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The Importance of Indigenous Plants and Traditional Medicine

Known for its verdant landscapes and sub-tropical climate, KwaZulu-Natal has been dubbed the “green province” while the term “Durban garden” points to an exceptionally green and lush outdoor space. Beyond the aesthetics of Durban’s flora is also a wealth of indigenous knowledge that lies at the heart of the city’s local plants, herbs and trees. For thousands of years, medicinal plants have been used to treat a plethora of medical conditions, and this knowledge is passed on from generation to generation. UNESCO define indigenous knowledge as:

“the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. For rural and indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life.”

Nosipho Gwala, a researcher from the Msunduzi Museum reveals that prior to colonisation, health interventions were approached by indigenous communities “in response to their environment.” Herbalists and sangomas were the go-to practitioners when community members had ailments, with the inyanga being an essential member of the community. The inyanga, much like modern-day pharmacists, would treat different conditions with medicinal herbs, and their knowledge would be passed on to the next generation. Sometimes future inyangas would be identified by dreams and other times family members would see which child was most interested in plants. Inyangas study for a long time to understand the uses of herbs and roots, and to ensure that they prescribe the correct plants and amounts to individuals. While training, they have to eat a strict diet and undergo cleansing rituals.

Once trained, they will then consult with patients and create medicine or ‘umuthi’ with an array of local plants. Traditional medicine is still hugely popular in the modern world, and in Durban, traditional practitioners and medicines can be found at the Victoria Street Market where is estimated that over 700 plant species are sold for traditional medicine. However, many of these plants are threatened by drought, shrinking habitats and growing demand. As such, a number of community projects now seek to address issues around their sustainability, and one such project is a medicinal plant nursery at the Silverglen Nature Reserve. The project was launched when a local inyanga named Cele approached the reserve’s conservation officer about dwindling supplies. The nursery was born in response and large amounts of endangered plants are now harvested at lower prices for traditional healers.

Examples of popular medicinal plants

Bitter Aloe / Inhlaba

The Bitter Aloe, known as inhlaba in Zulu, is used to treat a range of medical conditions including eczema, burns, eye infections, and even stress. The roots and leaves are boiled in water and the liquid and sap are used to topically treat conditions. The plant is known for its “purgative effects” and anti-inflammatory properties.

Wild Ginger / isiPhepheto

Wild Ginger, also known as African Ginger or isiPhepheto, is used to treat a range of medical conditions. Roots and rhizomes (root stalks) are often administered to treat asthma, colds, coughs, and the flu. The plant is also used to treat painful menstruation and even malaria. Wild Ginger is also known for its excellent antiseptic properties and its ability to stimulate circulation and detoxify the blood. It is thus a powerful plant with many medicinal uses.

Our own KwaMuhle Museum has its own ‘muthi garden’ where you can explore an array of local plants, including Wild Dagga, Iboza, and Agapanthus, next time you visit the museum for a cultural tour of Durban.

Images courtesy of KwaMuhle Museum, Big Tree Health, Amandla, and Scialert.