Pig’s ears and buchu brandy: medicinal plants of the fynbos
If you’ve ever wondered how Bear Grylls would fare on a Table Mountain survival weekend, I can tell you one thing: he’d end up pretty hungry.
The great paradox about these Cape mountains is that although they are covered in the most wonderful plants, their thin, acidic soils are virtually devoid of nutrients. The fynbos yields slim pickings for foraging adventurers. Moreover, to deter the few browsing animals that can eke a living on the mountain, many plant leaves are pungently scented with essential oils or are fattened with bitter, sticky liquids.
This, however, is good news for us. These frugal, smelly plants might make for poor eating, but the chemicals they use as a defence have been harnessed over millennia for medicinal purposes, first by the indigenous Khoikhoi and then the European settlers.
Here are my favourites:
Pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata) – round, fat leaves and tall stalks adorned with red trumpet-shaped flowers make this succulent unmistakable. It’s pretty common on the sunnier, drier slopes of Table Mountain and can be seen dotted around on the Table Top close to the cable car. A paste made from its grey fleshy leaves is applied to warts and boils, while its juice was used as a treatment for epilepsy.
Buchu (Agathosma spp) – ask any Cape farmer about buchu brandy and you’ll get a big grin in reply; this classic cure-all was made by adding stalks of this highly aromatic bush to a bottle of brandy.
A catch-all name for several members of the citrus family, various species can be used to treat anything from ailments of the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts to PMS and hypertension. Buchu also has anti-inflammatory properties, acts as an antiseptic and, according to several people for whom I grow it, delivers “voomah”.
Look out for confetti bush (Coleonema calycinum) on the way up Platteklip Gorge, towards the cable car or on the western slopes of Table Mountain. It is loaded with small white flowers in spring, but the smell of the leaves will identify it at any time of year: imagine a cross between lemon and liquorice.
It’s known as aasbossie to fishermen and they use its pungent leaves to wipe off the smell of red bait (aas). It’s been used as a broom, to improve the smell of bedding and keep bugs away. It’s one of the buchu, famous for their health and immune system-boosting properties. Confetti bush is also delicious in a cup of rooibos.
Agtdaegeneesbos (Lobostemon fruticosus) – with a name that sounds like someone clearing their throat, this plant was supposed to cure any ailment within eight days. Eight days or not, this member of the borage family was used to treat skin conditions ranging from eczema and psoriasis to sunburn and ringworm, as well as cuts and bruises. Keep an eye out for it while hiking Platteklip Gorge – its attractive blue and pink flowers can be seen in late winter and spring.
Brown salvia (Salvia africana-lutea) – this green-grey leaved bush can be seen almost as soon as you exit the cable car at the top. Simply rub a leaf (avoiding the light green, celery-type leaves of the nearby blister bushes) and if you smell “hospital” then you’ve found it. A member of the sage family, a tea made from this plant was used to treat coughs and colds while its cousin, the blue salvia (Salvia africana-caerulea) was mixed with Epsom salts and lemon juice to treat stomach problems.
Bear Grylls might go hungry on Table Mountain, but he won’t fall ill.
The Cableway operates weather permitting. Return tickets for adults are R205, and R100 for children between the ages of four and 17. You can also buy tickets online.
Dominic Chadbon, the Fynbos Guy, is a hiking guide who specialises in birds and botany. England-born, he came to Africa in 1991, working as a safari guide in Botswana before coming to Cape Town and instantly falling hopelessly in love with Table Mountain.