Local herbs that can help with healing

Planting a few local herbs and shrubs may be one of the best ways to keep well.

17 February 2009
by Karen Nel

Traditional medicine has long relied on the herbs and plants of the veld to heal aches and pains. But a few South African plants have broken beyond the confines of ‘bush medicine’ and entered the mainstream. Find out more about these four super-herbs...

Aloe vera

Aloe vera is native to the Cape. It is used in many skincare products thanks to its soothing, anti-inflammatory action. "Cosmetic products containing botanical ingredients are popular, because people like using products labelled 'natural' but often the ingredients are unlikely to have any impact on the skin’s health or appearance. However, aloe vera is a plant that has proven anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties," says Nina Goad of the British Association of Dermatologists.

Aloe vera has a beneficial effect on the digestive system too, because it lubricates the bowel. "Many patients request aloe-vera preparations for the treatment of constipation and irritable bowel syndrome," says Clicks pharmacist René Beukes.


The Khoi San people of Clanwilliam have been brewing rooibos tea for years, but the full extent of its healing powers only emerged recently. The first human clinical trial on the effect of rooibos was conducted at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in 2007. The study, conducted by Dr Jeanine Marnewick, showed that rooibos protects the body from oxidation caused by free radicals and can help prevent heart disease.

Thanks to its soothing effect, rooibos is also a favoured ingredient in skincare products. Rooibos can be safely used by babies and children too. Nursing expert Sister Lillian advises treating infant eczema with a rooibos bath, or a soothing topical cream made from rooibos essence and aqueous cream.


The anti-inflammatory properties of buchu were first discovered by the settlers in the Western Cape 400 years ago. Since then, extensive research has been done on this humble shrub. Research conducted by the Medical Research Council and the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town found that buchu has a potent anti-inflammatory action on muscles after exercise, proving that buchu leaves are nature’s remedy for weary hikers.


Hoodia is a succulent that grows in the Karoo. The plant is described as cactiform because of its similarity to the cactus family. Hoodia thrives in very high temperatures and takes years to mature, growing up to one metre high and developing large, flesh-coloured flowers.

The San Bushmen of the Kalahari have been eating hoodia for hundreds of years to stave off hunger during long hunting trips – and it’s for these appetite-supressant properties that hoodia has gained popularity.
Inside hoodia gordonii is a molecule that British pharmaceutical company, Phytopharm, has labelled "P57". Research has shown that this molecule works by mimicking the effect that glucose has on nerve cells in the brain – in effect fooling the body into thinking it is full, even though it is not.

Because hoodia affects the hypothalamus there are still unknown risks to the nervous and circulatory systems. On the positive side, however, there have been no reports of health problems associated with hoodia since it was introduced to the American market in early 2004. And the San Bushmen have used it for hundreds of years without ill effects.

Take care though...

Herbs are medicines too! Chat to your Clicks pharmacist or your doctor before taking a herbal remedy, especially if you are taking other medications. "Herbal remedies may interact negatively with traditional medicine," cautions René Beukes.