We are privileged to live in a country bursting with botanical wealth. Our indigenous people have harnessed the natural healing qualities of these wonderful plants for thousands of years. Add to this bounty some imports and we have great stores for our pantry and medicine cabinet.
In our drought-afflicted country, we increasingly look to hardy, water-wise plants for our gardens. Make this work extra well by planting a medicinal patch. Maybe some of these wonder plants are already growing in your garden. If not, the great news is that most grow easily, without too much input from you. If you don’t have a green thumb, this is really good news!
Local is lekker — plants for your healthy medicinal patch
One of our favourite indigenous plants is spekboom, a succulent you should plant simply because it fights air pollution. Originally from the Eastern Cape (and particularly beloved by elephants!), this amazing plant has the ability to capture carbon. According to studies done in the veld, an average patch of spekboom can capture up to four tonnes of carbon per year.
It also grows really easily – just break off a piece of an existing plant and stick it in the ground. Next awesome plus is that it requires very little water. Spekboom is rich in manganese, cobalt and especially magnesium, and also contains large quantities of the microelements iodine and selenium. It has a slightly lemony taste, and is a great addition to a salad.
Another drought-resistant South African plant is bulbinella. Its long leaves contain a natural healing sap, particularly helpful for mosquito bites. Just crush the leaves and rub them directly onto your body for almost instant relief. It’s not just for mosquito bites, though – this amazing plant can help slow down bleeding, dry up acne, soothe sunburn, cold sores and chapped lips and heels, as well as providing relief for those suffering from eczema. It grows well both indoors and out – if you’re plagued by mosquitoes, why not plant one in a pot by your bedroom window? That way you can reach out and pick a leaf without having to get out of bed.
The beautiful aloe is a magnificent plant with multiple uses, both cosmetic and medicinal. Of all the species of aloe, aloe vera is the most well known, but our local aloe ferox is much more powerful in the number of nutrients it contains as well as healing properties. Because of its antioxidant, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, it is also commonly used for cuts, abrasions and burns, sunburn and various skin irritations.
Aloe ferox leaves contain a gooey gel (made of mucopolysaccharides) – mostly water, beneficial, soothing sugars such as rhamnose, xylose, mannose, etc., as well as a type of protein which contains 20 of the 20 amino acids found in the body. In addition, it contains vitamins A, B, C and E.
Out of the bathroom and into the kitchen – the aloe sap is bitter, but can also be used for pickles, jam, marmalade and preserves and aloe drinks (sweetened according to taste – for the sugar-conscious, use sucralose or stevia).
For skin care recipes: Add turmeric, honey, milk and rose water for dry skin; sugar and lemon juice for a wonderful scrub; walnuts and honey for acne; and cucumber juice, yoghurt and rose oil for sensitive skin. Its uses go on and on…
More health benefits of South African plants
- Buchu’s antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties are useful for treating high blood pressure, arthritis and urinary tract infections.
- Devil’s claw roots are harvested to form powders and extracts to treat pain, headaches and menstrual problems, as well to provide relief from various musculoskeletal conditions.
- African potato (madumbi or Inkomfe) has immune-boosting properties and is a helpful addition to your diet if you suffer from a chronic condition.
- Geranium – our popular export to the world – has antiviral and antibacterial properties which are useful for treating respiratory tract infections.
- Pelargonium culallatum or wild malva (related to geranium). Tea from the leaves is used to treat stomach disorders, while bruised leaves can be used for wounds.
- African ginger – most often used to treat coughs and colds; this plant is used extensively in the informal sector and sadly is rapidly becoming endangered.
Fill up your medicine cabinet with herbs
Not just a garnish, parsley contains vitamins A and C. Just one tablespoon of parsley contains more than half the vitamin K (essential for healthy blood) you need each day, and chewing it is great for bad breath.
Sage, with its marvellous antiseptic and antioxidant properties, is great for fighting early ageing, which is why it is used in so many beauty products. It’s also been shown to be a useful remedy for anxiety and fatigue.
