This article comes with a warning.
Please do not use any plant as either food or medicine unless you are certain of the plant’s identity and know how to use it.
This article is meant for general interest only and is not a guide on how to use the plants for medicinal purposes. Many of the plants used in so called ‘traditional’ medicine are known to be highly poisonous and would certainly either kill or leave a person severely ill if used incorrectly. The plants described below are not considered dangerous to humans but, please, do not take chances.
Most of the indigenous plants that are cultivated were used in traditional medicine, and some can be eaten or used to flavor food. Here are 5 that deserve a place in most gardens.
Leonotus leonorus (Wild Dagga)
We start with Leonotis leonorus which is a perennial shrub that may grow to 2 by 2 metres. It has whorls of bright orange tubular flowers that are clustered at intervals along the flowering stems. They typically flower in autumn and winter, although they may have some flowers during the summer months. There is also a white flowered form.
Leonotis leonurus (Wild Dagga) is a very showy garden plant that adds colour in autumn and is much loved by sunbirds.
Wild dagga is used extensively in traditional and folk medicine to treat a wide variety of illnesses and conditions. Leaves and roots were used to sooth bites and stings, including snake bites and to treat other skin problems. Teas made from leaves and roots have been used for treating lung ailments and high blood pressure. There may well be value in these treatments as extracts from these plants have been shown to have anticonvulsant, hypotensive and anti-inflammatory properties. Leaves were smoked to relieve epilepsy.
Wild dagga likes the sun but will tolerate partial shade. It does best when planted in a good garden soil with lots of compost and some bonemeal. Give them a position that is sheltered from the cold winter winds. They can become woody and scraggly, but a good pruning each October will keep the plants rejuvenated. It is a ‘must have’ plant if you want to attract birds into your garden as the sunbirds love the copious amounts of nectar flowers produce.
Leonotis leonurus “alba” has white flowers instead of orange flowers.
Grewia occidentalis (Cross-berry)
Grewia occidentalis (Cross-berry) is a scrambling shrub or sometimes a small tree. It can grow to 5 by 5 metres. It is evergreen in warm conditions, but deciduous in cold climes. It has attractive pink or mauve star-shaped flowers. These are followed by small four-lobed fruit that turn amber as they ripen.
The cross-berry fruits are edible and are quite tasty. Some folks use the fruit to make a refreshing juice, or ferment it to make a beer. Boiled with milk they make a very African milkshake. Our Venda staff use the leaves as a ‘marog’ or spinach. They boil water; add the cross-berry leaves and spinach to the water along with salt and chopped tomatoes. The meal is eaten with porridge and is, they assure me, very tasty. Bark soaked in water is used to dress wounds, while root bark is used to treat bladder infections. Too late I learnt that a shampoo made from the bark can prevent the greying of hair.
Grewia occidentalis flowers have a compact cluster of yellow stamens that stand proudly at the flower center.
Grewia occidentalis as a small, bushy tree hanging over a fence in the nursery.
Cross-berries are easily cultivated. They will grow best in a well composted garden soil and will be happy in sun or partial shade. Prune plants to maintain the shape you want. This is another must in bird gardens as the fruit is relished by the fruit-eaters like barbets and bulbuls.
Geranium incanum (Carpet geranium)
Geranium incarnum bears masses of magenta pink flowers.
Geranium incanum (Carpet geranium) is a very showy sprawling ground cover that has fine lacy, silvery leaves. It gets masses of magenta pink flowers that are borne on slender stalks. There are forms that have white or pink flowers.
Carpet geranium was used as a tea substitute in the past, giving rise to the Afrikaans name ‘bergtee’ (mountain tea). Tea made from the leaves has also been used to treat bladder infections, venereal diseases and to relieve menstrual problems. This last use has given the plant another Afrikaans name, ‘Vrouebossie’ (women’s little bush). The leaves do contain tannins, and so the tea is effective as a cure to mild diarrhoea.
The flowers are edible and may be used as a decoration to salads.
Carpet geraniums do well in full sun and like regular watering all year. Plant 4 or 5 per square metre for good coverage in well drained, well composted soil. They can be used to showy effect as a border to sunny flowerbeds, or planted between large rocks, or if allowed to hang over terrace walls.
Bulbine frutescens (Snake flower, geelkatstert)
Bulbine frutescens is a very good groundcover for areas that may be difficult to water or maintain.
Bulbine frutescens (Stalked Bulbine, Cat’s tail) is a succulent small bush with short, juicy, strap-like leaves on branched, woody stems. The small, yellow or orange flowers are borne in tight clusters at the ends of long, slender stalks. It flowers from early spring through summer and into winter. The bushy plants can be up to 40 cm tall with a spread of around 50 cm.
A cluster of flowers of the orange form of Bulbine frutescence.
The clear sap from the fleshy leaves can be used to treat cuts, burns, rashes, acne and eczema. This sap will also bring relief to bee and scorpion stings and mosquito bites. It can also be used to treat cracked lips.
Stalked Bulbine is a good ground cover for areas that receive full sun but little attention, so is a popular choice for complex pavements and commons. It can be quite spectacular mass planted on its own, or mixed with Felicia ameloides (Kingfisher Daisy) or dwarf blue Agapanthus. If planted with plenty compost and given a little TLC it will reward the gardener with lush juicy, green leaves and lots of flowers. Remove the old flower stalks to keep the plants looking neat. They will tolerate partial shade.
Eriocephalus africanus (Wild Rosemary, Kapokbossie)
Eriocephalus africanus (Wild Rosemary, Kapokbossie) is a much branched small shrub with fine, silvery foliage. It may grow to about a metre tall and a 1.5 metre spread. The leaves have a lovely aroma not unlike the European Rosemary. The small, white flowers are profusely clustered towards the ends of the shoots. The seeds are attached to a little white bundle of fluff that give the plants the appearance of snow, hence the Afrikaans name Kapokbossie (‘Small snow bush’).
Sprigs of Wild Rosemary can safely be used for flavouring in foods normally flavoured with Rosemary. Margaret Roberts says that it makes a refreshing bath additive as well as a superb hair rinse. Wild Rosemary has been used to treat dropsy and stomach-ache as well as used as a diuretic medicine.
The small white flowers of Eriocephalus africanus are showy because they are borne in large numbers.
Farmers, Bushmen and Griqua people used to stuff their pillows with the fluffy seeds to make a soft and fragrant pillow. I am sure some people still do this. Many small birds use the seeds to line their nests.
Wild Rosemary is easy to cultivate, given a well drained position in a well composted soil. Plant them in sunny spots and where you will brush against it as you pass. Water regularly, at least until established. Prune them to keep their shape and feed regularly with an organic fertilizer.
The seeds of Eriocephalus africanus are maybe even more showy than the flowers.
To find out more about indigenous plants used as food look for ‘Food from the Veld’ by F W Fox and M E Norwood Young published by Delta Books in 1982 (ISBN 0 908387 20 2). It is out of print so look out for it in good second hand bookshops. A book about medicinal plants but also out of print is ‘Indigenous Healing Plants’ by Margaret Roberts published for Woolworths in 1990 (ISBN 1 86812 360 X). Briza Publishers have ‘People’s Plants – A Guide to useful Plants of Southern Africa’ by Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke (ISBN 978 1 875093 19 9) and ‘Medicinal Plants of South Africa’ by Ben-Erik van Wyk, Bosch van Oudtshoorn and Nigel Gericke (ISBN 978 1 875093 37 3).