Top 8 African Herbs for Overall Wellness, Vitality, & Longevity

Updated: Jan 22

With the vast amount of botanicals thriving on this continent, this list could entail hundreds of plants. We're going to focus on a few, spanning from North, Tropical, West, and Southern African countries, that have been staples in traditional medicinal practices and staples to sustain optimal living.


SPIDER FLOWER (Cleome gynandra)



"The spiderwisp looks like a mustard that lost its way or got some psychedelic-laced fertilizer," according to Green Deane. Referred to as "dek" of the Luo people, wild spider flower is slightly invasive weedy plant thrives in tropical and subtropical areas. From the flowers to the root, the entirety of the plant is harvested for medicine making and to savor in a dish. Traditionally it was used to treat snake and scorpion bites, fevers, ear pain, and rheumatism.


A cousin to mustard greens, its leaves are robust in flavor, attributing the spicy note of mustard greens with an earthy note. It's usually cooked as a vegetable, served alone or paired with a nut or grain dish (i.e. peanut stew or fermented over rice). Without looking at the phytochemistry, its spicy and bitter palate indicates that it's high in nutritional value. This "wild spinach" is packed with calcium, vitamin C, folic acid, iron, vitamin A, and amino acids.


Herbal actions: anthelmintic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, rubefacient, vesicant


BITTER ALOE (Aloe ferox)



One of the plants an African home cannot go without: aloe vera. My grandmother usually has this readily available at her home, in addition to greens, fruit trees, and other staples. Ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, have utilized this plant for it's medicinal and nutritional properties.


It has an expansive application use, to include treating external wounds and irritations, gastrointestinal ailments, cosmetic purposes and skin healing, and arthritis. Often the African aloe ferox is referred to in the discussion of African aloe vera; however, there are over 360 species of aloe vera in the continent alone. Compared to the American variety (Aloe barbadensis), the aloe ferox is composed of 36% more amino acids and 28% additional aloin quantity.


The leaf and powder are formulated for medicinal purposes, whereas the gel can be utilized for both medicinal and nutritional purposes. The luscious gel is rich in vitamins A, B12, C, antioxidants, as well as bradykinase which is responsible for the topical anti-inflammatory response.


This easy-to-grow plant has been harvested by locals significantly - to the point of endangerment. South African Conservation agencies and International agencies are completely restricting people from harvesting aloe vera from the wild and have restricted distribution of the plant to retain its survivability.


Herbal Actions: antibacterial, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, coagulant, digestive, laxative, relaxant


BUCHU (Agathosma betulina, A. crenulata)



"Birch-like" in appearance, there are 150 species of buchu endemic to South America. The locals utilize this pleasant peppermint-scented plant for its medicinal properties and aromatic effects. In traditional medicine practices, buchu is effective as a wound healer, antibiotic repellent, treating Libra and Scorpio ruling meridians (i.e. kidney, bladder, urinary tract), and general stomach pains. Current research proves its traditional uses and attributes, even further, based on its pharmacological makeup.


Herbal Actions: antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory,antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, digestive tonic, diuretic




COFFEE (Coffea Arabica, C. canephora)



Grown as corn is in the states, there are numerous coffee farms in the villages of coffee-exporting African countries (i.e. Kenya, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Madagascar). In Kenya, the plants reach for the sky as they thrive near Mount Kenya. This is what gives Arabica its distinct flavor, as the limited amount of oxygen produces a stronger flavor. Before there was Arabica, Robusta coffee (Coffea canephora) grew wildly in East Africa.


In pre-colonial Africa, coffee was a sacred plant. The indigenous people would cultivate coffee to drink for chanting and spiritual rituals, to gain energy, and to stagnate hunger whilst hunting. At this point, it mainly grew wild. It was brewed with water, occasionally adding spices such as cinnamon or cardamom. When colonists arrived, they were not keen about the dark coffee, although they coveted its effects and saw potential in commoditizing the crop. With sugar in hand, the foreigners changed the concoction of the sacred drink by adding sugar and milk and essentially made coffee a cash crop, providing ample profits in their wallets and little to none for the farmers.


