Some plants and their uses from South Africa

Whilst on our our tracking course in South Africa, it was hard not to be distracted by diversity of plants and trees that surrounded us.  Just like in the UK, and  indeed around the world, most of these plants have or have had indigenous uses. Here is a small selection yielding amongst other things; cordage, dye, soap, light, wound treatment, bite soother, and loo roll!

There are many species of thorn trees or acacia in Southern Africa, and at this time of year (summer, rainy season), many of them are in flower.  One that is widely distributed and found from lowveld through to highveld is the Sweet Thorn or Acacia karroo.


The name comes from the sweet resin that exudes from the bark, which is eaten by humans and animals alike.  At this time of year the gum is one of the favourite foods of the lesser galago or bushbaby.

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In addition to this, the the leaves (despite the severe looking thorns) make good fodder for both wild and domesticated browsers.  The bark is rich in tannin and has been used to veg tan leather and the inner bark can be used for cordage.  The curious globe like, yellow flowers are a rich source of nectar and pollen and it makes very good honey.  It is an important part of South African history with various parts of the tree having  been used over the centuries to make a range of things from rafts, sewing needles, entomologists display needles and zulu fences.  It also has medicinal uses including treating colds and healing wounds.

Another distinctive member of the acacia family is the Paperbark Thorn  Acacia sieberiana. The leaves, bark and resinous sap are used as an astringent for colds/chest problems, diarrhoea, haemorrhage and eye inflammation.  Like the Sweet Thorn, and indeed many other acacias, the gum is edible.  On the Paperbark Thorn it is also a good adhesive. The inner bark can be prepared to make fine cordage which is used for threading beads.

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The Silver Cluster-Leaf Terminalia sericea  can be found from Tanzania down through southern Africa in open woodlands particularly on sandy soils.  Easily recognised by the long silver coloured leaves crowded or clustered around the ends of the twigs. The bark has been used to make ropes and the wood used for tool handles.  It has a long history of having been in traditional medicine. An  infusion of the leaves and roots has been for the treatment of coughs, diarrhoea and stomach aches. The leaves also have antibiotic properties and are made into a paste  by cooking  in water and then placing the paste on  wounds to stop infection.

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Most people are familiar with the medicinal properties of Aloe vera.  There are over 600 aloe species growing world wide and about 155 in South Africa, most of which have limited ranges. Two widespread species include Aloe arborescens and Aloe maculata.  Some aloes have  culinary uses and can be made into marmalade, jams, pickles and preserves.  The Maasai in Kenya add aloe roots to their honey beer that they brew, very nice it is too.

When cut or broken aloes yield a yellow sap that contains a compound called aloin.  They have historically been used as purgative, a laxative and a vermifuge but their best known medicinal uses is externally for skin irritations, cuts, abrasions, burns, sunburn and insect bites. The sap has been shown to demonstrate antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and  antiviral properties. It is particularly effective for irritating and itchy insects bites, simply snap the end off of a leaf and dab on the thick yellow sap.

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Found throughout Africa south of the Sahara is the Mulberry or Sycomore Fig Ficus sycomorus, growing up to 40m tall with a large, often buttressed bole. It produces edible fruit, for which it is often cultivated in the Mediterranean and the wood being reasonably tough has been used for  mortars and pestles, drums, , dugout canoes and even the sarcophagi of the pharaohs. The seasoned wood makes a good choice for the hearth board in friction fire lighting.  The bark is used to produce a range of brown coloured dyes which are used in traditional African textile production.

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A common ground dwelling perennial plant found in sandy areas of the bush is Devil’s Thorn  Dicerocaryum eriocarpum.  The name comes from the unusual seeds which are flattened disks with two spikes on the upper surface.  These spikes are designed to embed into the feet of animals and humans, or indeed car tyres as a means of dispersal. We tracked a trail horse for a distance which had one of these seeds attached to one of its hooves, the seed being very obvious in the footprint….making it easy to ensure we were tacking the right animal. The seeds have been used medicinally but the main use for the plant is as a soap substitute, it is loaded with saponins and when them leaves are rubbed between the hands you can feel the soapy sap this gives rise to one of its names;-  Bushman Soap.

Devils Thorn

Found growing throughout South Africa is the Baboon Tail, Xerophyta retinervis  also going by several other names including Monkey Tail, Resurrection Plant and Wonder Bush.  This unusual looking plant tends to grow in shallow soil in grasslands on cliffs and rocky outcrops and often appears blackened or charred by bush fires. As well as tolerating bush fires the plant is also very drought tolerant. The stem is made up of bundles of nesting fibers which all slope downwards and inwards absorbing the slightest bit of rainfall and channeling the water downwards and inwards.  Once completely dried out these same fibers will also wick melted fat in the same way. This plant has been used for centuries as a torch by soaking it in rendered animal fat for several days and then  lighting it. Depending on the size it will burn for up to 4 hours.

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Most people of heard of the creamy liqueur known as Amarula, apparently the world’s second largest selling cream liqueur after Baileys. The drink is flavoured with the fruit from the Marula tree Scelerocarya birrea, which was  a dietary mainstay in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia throughout ancient times and there is archaeological evidence of its use dating back over 12,000 years. Both the fruit and the nut are eaten, and not just by humans;- the fat and protein rich seeds are eaten by rodents and the fermented fallen fruit are favourites with elephants supposedly resulting in their intoxication. The fruits ripen and fall between December and March and are packed with vitamin C.  As well as edible uses, the leaves are used to treat heartburn, the bark is used to treat malaria and scorpion stings, ink can be made from a gum that exudes from the tree and the nut yields an oil that is used in cosmetics.  You can see why the tree is protected in South Africa.



Another common tree of Southern Africa is the Weeping Wattle Peltophorum africanum. Superficially resembling an acacia without the thorns and with tall spikes of yellow flowers, it is also a good fodder tree.  The English name is derived from the fact that in spring the tree is covered with an insect called a Spittlebug which feeds on the sap, as it does so it removes all the sugars and nutrients from the sap and then passes essentially pure water out of its back end which drips or weeps down from the tree. The wood has been used for furniture and fuel, and various parts of the tree are used to treat a range of conditions including toothache, sore throats, intestinal parasites, colic and dysentery.  The leaves are very soft, and we used it for brushing out animal tracks in sandy areas to set up a track trap.


Local guides have another use  for those soft leaves and refer to it as the toilet paper tree….say no more!

weeping wattle

 One ply or two?


Kev Palmer

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