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Farmers see profit in pungent South African herb

Anton Ferreira

Soft-drink companies use it by the tonne, natural health devotees swear by it and it forms part of secret recipes for French perfume despite having a bouquet similar to cat's urine. The South African herb buchu is now so valuable it is attracting poachers.

Soft-drink companies use it by the tonne, natural health devotees swear by it and it forms part of secret recipes for French perfume despite having a bouquet similar to cat’s urine.

The South African herb buchu is now so valuable it is attracting poachers. They are not deterred by the remote mountain slopes where it grows, sometimes clear-cutting entire stands of the metre-high shrub.

“Buchu is very lucrative,” said Hedley Peter who farms in the Cederberg mountains north of Cape Town where buchu grows wild. “In the last two seasons about R200 000 ($26 600) worth of buchu was stolen.

“A guy just has to hop across the fence and collect one bag, and it’s like R1 000,” said Peter whose farm is accessible from a highway that runs from Cape Town to the Namibian border.

Distilling companies that extract essential oils from the herb, which has green leaves and tiny white flowers, pay farmers about R40 a kilogramme for buchu.

The oils help enhance fruit flavours, particularly blackcurrant, making them ideal for soft drinks, and “it’s used by the fragrance houses”, says Lindsey Chicken, whose family owns a distilling business that processes buchu.

Medicinal qualities

The herb is said to have medicinal qualities, a reputation that dates back in South Africa to the 17th century when Khoi tribesmen passed on their knowledge of buchu to Dutch settlers.

The growing use of buchu in medicine in European society and as a source of income for South Africa’s early farmers prompted the British governor of the Cape Colony in 1824 to ban its destruction.

Nowadays, Betucare Science and Technology markets a buchu-containing health product called Betucare, which it bills as an antiseptic and a diuretic that can be used to treat everything from arthritis to pre-menstrual syndrome.

Until recently most buchu was harvested from wild plants, but the profits to be made have prompted scores of farmers to begin cultivating the shrub in irrigated fields in the Cederberg and elsewhere in South Africa .

Mounting cultivation has cut the price of buchu and thefts have been curtailed by anti-poaching campaigns, mostly carried out by ex-soldiers.

Mannetjies du Plessis, spokesperson for distilling firm Grassroots group, said South Africa was now producing about 600 tonnes of buchu a year, a figure likely to increase by 25% annually for the next four to five years.

Buchu producers are even eyeing the world’s giant soft drink producers, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

“The whole world is turning to natural organic products,” Les Abrahams said. “Coke and Pepsi would use buchu, but we don’t have enough volume to supply what they would need.”

Despite growing markets in France, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and the United States, there is no getting round the fact the wild version of the herb has a very pungent aroma.

“When you have a pick-up truck full of workers who have been cutting buchu, it smells like a cat has done its business in there,” said Cara Abrahams, who farms with her husband Les in the Cederberg region. - Reuters

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