View the 'Concoctions' highlight to learn about the benefits of coffee essential oil.




This sacred bean transformed into the daily cup of Joe in less than a century. As mentioned earlier, it was coveted for the effects it had on the human body. As a mild stimulant, caffeine revitalizes and energizes the body and mind. Coffee Arabia is also rich in vitamin B (2,3,5), vitamin E, potassium, and magnesium. Studies have proven coffee to improve overall longevity, as towards off certain illnesses and cancers regarding the heart, brain, breast, liver, kidney, colon and throat and its functions.


Herbal Actions: analgesic, antioxidant, bronchial dilator, diuretic, neuroprotective, stimulant, vasoconstrictor


KOLA NUT (Cola acuminate, C. nitida)


Kola nut (Cola nitida) W.H. Hodge

The Cola acuminate and C. nitida species of Kola nut are very similar in phytochemical composition; C. acuminate contains higher levels of ash, protein, fat, and other compounds. The tree thrives in tropical and rain forest regions, primarily in West Africa. It can tolerate dry periods in weather but prefers a wet and humid climate with slightly acid soil.


All parts of the tree are utilized in one fashion or another. The kernels vary in white, red, and pink hues, beautifully utilized as a natural dye for food and textiles. Durable furniture and building materials are often constructed by the locals utilizing the wood from the tree. The creamy white flowers can be pressed for oil, but are usually an indicator as to when it's harvest time. The seeds have the ability to purify water.


Traditionally, the nut was chewed or ground to powder against diarrhea, dysentery, vomiting in high fever, piles, headache, and stomach ulcers. It's a combination of healthy fats, protein, and caffeine is what deems it a staple for West African locals.

Herbal Actions: antidepressant, astringent, digestive tonic, diuretic, stimulant


GINGER (Siphonochilus aethiopicus)



Native to southern Africa, this highly sought after medicinal plant is extinct in certain areas and endangered in others. The locals are cultivating the plant to ensure its survival. It thrives in well-drained, fertile soil under the full sun. As with any ginger, the roots and rhizomes are harvested for medicinal use. Traditionally, it's chewed to treat asthma, menstruation, hysteria, colds, malaria, coughs and flu.


Experience the healing properties of ginger tincture.


Herbal Actions: analgesic, anti-inflammatory, bronchial dilator, immunomodulating


KANNA (Sceletium tortuosum)


This succulent plant endemic to South Africa has been used by the local bushmen and Rastafarians in its fermented state for centuries for medicinal and ritual purposes. In traditional medicine, Kanna has reputable relaxing and psychoactive properties; no worries here, as it's neither addictive or hallucinogenic. It's been gaining traction in the scientific community to elevate one's well-being by reducing stress and anxiety.


The human brain responds to anxiety and stress as a threat, thus setting off the amygdala and hypothalamus areas of the brain with a rush of adrenaline and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which also affect the adrenal glands. Rich in alkaloids, Kanna works with the brain's mood-regulating hormone serotonin by keeping it in balance.


Its herbal actions are amazing, especially in regards to the brain. A study suggested that Kanna may improve cognitive flexibility and function. Further studies need to be conducted in order to understand the extent of Kanna's mechanisms.


As it is an antidepressant, Kanna should not be combined with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).


Herbal Actions: analgesic, antidepressant, appetite suppresant, psychoactive, relaxant


MORINGA

You may be most familiar with the Oleifera species of moringa, also called Indian moringa; however, the Moringaceae family consists of 13 species. Specifically, there are nine species endemic to Africa; six species native to East Africa (M. arborea, M. borziana, M. longituba, M. pygmaea, M. rivae, and M. ruspoliana); two are native to Madagascar (M. drouhardii and M. hildebrandtii ), and one species is native to Southern Africa (M. ovalifolia ). The M. peregrina and M. stenopetala are endemic to Africa as well, and have the most extensive scientific data, unlike the species mentioned above (1). Despite the species, studies and traditional use have proven the frugality moringa tree.