Rosemary is wonderful. It smells fantastic (and may improve your memory) and is a perfect addition to many foods. This wonderful herb contains various compounds including carnosic acid, which has been shown to fight cancer cells.
Thyme has traditionally been used to treat respiratory problems like bronchitis, but also has antiseptic properties. It’s one of our herbs of choice to add to almost anything.
Your herb garden should also contain lavender. Not only is the wonderful fragrance soothing (which is why it’s added to baby products), but the plant also contains polyphenol antioxidants, which help against bloating.
Basil is a good source of fibre; it has a detoxifying effect on the liver, so is worth having around if you’re planning some serious partying. So start making that basil pesto (see our recipe below). Basil oil can also help clear skin blemishes, so it’s definitely worth planting.
Coriander (or cilantro) also contains fibre, as well as iron, and it helps to clear heavy metals from the body, actually attaching itself to toxic substances like lead and mercury and drawing them out of your tissues.
When making potato salad or scrambled eggs, add some real flavour by adding chives. This tasty herb, a member of the onion family, helps to boost the immune system and has been associated with a lower risk of developing certain cancers.
Yet another great source of antioxidants, your first port of call the next time you have hiccoughs should be dill. Apparently all you need do is mix a teaspoon of dill leaf with a cup of boiled water, strain the leaves and sip slowly. Worth a try.
Eating the aniseed-tasting fennel is excellent for hypertension, soothing stomach troubles and helps breastfeeding mothers produce milk (while soothing colicky baby tums).
We all know that mint is great for digestion and good breath, but mint is also a rich source of vitamin A, providing more than half the recommended daily allowance in two tablespoons. Mint has also been used for nausea, headaches and even pimples.
Stinging nettle sounds like something you need to keep at arm’s length and more than likely you pull it up as a weed, except that it is well known to treat various conditions. Most well-known is stinging nettle tea which is a common allergy remedy. Various studies has demonstrated the plant’s antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-ulcer, analgesic and astringent properties.
Chamomile is probably everyone’s favourite calming tea just before bed, but it is also a powerful anti-inflammatory with anti-allergenic, anti-spasmodic, muscle relaxant and sedative properties. Brew up a camomile tea and let it cool. And use it as a soothing compress or skin wipe for chickenpox, eczema, nappy rash and other skin conditions.
Dandelion is not a weed, but rather a useful liver tonic, commonly used for kidney and liver disorders. It can also be helpful in reducing the side-effects of some prescription drugs, as well as treating water retention and swelling. Dandelions contain vitamins A, C, B6, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium and manganese.
While eating a clove or two of garlic might keep your friends away, it will also keep the doctor (and possibly a flea or two) away. It has huge anti-fungal, antibacterial and immune-boosting properties, so it can reduce inflammation, boost your immune function, and improve your cardiovascular health, all while being toxic to at least 14 kinds of cancer cells.
Perfect pesto alla Genovese recipe
- 1 1/2 cups fresh washed young basil leaves (pick before the basil flowers or it may have a slightly bitter taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse or flaky salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup freshly grated mature Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
- 2 tablespoons fresh pine nuts or walnuts, lightly toasted (optional)
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
It’s best to do the grinding manually in a mortar with a pestle as this releases the basil’s beneficial oils, and mechanical grinding can also leave a bitter flavour.
Grind in a circular motion until the ingredients are fine and smooth and you have a creamy sauce. It’s best to eat it immediately, to get the full benefit of all those antioxidants.
Or place it in a jar and pour a layer of olive oil on top to stop the basil oxidising. Keep fresh in the fridge. Besides using it on pasta, it’s a great spread for wraps, in salads, etc.
For larger portions and a milder flavour (and to help the budget), you can add a cup of iceberg lettuce leaves.
Experiment with other flavours by making pesto with rocket, adding finely chopped olives, kale, watercress or spinach, but – to our minds – nothing beats the original.