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Figure 1: An inyanga in her ndumba, a sacred hut used for healing. On the shelves are her mutis (medicine). (Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Traditional medicine practice is deep-rooted in African cultures. Approximately 80% of southern Africa’s population relies on medicinal plants for its primary health care needs because modern medicine is either unobtainable or prohibitively expensive. Ethnomedicine is the scientific study of traditional medicine based on the bioactive compounds in plants used for healing purposes. In this article, we look at some of the ingredients obtained from indigenous trees that are used in traditional medicine in Africa that science has shown to be effective for treating certain medical conditions. The following information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment offered by healthcare professionals.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines African traditional medicine as follows:
“The sum total of all knowledge and practices, whether explicable or not, used in diagnosis, prevention and elimination of physical, mental, or societal imbalance, and relying exclusively on practical experience and observation handed down from generation to generation, whether verbally or in writing.”

Aloe ferox

Common names: bitter aloe (English), bitteraalwyn (Afrikaans), iNhlaba (Zulu) , iKhala (Xhosa)

In South Africa, Aloe ferox can be found from the Swellendam district in the Western Cape Province through the Eastern Cape Province (including Transkei and Ciskei), the southern part of Lesotho to the south of Kwazulu-Natal, as well as in the south-eastern corner of the Free State.

Pharmacological research has revealed that components of Aloe ferox have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and antidiabetic effects.  Some of its components may be useful in the treatment of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.   Extracts of the plant have been shown to possess anticancer properties, and it has proved to be highly effective for treating burn wounds.

Figure 2: Aloe ferox (Credit: Graeme Pienaar – Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Aloe ferox is similar to Aloe vera but is reported to have significantly greater nutrient content. Its culinary uses include jam made from the gel of the leaves and it is also used as a refreshing and nutritive ingredient in food and drinks.  Harvested leaves can be dried and crushed for a herbal tea.

In traditional medicine, Aloe ferox is used for the treatment of stomach complaints, arthritis, eczema, skin irritations and bruises, conjunctivitis, hypertension, stress, and sexually transmitted diseases.  This species contains anthraquinones – a group of substances that have beneficial nutritional and medicinal properties if used in a controlled manner, but can be harmful if used in excess.

Vachellia xanthophloea

Common names: fever tree (English), koorsboom (Afrikaans), mooka-kwena (Northern Sotho), umHlosinga (Zulu), nkelenga (Tsonga), munzhelenga (Venda).

The fever tree is native to eastern and southern Africa (Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Somalia, South Africa, Eswatini, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe).  In South Africa it is widespread in the Lowveld areas of Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo Provinces. The species name means ‘yellow bark’.

Scientific studies reveal that this tree contains three groups of fighter chemicals, namely catechins (anti-oxidant), catechols (antimicrobial) and catecholamines (a monoamine neurotransmitter).  It can be a natural alternative source of support for people who suffer anxiety, depression, autistic disorders (symptoms of autism), ADHD, ADD, panic disorder, and so forth.

Figure 3: Natal Fever Tree (Credit: Derek Keats from Johannesburg, South Africa – CC BY 2.0 ) ))https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45107497

In traditional medicine, the bark is sliced and boiled for a tea to clear dreams and visions, control heart rhythm and strengthen a weak heart.  For skin ailments, the bark is ground to a powder and applied to the skin. The roots and powdered bark of the stem are used as an emetic (to cause vomiting) and as a prophylactic against malaria.

Adansonia digitata

Common names: African Baobab (English), kremetartboom (Afrikaans), isimuku, umShimulu, isiMuhu (Zulu), ximuwu (Tsonga), mowana (Tswana), muvhuyu (Venda)

Adansonia digitata occurs widespread over the African continent and in South Africa in particular in Limpopo and the Northern Province. It is often referred to as the upside-down tree. The San have a legend that tells of the god Thora who took a dislike to the Baobab growing in his garden, so he threw it out of paradise to Earth below where it landed upside down and continued to grow.  Despite the numerous legends and superstitions linked to this tree, it is widely utilised for a variety of purposes.

