Written by: Kate Grieve
Pondoland is evocative of rolling grassland, deep forested gorges and sparkling streams. This region is historically the home of the amaPondo under the legendary King Faku, who settled there in the late sixteenth century. Pondoland is one of the principal centres of plant diversity and endemism in Southern Africa and forms part of one of only 34 recognised areas of conservation concern in the world.
The special plants of the region are largely the result of the geology and the underlying Msikaba sandstone formation along the east coast of South Africa from Port Shepstone to near Port St Johns. The survival of these plants is threatened not only by development and agriculture but in the rural areas there is pressure from overgrazing, too frequent burns and unsustainable collection of plant material for medicinal purposes.
In each village there is a herbalist or person with broad knowledge of medicinal plants, often specialising in particular fields of traditional healing. These individuals collect plants in a sustainable way, selecting only what they need for specific purposes from the right places and at the right time of year.
The problem arises when people come from outside these villages to collect for the muthi markets – they collect indiscriminately and can eradicate entire populations of plants. The parts of the plant used typically include bulbs, roots and bark so harvesting is often destructive to the plant. In South Africa there are over 2,000 plant species used for medicinal and cultural purposes and more than 650 species are actively traded in the muthi markets. According to the Red Data List of Southern African plants, 9% of the medicinal plant species that are traded (about 1 in 12) are threatened and a further 12% are of conservation concern.
The first step in addressing a problem is gaining an understanding of it, research and monitoring being crucial. To document the biodiversity in the Pondoland region and guide sustainable development, CREW (a programme supported by the Botanical Society and SANBI) initiated a project in the area for a small group of young people employed by the Groen Sebenza Programme.
They worked with herbalists in their villages to document medicinal plants important to the amaPondo culture and monitor harvesting activity, particular by muthi collectors not resident in the area. They were supervised by Sinegugu Zikulu, a passionate conservationist with a desire to increase awareness of the unique biodiversity of the region amongst his people. The Pondoland CREW group, based at the Umtamvuna nature reserve, assisted with plant identification and training in methods of collecting plant specimens.
In the tradition of ancient healing practices, the people of Pondoland have a holistic approach to heath care. Many attribute disease and misfortune to metaphysical powers, which can be controlled with the correct use of amayeza or traditional medicines and charms, including the use of plants. Plant material is utilised to treat a wide range of illnesses as well as for cultural and religious purposes. Supernatural powers and/or a contravention of customs and traditions are often believed to lead to misfortune and ill health. Herbal remedies are used in cleansing rituals and to please ancestors and protect against evil forces.
The isiMpondo names of plants provide insight into the traditional uses and associated beliefs. For example, certain plants are used as ‘intelezi’ for protection against lightning strikes and misfortune caused by witchcraft, as lightning is regarded as a symbol of witchcraft. ‘Intelezi’ is also used as an emetic to remove a curse. The word is derived from the noun Buthelezi, meaning slipperiness, referring to the ability of the medicine to make the user ‘slippery’ or get out of trouble.
Aloe ferox is used as intelezi because of its thick ‘slippery’ sap. It is also used as a body wash to ensure ritual cleanliness and prevent contamination that causes impurity.
For protection against lightning in a storm, family members sit inside their home and chew a small piece of the root of the creeper Acridocarpus natalitius, then spit it out towards the doorway to prevent a lightning strike.
The orchid Polystachya pubescens, known as iphamba, is used when confronted with difficult situations believed to be caused by witchcraft. When included in ‘intelezi’, iphamba confuses evil spirits or diverts lightning strikes. The word iphamba is derived from ukuphamba meaning to ‘dodge’ or ‘outwit’.
The bark of Loxostylis alata is used by young men to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex.
Although the bulb of Boophone disticha is poisonous, a small quantity is used to treat people with psychological problems, particularly a culturally related mental illness believed to be caused from being possessed by evil spirits.
The problem of unsustainable plant harvesting is not going to go away as the trade in traditional medicines in South Africa is estimated to be worth over R3 billion a year and there is a significant supporting industry. Traditional medicine plays a critical role in meeting the healthcare needs of a large sector of the population and there will always be a demand for muthi to ensure the ancestors are at peace and to secure good fortune. This presents a business opportunity to grow plants commercially, which would conserve threatened species as well as meet the demand for muthi. However, the real challenge for commercial producers is to understand and adapt to the muthi market culture.
PLEASE NOTE: The Botanical Society cannot take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using any plant medicinally. The knowledge and use of plants medicinally is an age-old skill requiring training and experience.
The Botanical Society of South Africa encourages the wise use, study, and conservation of the indigenous flora of Southern Africa. Passionate about plants? Or hoping to develop an interest? Get a MyPlanet card and support the Botanical Society by selecting them as your beneficiary. Or find out more about joining BotSoc here.
- Medicinal and charm plants of Pondoland by S.Zikulu, T. Dold, T. Abbott & D. Raimondo SANBI 2012
- Plants in Peril D.Raimondo, K.Grieve, N.Helme, R.Koopman & I.Ebrahim SANBI 2013