diseases, liver and kidney problems, fever and malaria was nearly made extinct by its export to the overseas market, which led to the commercial farming of the herb.” 

Devil’s claw is also used in an ointment to treat various skin problems such as sores and boils.


Herbs that are commonly used for the prevention and/or treatment of common winter ailments found in the Cape and various parts of Africa, include:

–        Wilde als/Umthlonyane (Artemisia afra) prevents and treats various respiratory infections.

–        Kankerbossie/Cancer bush (Lessertia frutescens) helps the body to ward off infections and ill health, when used regularly. It also eases symptoms related to colds and flu.

–        Wild Olive (Olea europaea subs Africana) prevents infections, including viral infections of the respiratory system.

–        Pelargonium sidoides and other pelargoniums, Tulbaghia violacea (wildeknoffel) treats the common cold and associated symptoms of wet cough and soothes inflamed respiratory tissues, including a sore throat.

–        Sage (Salvia species) targets viral respiratory infections and eases a sore throat.

–        Helichrysum species helps treat coughs.

–        Mint (Mentha longifolia) eases pulmonary infections, headaches, fever and colds, when used in combination with other herbs like Artemisia afra, Saliva species and Olea europeaea.

–        Sand Olive (Dodonaea viscosa var. angustifolia) traditionally used for treatment of colds and associated sore throat, influenza and measles.

The above herbs are generally used as herbal infusions or can be steamed. Some of them can also be purchased as herbal pills or tinctures.

Dr Hauptfleisch says when using herbal medicine, it’s important to use the right plant for the associated ailment and in the correct dosage. If in doubt, it’s best to ask a professional before trying it at home.

“When herbal medicine is used correctly and in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle, it is an effective and safe approach to healthcare. People and animals have relied on herbal medicine for centuries. Like our food, our bodies are designed to respond to herbal medicines. Many of our modern medicines were first isolated from plants. e.g. Aspirin from Salix alba (White willow bark); antimitotic chemotherapy drugs from the alkaloids of Catharanthus roseus; Quinine from the Cinchona officinalis tree and many others. 

“The adage: ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, sums up the approach in herbal medicine. We rely on whole plant extracts to work within the body safely and efficaciously to both prevent and treat illness. An example is the antimicrobial action of Artemisia afra. The herb interferes with the cellular replication of the pathogen (e.g. bacteria) by breaking down its cell walls and enhancing the body’s innate immune response to keep the pathogens in check and restore or maintain good health.”

She says herbal medicines contain a mixture of different phytochemicals that act in combination with body cells, tissues and chemicals to enhance health. It can either work quickly or at a steadier pace over time depending on what is being treated.

“Treatment should be started at the first sign of disease to achieve the best results or preventatively as part of your daily health regimen.”