From rooibos to buchu, endemic flora graces the world's medicine chests and grocery cupboards.
Many years ago, the wonderfully eccentric raconteur botanist Wim Tijmens, who turns 80 in May, introduced me to buchu brandy. Having travelled around China and undertaken various exotic expeditions, Tijmens swore that a tot every night and a little with your toothpaste was the best way to avoid diarrhoea while in hot countries. I took his advice and, armed with a bottle of Huguenot Buchu Brandy, survived two months in India without even a moist fart. Yet I had to steel myself at bedtime; neat buchu brandy has the taste of something that could eat its way through a bathtub.
Surprisingly, buchu is used in many berry-flavoured cool drinks to enhance their taste.
The buchu plant or agathosma – from the Greek agathos (pleasant) and osme (smell) – comes in two main varieties: Agathosma crenulata (with serrated-edged leaves) and Agathosma betulina (the round leaf type). Crenulata is grown commercially for essential oils; betulina is extraordinarily fussy about the conditions in which it will grow.
Buchu grows wild and is widely harvested on the slopes of the Western Cape mountains, where it is endemic. It fetches a lucrative price, but having it on one's farm is both a blessing and a curse. It can be a bit like having rhinos: like the practice of poaching, it is common and widespread. When I lived in the Piketberg, our farm was cleared out more than once.
Buchu was well known to the Khoi and San and is purported to have many miraculous properties, especially relating to the renal and digestive systems. Buchu-infused vinegar was used to wash wounds and it was apparently a lifesaver for troops in the Crimean War.
Search the internet and you will find dozens of mainland Chinese companies selling buchu leaf extract and a bewildering number of herbal remedies containing it. Medicinally, buchu is popularly taken like tea.
Another Western Cape shrub to take the world by storm is rooibos, which is indigenous to the Cederberg. Although used to make tea, the plant (Aspalathus linearis) has nothing to do with the tea bush. You find rooibos tea in cafés, speciality shops and even supermarkets the world over these days – its commercial boom has been closely tied to the craze for things rich in antioxidants, free of caffeine and low in tannins.
In 1994 an American company registered rooibos as a trademark, but was fortunately later forced by legal action to "voluntarily surrender" it.
The latest craze, which has now hit the United States, is to treat rooibos as one would coffee to make rooibos cappuccinos and red lattes.
Aromatic and delicious honeybush (Cyclopia genistoides) has not yet enjoyed the success of rooibos, but it certainly has potential. According to a report by the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, production now stands at 150 tonnes a year exported and 50 tonnes used locally. Among the more interesting strengths identified in line with value-added global trends is its organic nature and its suitability for infants.
Iced and instant honeybush tea have also made an appearance. Both rooibos and honeybush have also started to be processed as "green tea", instead of using traditional "black tea" methods.
Only in the past decade has another indigenous plant, the rather fearsome-looking succulent Hoodia gordonii (native to South Africa and Namibia) hit the vast commercial market of fat Americans as an appetite suppressant. This property might not surprise one because the plant smells like carrion (it is pollinated by flies).
Hoodia has run into many problems, including the issue of its intellectual property rights belonging to the Kalahari Khomani San community and fraudulent companies flooding the internet and the United States market with slimming tablets that, in fact, contained no hoodia. Then giant multinational Unilever, after spending a few hundred million dollars on research, found it lacked efficacy and caused too many side effects. But hoodia capsules continue to be sold.
Yet another endemic plant of pharmacological interest is the mesemb (a succulent that looks like stones or pebbles) that is found in the Namaqualand area – Sceletium tortuosum. It has been used by the Khoisan since time immemorial and by colonists since the 1600s.
Tijmens wondered how it was possible that the Dutch, from a wet climate in a country below sea level, could possibly survive in the great rainless interior that drives white men mad. His entertaining theory was that they sat on their stoeps staring at the horizon and chewing local plants known as kougoed. Some of the kougoed had inebriating and even hallucinogenic properties. The colonists were high.
Sceletium will not make you see things, but it is a "mood enhancer" and is used in antidepressants and to treat anxiety. It is grown commercially, but wild harvesting has put the plant under pressure in its natural habitat. The Dutch are still involved in its global distribution.
The San used it for bartering in the time of Jan van Riebeek. Two years ago, the government granted the first bioprospecting licence to HGH Pharmaceuticals for sceletium, acknowledging the San as the primary indigenous-knowledge holders of certain medicinal and other uses of kougoed. The Paulshoek and Nourivier communities are to be the beneficiaries.
One indigenous plant for which the most notorious bogus claims are made is Hypoxis hemerocallidea, known as inkomfe (isiZulu), moli kharatsa (Sesotho) or in English by the misnomer the African potato (the edible part is a corm, not a tuber).
Although it will not cure Aids, the Thabo Mbeki government's mad crusade has turned it into a muti industry. A government brochure printed in 2012 still makes the claim that the plant "is an immune booster for people living with HIV/Aids". If not used correctly, it is actually toxic.
Of more interest to cooks than chemists is the Kalahari truffle. Like its European namesake, it is the mushroom-like fruit of a subterranean fungus, but is not particularly rare. They grow mostly on the roots of desert melons in a symbiotic relationship. Kalaharituber pfeilii or !N'abbas is actually a terfezia, not a truffle. It appears in April and May after good rains and pops up at slow-food markets and, from time to time, on the menus of fancy restaurants such as Aubergine in Cape Town.
The fruit of Sclerocarya birrea, better known as the marula, has been turned into one of the country's most successful culinary exports. South Africans of a certain age probably remember Jamie Uys's drunken elephants in his film Animals Are Beautiful People falling about after eating fermented marula. (The scene may have been staged.)
Archaeological evidence suggests that the use of marula stretches far back in time. The tree is the subject of many legends and indigenous uses, including determining the sex of an unborn child. But marula is best known to the world through the popular cream liqueur Amarula, of which an estimated 70000 cases a year is sold in more than 100 countries.
In general, legitimate producers of these indigenous products express ecological concerns and show sensitivity for their importance to local communities. This kind of awareness seems to be becoming inculcated in South Africans and their business ethics.
One must hope commercial success will improve and not destroy this emerging ethos.
A shopper’s guide to nature’s kitchen
Bloukrans Buchu Brandy and Lonehill Buchu Liqueur are available from totpak.co.za.
Cape Moondance supplies buchu tea to supermarkets and claims to be the first to produce 100% pure buchu teabags in South Africa and probably the world. Visit buchusa.co.za.
Cape Kingdom Nutraceuticals sells a variety of buchu remedies, including capsules, gels and herbal waters. Go to buchulife.com.
Rooibos for making red cappuccinos is sold by Red Espresso. Check out redespresso.com.
The science behind this is not strong, but hoodia can be found from various suppliers online and in alternative health shops.
Information on the product, and dry milled powder from sceletium grown organically and sustainably, can be found at sceletium.com.
Capsules and tablets are available from africanbotanicals.com.
Slowfood Cape Town (slowfoodcapetown.co.za) has in the past advertised Kalahari truffle hunts in season. Woolworths sometimes sells the delicacy.
Marula products other than liqueur, plus interesting information, are available on marula.org.za.