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The use of plants for healing goes back thousands of years to ancient civilisation

Long before the advent of pharmaceuticals, humans used botanicals for their healing properties. From ancient records we can ascertain that many civilisations used plants as medicine, including Southern Africa’s own indigenous people.

History and healing

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of plants from a specific region to better understand their practical uses through the knowledge of the local people. The use of plants for healing was largely trial-and-error, with a number of sacred recipes passed down from generation to generation.

Through the knowledge shared by locals and further investigation into plant compounds and their healing properties, scientists can better understand how to use them in modern medicine. Many pharmaceutical drugs have active ingredients derived from plant chemicals.

Leaves, bark, seeds, flowers and roots may be crushed and dried, used fresh or mixed with carrier oils or cream to use on the skin’s surface. Because one part of a plant may be toxic and another suitable for medicinal use, one should only use plants for medicine under the guidance of a trained herbalist.

Summer remedies

Many of us are familiar with herbal remedies for winter colds, but summer-flowering varieties can also be used medicinally. Plants can be used to soothe the sting of sunburn, relax tight muscles after sports matches, relieve the itching of insect bites or may be added to a refreshing summer drink.

In her book 100 Edible & Healing Flowers, the late Margaret Roberts, one of the country’s foremost experts on herbs and medicinal plants, wrote nothing could be more appealing than creating a garden of plants that would be used in festivities and celebrations and as medicines.

“No matter how large or small our gardens, it is vital for our health that we grow vegetables, fruits, healing herbs, shrubs and even a small lemon tree wherever we can,” she wrote.

What plants in nature’s apothecary should you consider using this summer?


Roberts advocated English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) or Dutch lavender (Lavandula latifolia) as a muscle relaxant and for strains, sprains and bruises. Boil up sprigs for around 15 minutes, then strain and add to your bath water.

Dried lavender flowers placed in a small bag under your pillow help you sleep. Picture: Lukas Otto

Bitter aloe (Aloe ferox)

The smoothing gel inside the leaves can be used to treat skin irritations, insect bites and as a nail-biting deterrent. Break off a small section of the leaf and apply the gel to the skin. This won’t damage the plant – the cut will seal off.

Gel from the leaf of the bitter aloe (Aloe ferox) relieves itchy insect bites. Picture: Lukas Otto

Dahlia spp.

In her edible flowers book, Roberts wrote that dahlia petals make an effective skin treatment.

The petals should be crushed and warmed and placed over rashes, grazes and infected scratches.

Sour fig (Carpobrotus edulis)

The sap of this indigenous succulent ground cover can help soothe the stings of bluebottles and sand fly bites. The sap is believed to have antiseptic properties and can be mixed with water and used as a gargle for a sore throat or other mouth infection.

Bulbine (Bulbine frutescens)

Known as the burn jelly plant, the gel-like sap in the leaves soothes anything from burns and grazes to mosquito bites, stings and sunburn. Bulbine grows well in full sun.

Waterblommetjies (Aponogeton distachyos)

An effective treatment for sunburn and abrasions. To treat sunburn, crush and mash the stems, leaves and flowers when available to create a pulp, Roberts suggested in her book. “Leave it on for as long as possible and repeat frequently until the pain and redness subside.”

Waterblommetjies can be used as sunburn treatment. Picture: Supplied

Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)

Use summer-flowering blue plumbago flowers to make a soothing cream for sunburn and rashes and to heal bruises. Roberts suggested: mix one cup of crushed plumbago flowers with one cup of aqueous cream. Simmer in a double boiler with the lid on for 25 minutes. Stir well. Strain through a sieve, then add four teaspoons of vitamin E oil as the cream cools. Store in sterilised jar.

Plumbago flowers can be added to aqueous cream. Picture: Phyllis Green

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Mint is used to treat congestion, headaches, improve blood circulation, boost immunity and aid digestion. Make a pot of rooibos tea and allow to cool. Add mint, lemon slices and ice for a refreshing summer drink. If you use fresh herbs to make tea, use twice as much as the dried variety.

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