Indigenous Medicinal Herbs for Winter Ailments
The use of herbs as medicinal plants goes back centuries, and that includes our own indigenous medicinal herbs. Starting with the Khoisan, herbs like wormwood (Artemisia afra), the cancer bush (Sutherlandia frutescens or Lessertia frutescens), wild rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus) and bulbinella (Bulbine frutescens) have a long history within all indigenous societies, used for treating winter-related ailments, healing wounds and building immunity.
Herb gardeners may be more familiar with herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley and garlic as winter healing herbs, but there is a fascinating world of medicinal plants on our doorstep waiting to be discovered.
According to Medicinal Plants of South Africa by Ben-Erik van Wyk, Bosch van Oudtshoorn and Nigel Gericke (Briza), there are some 3 000 species of plants that are used medicinally in South Africa, and of these 350 are commonly used and traded as medicinal plants.
The Briza book is an invaluable guide to this world, giving detailed information on each medicinal plant as well as a list of plants according to ailments. Another resource is SANBI’s PlantZAfrica website, which celebrates the plants of Southern Africa (www.pza.sanbi.org)
Not all of our indigenous medicinal plants are easily available, unless you like hiking though the veld and know your plants. That said, more are finding their way into garden centres, onto herb stands and into indigenous nurseries to satisfy adventurous herb growers.
Good to know when to use medicinal herbs
Medicinal herbs should not replace medical treatment. Pregnant women and people suffering from chronic or serious conditions should first consult their doctor.
- Use the correct herbs based on the botanical name of the herb and not its common name.
- Use the quantities specified and the dosage rate. Any herb taken in excess can be toxic, even thyme and rosemary.
- Herbs for medicinal use must be grown organically, without using insecticides or fungicides.
How to use medicinal herbs
Most herbalists caution that herbs are not a silver bullet. Herbs help to support and strengthen the body’s own systems and ability to heal itself, restore balance and ultimately health. Using fresh or dried leaves in a tea or tincture is usually the safest way to administer medicinal herbs.
5 indigenous herbs for winter ailments
Commonly known as wilde als or wormwood, Artemisia afra is one of our most widely used traditional medicines. It is used to treat a host of ailments, but mostly coughs, colds, headaches and influenza. Margaret Roberts recommended making an infusion (a tea) from the leaves and sweetening it with honey, because it is a bitter herb. She also spoke about how workers on her farm would drink wormwood tea as an influenza preventative throughout winter.
To grow: Artemisia afra is a bushy perennial shrub with silvery-green feathery foliage. It can grow up to 2m high and is a striking shrub. It produces creamy-yellow flowers in autumn and the leaves have a strong, sweet yet aromatic fragrance when rubbed. The plant is hardy, grows in any soil, needs full sun and occasional watering.
To use: The roots, stems and leaves can be used as poultices, infusions, body washes, lotions, smoked, snuffed or drunk as a tea.
Now known as Lessertia frutescens, this plant is commonly called the cancer bush or kankerbos, which comes from its reputation (anecdotal) as a cure for cancer, although according to PlantZAfrica there is some preliminary clinical evidence that it has a direct anti-cancer effect in some cancers and that it acts as an immune stimulant.
To grow: Like Artemisia afra, it is an attractive and graceful garden shrub, with aromatic grey-green leaves and orangered flowers that attract sunbirds from spring to midsummer. It grows best in full sun and tolerates all soil types. Once established it is drought tolerant and needs little care. Plants grow up to 1.5m high and wide but need to be replaced when the plant starts to look past its prime.
To use: The Khoisan and Nama people were the first to use it as a decoction to wash wounds, as an eye wash, and taken internally to bring down fevers and treat winter-related ailments including bronchitis, as well as rheumatism, asthma and backache. It is also regarded as a gentle tranquiliser and a bitter tonic that is a good general medicine.
Known by the common names of lemon bush or koorsbossie, Lippia javanica is another eye-catching garden shrub. It has strong lemon-scented leaves and dense creamy-white flowers from summer to autumn. This herb has long been used as a tea to bring down fevers, while the stems and leaves are burned and the smoke inhaled to help relieve chronic coughs and pleurisy
To grow: It is quite a fast grower and does best in sun. Lemon bush tolerates most soil types and is regarded as a pioneer plant that spreads easily in disturbed areas. Plants are hardy, can grow under difficult circumstances, and need very little attention.
To use: A weak infusion of the leaves is drunk as a tea substitute while a stronger infusion is used for coughs, colds and bronchial problems. It is used with Artemisia afra to help the body heal lung infections. Other uses include using an infusion of the leaves as a wash or lotion for rashes, scratches, stings, and bites.
Also know as wild rosemary, this indigenous plant is a tougher version of the well-known rosemary, with needle-shaped grey-green leaves that emit a strong smell of Vicks when crushed. Not surprisingly, it has been a traditional herb for treating coughs and colds. Like its European counterpart, it can be added to the bathwater to invigorate the skin and hair.
To grow: This plant is a bushy evergreen perennial shrub that is hardy, drought tolerant and grows 1m high and wide. Plants on the coast tolerate the salty air and the leaves are more succulent, unlike the thinner leaves of inland-growing plants. It flowers in winter, when small white flowers cover the plant, attracting bees. It grows best in full sun in well-drained soil and has a deep tap root that enables it to be drought tolerant.
To use: A wild rosemary infusion or tea is used to help treat winter ailments as well as colic and flatulence. It also acts as a diuretic. Use one sprig of rosemary to one cup of boiling water to make a soothing tea.
Commonly known as pennywort, varkoortjies or gotu kola, Centella asiatica grows mainly from the Cape Peninsula towards the damp eastern areas. It is also found in other parts of the world, including Asia, Australia and parts of North and South America. It is used as a revitalising tonic herb that has antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
To grow: This slender creeping groundcover likes moist soil and shady areas. It has yellow-green leaves, similar to the leaves of a violet. In the garden, pennywort grows in consistently moist soil or in a container that should not be allowed to dry out. The leaves can be harvested year-round.
To use: The fresh leaves can be made into a tea/infusion or as a poultice to stimulate wound healing. Its other key actions include being a sedative, mild diuretic and anti-rheumatic tonic.
Making herbal preparations
- Tea: Steep a sprig of herb in one cup of boiling water, cover and let steep for 5 – 15 minutes. Drain, cool and drink.
- Decoction: Used for roots, bark or twigs, which are placed in cold water that is brought to the boil and simmered for 20– 30 minutes. When the liquid has reduced to one third, strain, cool and cover. Refrigerate for up to 48 hours. Take 3 – 5 doses (500ml) a day.
- Tincture: This method steeps herbs in alcohol, for a stronger action than a herbal tea or infusion. Cover the herbs with alcohol (or apple cider vinegar), seal and store in a dark place, shaking once a day. After two weeks, strain and store in a sealed bottle. Take 1 teaspoon 2 – 3 times a day diluted in 25ml water or juice.