Figure 4: African Baobab by Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Two old ones (Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0)

The pollen mixed with water produces glue.  The fibre from the bark is used to make rope, baskets, cloth, and musical instrument strings. The fruit is soaked in water to make a refreshing drink, but it is also roasted and ground to produce a coffee-like beverage. The leaves are cooked as a vegetable similar to spinach. Traditional medicinal uses of the leaves include the treatment of kidney and bladder disease, asthma, and insect bites.

Scientific studies confirm that the African Baobab has several medicinal benefits. Methanolic extracts of the roots, bark, and leaves have high antiviral and antimicrobial activities. The bark contains the alkaloid “Adansonin”, found to be active against malaria and fever. The fruit pulp is used as an effective food for natural treatment and prevention of hyperlipidaemia associated health anomalies, through enhancing the activity of the antioxidant enzymes.

Warburgia salutaris

Common names: Pepper-bark tree (English), peperbasboom (Afrikaans), isihaba (Zulu), Xibaha (Tsonga), Manakha (Venda), Shibaha (Twana)

Figure 5: Warburgia salutaris fruit (Credit: http://pza.sanbi.org/warburgia-salutaris)

Warburgia salutaris has a limited natural distribution area in the forested parts of Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. ‘Salutaris’ is the Latin word for ‘healthful’ which is an indication of the medicinal properties of this tree. In traditional medicine, it is used to treat a variety of disease conditions and due to its limited distribution area, it is also widely traded. However, as the trade in medicinal plants has become increasingly commercialised the harvest has become unsustainable, with an estimated 50% decline in the South African population, with some populations nearly extinct.  It is currently listed as an endangered species on the Red List of South African Plants.

The inner bark has a pungent peppery smell, giving the tree its English name. Medicinally, the pepper-like bitter stems and root bark are used, but research has found that the chemical composition of the leaves and bark are very similar which provides an alternative source for the medicine that is less damaging to the tree.

Traditionally, extracts and products from Warburgia salutaris are regarded as important natural African antibiotics and have been used extensively as part of traditional healing practices for the treatment of fungal, bacterial and protozoal infections in both humans and animals. Malaria, stomach ulcers, colds, nightmares, coughs, skin irritations, chest pains, diarrhoea, muscle pains, and general body pains, are but a few of the ailments this plant is used for as treatment.

Lannea discolor

Common names: Live-long, tree grape (English), dikbas (Afrikaans), morulamopsane, mokgôkgôthwane (Sepedi), muvhumbu (Venda)

Lannea discolor can be found in the bushveld areas of the Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West provinces. Some of the biological activities of this plant include anthelmintic (used to destroy parasitic worms), antibacterial, anti-mycobacterial (used to fight mycobacterium infections, including tuberculosis and leprosy), antifungal, antioxidant, antiplasmodial (kills parasites of the genus Plasmodium – including those causing malaria), and nematocidal (kills plant-parasitic nematodes).

Figure 6: Habit of a Live-long at Kililene game farm near Nylstroom, South Africa (Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The leaf, bark, and root infusion of this tree is applied as poultices for abscesses, boils, and sore eyes. It is also taken orally against gastrointestinal problems including constipation, diarrhoea, dysentery, and stomach ailments. The twigs and fibres are used as bandages for fractures and wounds, and root powder is also applied topically on swollen legs. The major diseases and conditions treated using decoctions made from the leaf, bark, and root of this tree include gastrointestinal problems, gonorrhoea, infertility in women, convulsions, dizziness, injury, and wounds. Gastrointestinal disorders are a major concern in Tropical Africa as these medical conditions are characterized by high mortality rates when left untreated. Research reveals that traditional healers in Africa have good knowledge of treating sexually transmitted infections using herbal medicines.

Traditional medicine has an important role to play in the healthcare systems of developing countries. According to Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity, subject to national legislation, parties shall:

“Respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, and practices.”

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