Get Involved
About Us
Our Members
Zulu Medicinal Plants: An Inventory.
Packing for my first African Rainforest Pharmacy ecotour, I was more than pleased to accept an invitation to review this rather expensive book. Having just given a talk on what I call the millennial medicines (empirical folk medicines) and the centennial (synthetic) medicines, I treasure the frontispiece quote from the late Dr. M.V. Gumede, medical practitioner: "What is little appreciated is that there is no conflict between the two systems, viz. the old and the new (my millennial and centennial) or the traditional and modern system of medicine. The two apparently contradictory systems are only complementary. Where one fails, the other takes over. Each needs to understand the working of the other one." (Gumede, 1990). For years I have treasured my classical Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk Poisonous and Medicinal Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa (1932) [WBB] as a very useful sourcebook. I feared this new book would be largely a bibliographic echo of that classic. But no!!! Even the cover tells me that one-third of the species treated were not included in WBB. I was pleasantly surprised when I dug in for an evening to peruse this new classic. This fact-full book reports Zulu uses on more than 1,000 species, roughly 25 percent of the flora of KwaZuliu-Natal, South Africa. There's a lot of good new data. For example, I was pleased to find that the book had more on the chemistry of Pygeum africanum (with updated nomenclature to Prunus africana), now being promoted for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), than I had in my files. I was not excited by the non-quantified comment "The wood, flowers and fruits all contain sterols." I suspect that's true of all living plants. As early as 1970, the sterols were found in patent medicines for treating BPH. And in 1986, bark was used in patented hair tonics. But the only Zulu medicinal uses reported were for witchcraft and intercostal pain, neither reported in the earlier classic. Four Zulu names are given, that make the Latin look elementary: lnyazangoma-elimnyama, umdemezulu, undumzula and umkhakhazi. There's an equal array of Afrikaans, Dutch, and English names: bitter almond, bitteramandelboom, nuweamandelhout, red stinkwood, and rooistinkhout. Taking a look at just one of the grass species, the Job's tear (Coix lacryma-jobi L.), whose seeds, drilled and strung on strings, are all too frequently brought back to the USA illegally by tourists (since grass seeds may harbor viruses, it is technically illegal to bring them in without going through the permitting process). For the Job's tear entry on p. 17, there's a code number, K20, which will be wasted on most of us. It's a coding telling us where the species is placed phylogenetically in the herbarium. Then there's the scientific name and the usual generic and specific names, with the authority of this species. Then there are common names in English and South African, Job's tears, Jobskrale, tandkrale, transgras, then the Zulu name ilozisi. Under Zulu Medicinal Usage, we learn that the seeds are worn as good luck charms for infants, chewed upon to alleviate teething problems. Under Other Medicinal Usage, the glumes [chaffy basal bracts on the spikelet of a grass] are used for cholecocystosis and nephrosis in China and Japan, and for bronchitis, cystitis, and urethritis in Europe. Roots are used for gonorrhea in the Philippines, for dysmenorrhea on the Indian Peninsula, and for worms in Malaysia. Plants are used as diuretics in Vietnam, the stem juice used to alleviate irritation from wounds in Liberia. In Mauritius, the fruit decoctions are gargled for sore throats and taken for dysentery and urethritis. Roots of the Chinese variety ma-yuen are used for neuralgia and rheumatism. Under Physiological Effects, we learn that the glume decoction or tincture is reputedly cooling, depurative and diuretic, the root anthelminthic. Under Chemical Constituents and Biological Properties, there's a long listing of chemicals, ma ny the ubiquitous amino and fatty acids that occur in all living species. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the account added nearly a dozen compounds to my Father Nature's Farmacy (FNF) Database. We also find bioactivities, e.g., the antiinflammatory, antitumor, CNS-depressant, and immunomodulatory activities, reported for coixenolide. "Germanium compounds from the seeds have been found useful in the treatment of muscular pain and arthritis (Sugmito, 1987). Two benzoxcanoid compounds from the roots have anti-inflammatory properties and inhibit histamine release." Under Notes, we read that the seeds of this exotic plant are ground and made into beer or flour. Concisely, under Selected Further Reading Abstract Numbers we find pertinent abstract citations. I dare say that going through the book systematically, as I hope to do someday, will add more than 2,000 chemical activities and 1,000 biological activities to my FNF database. This Zulu book turns out to be an interesting source also for English common names I haven't found elsewhere, not to mention the fabulous repository of local Zulu uses, beverages, dyes, food, medicine, and witchcraft. Thus I can heartily recommend it to fact-finders and readers interested in anthropology, botany, conservation, medicine, and phytochemistry. Article copyright American Botanical Council. ~~~~~~~~ By Jim Duke A. Hutchings, A. H. Scott, G. Lewis, and A. Cunningham. 1996. University of Natal Press. 450pp. $114.95 paper; ISBN #0-86180-8931. Available from ABC Catalog #B247.p#