Remedies of the Khoikhoi

People native to South Africa, the Khoikhoi – or Khoi – had a pastoral culture, giving them a close affinity to endemic South African plant life. Today many benefit from the knowledge they’ve passed on about the medicinal properties of various plants.

Sceletium Tortuosum – “Kouwgoed”

Sceletium tortuosum

Image by Abalg

The first written account of the plant known as kouwgoed, which translates as “good to chew”, is from Jan Van Riebeeck in 1662, who noted that the people often chewed the plant, smoked it or used it as snuff. The plant has been used by pastoralists and hunter-gatherers since pre-historic times as a mood-altering substance, known for its calming effects. Although some claim that the plant is hallucinogenic, it is not. Today it’s dried and sold in capsules as a mood enhancer and to relieve anxiety.

Agathosma Betulina – “Buchu”


Image by BuchuLife

The essential oil of the Buchu herb, a plant endemic to South Africa’s Western Province, is extracted from the plants’ leaves, and is used in various gels, tinctures and capsules. The plant is a powerful natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and is used to treat a wide range of ailments, including urinary tract infections, headaches, stomach disorders and even the common cold. Buchu gained worldwide attention in 1821, when it was introduced to the western medical world by the drug house Burchell’s. Its health properties have since been recognized in a range of respected pharmacopoeia and journals, such as the American Merck Index and the Scottish Medical Journal.

Harpagophytum – “Devil’s Claw”

Devils Claw

Image by Henri Pidoux

Also known as grapple plant or wood spider, devil’s claw is a low-growing shrub that occurs in South Africa’s Northern Cape, as well as in South Namibia and Botswana. Its tubers have been used for centuries as an anti-inflammatory and, due to the presence of iridoid glycosides, for pain relief. Clinical studies found that an extract of the plant was as effective in treating lower-back pain as Vioxx, a well-known non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Devil’s claw is also used to treat fever and arthritis, and as a digestion stimulant.

Aspalathus linearis – “Rooibos”


Image by Amrum

The rooibos plant has been known and loved by South Africans for hundreds of years. It’s used to treat nervous tension, allergies and digestive problems, and to make a delicious tea. It contains high levels of anti-oxidants such as nothofagin and aspalathin, and is popular as a tea because it’s completely free of caffeine and has low tannin levels, making it healthier than regular tea.

Hoodia Gordonii – “Ghaap”


Image by Amrum

The flowers of this strange-looking plant smell awful – most people compare the aroma to that of rotten meat. Nonetheless, the plant is wildly popular and has been used by South Africa’s indigenous people for generations. Its uses include treatment of indigestion and minor infections. The “meat” of the plant was used by Kalahari hunters as an appetite suppressant on lengthy hunting expeditions, and it’s this that has stimulated the most interest in recent times. Many pharmaceutical companies have manufactured appetite suppressants using an isolated ingredient from the plant, known as “P57”.

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