Our Medicinal Mountain in the Cape Floral Kingdom
Over the past month, I have been on an extraordinary adventure. I have discovered how the indigenous plants that flourish on and around Table Mountain hold an array of preventative and curative properties geared exclusively at human physiology. I have had herbs inserted into my ears and aromatherapy oils massaged into my feet, I have watched the extraction process that derives potent oils from fynbos, seen powerful tonics made from dried twigs and leaves. I have learnt that plants have personalities as distinct as humans and live in communities with as much social cohesion or disruption as a human society does. Now, a month later, I no longer see Table Mountain simply as the picturesque wonder that it is. Rather, I see a mountain flourishing in natural and miraculous plant medicine filled with transformative remedies.
The Bush Doctor
Carlo Randall is a local bush doctor who has been studying and practising plant medicine for over 15 years. As a young adult, he embarked on an 8 year pilgrimage across the Western Cape, seeking to learn everything he could about plant medicine from his forbearers. Following his apprenticeship, Carlo took a position at the Botany Department at Stellenbosch University, before setting up his own practice in Cape Town.
I meet Carlo at The Castle on a Saturday morning, where he holds lectures on topics ranging from botany through to post-colonial identity. He carries with him a sack cloth filled with dried bushels. For every plant he shows me (and there are hundreds of them), he can recite the Latin name, the indigenous name and the most commonly used name. He can also rattle off the chemical and healing properties, and how each can be used to prevent or amend an ailment.
Carlo’s gentle demeanour and soft-spoken wisdom belie the arduous journey he has endured. It was no easy feat walking the wilderness for almost a decade, seeking sangomas, bushmen and hidden sages who live alone in the mountains, and then persuading them to share their knowledge with him. What developed from that time was a deep respect for both the fynbos kingdom and his personal ancestry.
“Fynbos is one of the 6 floral kingdoms of the world, but none of the other kingdoms have as much diversity – there are 9000 species alone and 80% of them are endemic to the Western Cape – so they are hugely reliant on each other. These eco-systems are so delicate, and modern day scientists are still learning about them. But most of this knowledge was already established by my ancestors. It’s that knowledge that I hope to pass on.”
The Indigenous Plant Expert
Roushanna Gray is a legend amongst indigenous plant experts in the Western Cape. She lives on a rugged and remote plot of land near Cape Point, where she runs the well-renowned Good Hope Nursery. She is the picture of radiance and good health – spritely and bright-eyed with an unabated enthusiasm for her work.
“We’re all surfers in my family,” she says, walking me through her sprawling garden on a sunny afternoon. “So swimmer’s ear and earache are common ailments in my home. African wormwood is my cure-all for this – by inserting a plug of fresh leaves gently into the ear it draws out the liquids and provides immense relief. It’s also great for relieving blocked sinuses.”
Roushanna makes an effort to feed her family from their abundant garden: nasturtiums for their salads, sour figs and num nums to boost their Vitamin C levels, fermented honeybush tea to keep their immune systems strong. She cooks with wild garlic because it is ‘packed with phytonutrients and more potent than the garlic you would buy from the shops’. Even the weeds in her garden fail to go amiss. “Portulacaria afra contains plenty of Vitamin C,” she explains, tearing a bunch from the ground and handing it to me to chew on. “And purslane is high in omegas.”
Roushanna runs seasonal foraging courses that demonstrate the various uses of indigenous plants to both adults and children.
“The more you begin to eat from your garden and harvest herbs to heal common ailments,” she says, “The crazier it seems that one would rush off to a pharmacy to buy a pill.”
The Essential Oil Expert
“I have no doubt that the plant life in our habitat holds the prevention, and perhaps even the cure, to most illnesses,” says Sue Pugh of Still Pure Essential Oils. “The key, of course, is in the generations of knowledge that precede us, most of which has been passed down verbally amongst indigenous communities.”
Sue began growing and extracting oils on a small farm outside Riebeek Kasteel in 2005. Her business has grown exponentially over the years based on a simple philosophy: creating, pure, clean essential oils without any additives or nasties.
Essential oils are effectively the product of extracting the oil yield from a plant in its most potent form. This practise can be traced back thousands of years – as early as the Ancient Egyptians, who extracted oils and flower essences for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, embalming mummies, effecting a change of mood or simply for the pleasure of the plant’s perfume. Today, oils are most often used in hot or cold compresses for toothaches or sprains, steamed and inhaled to ease congestion, added to baths to aid stiff muscles or diluted into carrier oils for massage. But don’t be fooled by their pleasant scent and delicate bottles: essential oils are potent.
“If you rub a clove of garlic on the sole of someone’s foot, the oil from that garlic will immediately enter their bloodstream and within minutes you will be able to smell garlic on that person’s breath,” explains Sue. “That’s why essential oils are so effective – the molecules are tiny. They penetrate the skin immediately and go straight into your blood stream.”
The trick, however, is to go local. Although overseas buyers are going loco for our fynbos oils, the general rule is that what grows indigenously tends to conform to what our bodies need. Local is always best. Local and seasonal is even better. Which makes those of us living in the Western Cape some of the luckiest people alive: we have access to one of the most diverse and extraordinary floral kingdoms on the planet.
Delicious produce is grown in healthy, living soil. #Harvesttotable series brought to you by Reliance Compost.