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Posted on: Friday, 12 September 2014

Common ailments when travelling – use these 10 wild South African plants

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You are on a road trip and someone comes down with earache, a rash, a sore throat or needs a little help with the daily, well, let’s just say that they need help.

And there is not a pharmacy in sight. Fear not. There is help at hand. As close as the side of the road.

South Africa has many medicinal plants – 3 000 species are used as medicine. In fact, many of the plants that surround us are used in primary health care throughout the country…

South Africa has well over 30 000 species of what science calls ‘higher plants’ (not mosses, liverworts or lichens; in other words plants with roots, seeds or flowers).

The Cape Floral Kingdom alone has almost 9 000 species and a diversity that rivals tropical rainforests in terms of richness in species.

Here are 10 wild South African plants for your first-aid kit when travelling. They form an emergency stop-gap for common gripes and ailments…

(Note: use any of these plants at your own risk).




– skin irritations, bruises and burns, also laxative

Description: broad, fleshy leaves with dark spines along the edges; bright red or orange flowers from May to August

Where: eastern parts of South Africa

Parts used: bitter yellow juice just below the surface of the leaf

Common use: apply leaf sap (break open a leaf and use the gel that comes from the inner flesh) to skin irritations, bruises and burns

2. BOWIEA VOLUBILIS (climbing potato)

oedema, sore eyes

Description: the plant produces greenish-white, fleshy, tuberous bulbs

Where: eastern parts of South Africa

Parts used: bulb or bulb scales

Common use: thefresh bulb has been used to treat oedema (fluid retention); rub fresh juice on the skin of a sick person, or make a decoction and apply as a lotion for sore eyes. Do NOT use internally (very poisonous!).



3. BULBINE NATALENSIS (rooiwortel)

wounds, burns, rashes, itches, ringworm, cracked lips, herpes

Description: an aloe-like plant with a rosette of green fleshy, thornless leaves (yellow flowers on long, thin stems)

Where: eastern and northern parts of SA

Parts used: fresh leaves and roots

Common use: usethe leaf sap directly on wounds, burns, rashes, itches, ringworm etc. An infusion of the roots treats vomiting, diarrhoea and urinary complaints.


mouth and throat infections, digestive troubles, eczema, wounds, burns, toothache, earache and oral and vaginal thrush

Description: fleshy succulent with erect, triangular leaves and yellow or pink flowers; ripe fruits often sold at street markets in the Cape

Where: sandy areas in Western Cape and south coast to the Eastern Cape

Parts used: leaf juice or leaf pulp

Common use: useleaf juice as a gargle for mouth and throat infections; also take orally for digestive troubles. Apply the leaf pulp externally to treat eczema, wounds and burns; effective against toothache, earache and thrush.



5. COTYLEDON ORBICULATA (pig’s ear or plakkie)

corns, warts, worms, earache, toothache, boils

Description: a common succulent with thick, fleshy, green to grey leaves with a reddish margin and orange or red tubular flower on a long stalk

Where: practically all over southern Africa

Parts used: leaves or leaf juice

Common use: apply fleshy part of the leaf to corns and warts to soften and remove; you can eat a single leaf to expel intestinal, parasitic worms, and use warmed leaf juice as drops for earache and toothache; also hot poultice for boils or earache.

6. LEONOTIS LEONURUS (wild dagga)

bites and stings, boils, eczema, skin diseases, itching and muscular cramps, coughs, colds, bronchitis, headaches, asthma

Description: Distinctive for its bright orange, tubular flowers in round groups, arranged along the branch ends; leaves are distinctly ‘dagga’ looking

Where: large parts of South Africa

Parts used: leaves and stems, sometimes roots

Common use: leaves have been smoked to relieve epilepsy (they have only a mild narcotic effect); leaves and roots used in a remedy for bites and stings; apply external decoctions (crush and then boil into a tea or infusion) to treat boils, eczema, itching and muscular cramps; internally decoctions work for coughs, colds, bronchitis, headaches.



7. MENTHA LONGIFOLIA (wild mint)

coughs, colds, asthma, headaches, fevers, indigestion, flatulence, urinary tract infections

Description: a perenial herb with creeping rhizomes below ground and erect flowering stems. All parts smell intensely of mint.

Where: widely across South Africa

Parts used: leaves

Common use: infusions or decoctions of the leaves are used for coughs, colds, asthma and other respiratory ailments, fevers, indigestion, flatulence. Crushed leaves inserted in the nostrils relieve headaches. Can be used externally for wounds.


diarrhoea, bronchitis, colds, flu

Description: leaves vary, but usually lobed in groups of three (almost look like clover but without the breaks and much bigger) and usually with distinctive scents.

Where: over large parts of South Africa

Parts used: the roots (bright red inside)

Common use: the Nama people boil the tuber in milk, but it can also be chewed, or powdered and mixed with food. Conversely an infusion treats diarrhoea and dysentery.




stomach problems, colds, varicose veins, piles, liver problems, backache

Description: small shrub up to a metre high with densely hairy leaves that look silver; each leaf divided into leaflets. Large red flowers.

Where: West Coast and Western Cape

Parts used: leaves

Common use: use decoctions or alcoholic tinctures for stomach problems

10. ZANTEDESCHIA AETHIOPICA (arum lily or varkblom)

wounds, sores, boils, gout

Description: an evergreen herb of up to a metre with large, fleshy leaves and a thick, spongy stalk and cream-coloured flowers. Z aethiopica is the only evergreen species and does not die back

Where: most parts of South Africa

Parts used: leaves

Common use: warm afresh leaf and apply to wounds, sores and boils; also apply to parts affected by gout or rheumatism. Do not eat the plants parts as the tongue and throat swell!

Reference Source: Medicinal Plants of South Africa – Ben-Erik van Wyk, Bosch van Oudtshoorn, Nigel Gericke ~ Available at Kalahari or Exclusive Books.

Wanda Coustas


Wanda Coustas has written in one form or another for 10 years, seven of them as a copyblogger. She has travelled the Western Cape extensively and the rest of the country in protracted road trips that have given her both joy and an ongoing relish for experiencing what she writes about first-hand. She is a trained opera singer, poet, eurythmy dancer, philosopher, and bee whisperer.

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