"As sources of the usually short sulfur-bearing amino acids methionine and cystine, Moringa oleifera, grown for edible leaves, shoots, young fruits, and roots, is incomparable.” - Martin

The entire tree is edible, however, people commonly consume the seeds, pods, leaves, and roots. People across various cultures include moringa as a staple in their diet. Many cook the leaves as spinach and feed it to the young children. The moringa tree is unique, as there are few trees that provide a complete protein profile. It's also rich in vitamin C, A, K, and numerous minerals.


Experience the benefits of moringa in this herbal extract.



References:


Amoo, S. O., Aremu, A. O., & Staden, J. V. (2014). Unraveling the medicinal potential of South African Aloe species. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 153(1), 19–41. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2014.01.036


Bongekile Skosana, Guillaume Aboua and Stefan S du Plessis (February 5th 2014). Buchu – The Multi-Purpose Ethnomedicinally Important Specie and Its Benefits in the Reproductive System, Antioxidant-Antidiabetic Agents and Human Health, Oluwafemi Oguntibeju, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/57233. Available from: https://www.intechopen.com/books/antioxidant-antidiabetic-agents-and-human-health/buchu-the-multi-purpose-ethnomedicinally-important-specie-and-its-benefits-in-the-reproductive-syste


D. Simpson. Buchu--South Africa's amazing herbal remedy. Scott Med J. 1998 Dec; 43(6): 189–191.


Discovering Indigenous Treasures: Promising Indigenous Vegetables from Around the World. 2009. AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center


Durand Dah-Nouvlessounon, Adolphe Adjanohoun, Haziz Sina, Pacôme A. Noumavo, Nafan Diarrasouba, Charles Parkouda, Yann E. Madodé, Mamoudou H. Dicko, Lamine Baba-Moussa (2015) Nutritional and Anti-Nutrient Composition of Three Kola Nuts ( Cola nitida, Cola acuminata andGarcinia kola ) Produced in Benin. Food and Nutrition Sciences,06,1395-1407. doi: 10.4236/fns.2015.615145


Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.


IUCN Nepal. 2000. National Register of Medicinal Plants. Kathmandu: IUCN Nepal. ix+ 163 pp


L. (n.d.). Cleome gynandra - L. Retrieved from https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Cleome+gynandra


Louw, M. (n.d.). Aloe Ferox - The African 'Aloe Vera'South African Medicinal Plants. Retrieved from http://southafrica.co.za/aloe-ferox-the-african-aloe-vera.html


(n.d.). WILD GINGER, AFRICAN GINGER. Retrieved from https://www.herbgarden.co.za/mountainherb/herbinfo.php?id=620


E. A. Dewole, D. F. A. Dewumi, J. Y. T. Alabi, A. Adegoke. Proximate and phytochemical of Cola nitida and Cola acuminata. Pak J Biol Sci. 2013 Nov 15; 16(22): 1593–1596.


Mukiibi, E. (2015, August 2). A Coffee Culture. Retrieved from https://www.slowfood.com/a-coffee-culture/


Simon Chiu, Nigel Gericke, Michel Farina-Woodbury, et al., “Proof-of-Concept Randomized Controlled Study of Cognition Effects of the Proprietary Extract Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin) Targeting Phosphodiesterase-4 in Cognitively Healthy Subjects: Implications for Alzheimer’s Dementia,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2014, Article ID 682014, 9 pages, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/682014.


Terburg D, Syal S, Rosenberger LA, et al. Acute effects of Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin), a dual 5-HT reuptake and PDE4 inhibitor, in the human amygdala and its connection to the hypothalamus. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2013;38(13):2708–2716. doi:10.1038/npp.2013.183


Topik, S. Coffee as a Social Drug. Cultural Critique, No. 71, Drugs in Motion: Mind- and Body-Altering Substances in the World's Cultural Economy (Winter, 2009), pp. 81-106. University of Minnesota Press

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The herbalist, chemist, and medicine maker at Asili Apothecary, Gloria created this space to facilitate healing and learning for yourself and those around you. The apothecary and homestead is based in Fayetteville, NC. Gloria enjoys time with her family and Mother Nature.

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