West, Central, South and East Africa

In many areas of Africa, local systems of herbal medicine began as religious rituals, such as holy men drinking herbal tonics to better commune with a god or gods. Over time, religious leaders also became tribal healers, harvesting herbs, tree barks, roots, and berries to cure common ills and combat diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.

In the Yoruba religion, which dates back thousands of years, medicinal plants and herbs, called ewe, were believed to possess strong spiritual powers. Cemeteries, for example, were the territory of Oya Orisha, the goddess of change, so ewe harvested there was thought to possess her ability to bring about violent but necessary transformations. Many herbs used in Yorubic medicine, including cola, buchu, and ginger, were steeped and prepared as teas, and some were administered as enemas. One medicinal soup, or ose, recipe includes water, oil, salt, pepper, cooked melon, and locust seeds.

In much of Central Africa, the history of herb use varied depending on the local flora and the traditions of individual tribes. Natives of Cameroon, Gabon, and the Congo have long believed that the bark of the tall evergreen yohimbe could cure coughs, fevers, and leprosy. The long-standing trade of cola nuts (Cola nitida) began with the tradition of chewing cola before each meal to aid digestion and sustain strength.

In Ethiopia and Somalia, traditional herbal medicine has been practiced for nearly 2,000 years, with recipes being passed down from healer to healer by word of mouth because people believed the herb would lose its medicinal power if a patient knew its name. For centuries, Ethiopian healers have prescribed ground twigs and buds of African pencil cedar (Juniperus procera) to treat stomach worms, flaxseed as a laxative and to speed the healing of deep wounds, and bosoke (Kalanchoe spp.) to treat boils and wounds.

Other tribes had traditional uses for herbs. Slukari hunters in the Congo rubbed the gel of aloe over their bodies to mask their scent from prey. The algum tree of Somalia, probably a type of sandalwood, was prized for its ability to produce fragrant incense. The Masai people of eastern Africa have always supplemented their staple foods of beef, milk, and yogurt with wild weeds, tree bark, and tree gums that might help counterbalance their cholesterol-rich diet. Traditionally, cassava tubers have been the primary food of millions of people in Uganda. In times of famine, when grain crops failed, Ethiopians routinely gathered and ate the roots and stems of the wild treelike herb Ensete ventricosum, known as the Ethiopian banana, to survive. This plant, also known as ensete, is cultivated as an important food source, mixed with other crops such as sorghum or coffee, depending on the region.

Cola nuts, native to the rainforests of Africa, are valued for their stimulatory properties.

In 1652, an outpost of the Dutch East India Company was established at the Cape of Good Hope. Initially, the purpose was to resupply company ships traveling between Europe and the East Asian spice ports. But soon, a full Dutch colony was established. As colonists planted kitchen gardens for their own use in the early 1700s, they began to learn more about the local herbs. Probably by observing local tribes such as the Khoisan, the Dutch learned that honeybush (Cyclopia genistoides) was a pleasant substitute for tea. Honeybush tea also proved to be an effective treatment for coughs and other respiratory conditions, so before long, it became another profitable export for the Dutch East India Company. The popular herb rooibos (Aspalathus linearis), long used by tribes as a mild sedative and to relieve colic in babies, gained worldwide acceptance as another tea substitute. Blended with cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg, rooibos creates a full-bodied, caffeine-free red tea filled with antioxidants.

Through the centuries, practitioners have gone by a variety of names: inyanga, or herbalist; sangoma, or diviner; and, after the arrival of the Dutch, bossiedokter, or bush doctor. These healers all collected herbs from the wild, or “bush.” Some of the more popular herbs in traditional South African medicine were devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), used for arthritis and gastrointestinal disorders; pepper-bark (Warburgia salutaris), used for sinusitis and disorders of the lungs; African wormwood (Artemisia afra), used for measles and malaria; and wild willow (Salix mucronata), used for arthritis and fevers.

Herbal healing remains popular in South Africa, and large quantities of herbs collected from the wild are still prescribed and sold. Even newly introduced diseases are treated herbally. African potato (Hypoxis hemerocallidea)—used for centuries by Zulu healers to treat urinary tract infections, cardiac disorders, tumors, and nervous disorders—is used today as an immunostimulant for HIV/AIDS patients.

Isolated from the rest of the world’s landmass for millions of years, the Americas developed a fascinating flora and fauna, with many unique species. The people who migrated to the western hemisphere over the Bering land bridge many thousands of years ago learned numerous uses for the plants that grew around them. The Navajo Indians used desert plants of present-day Arizona in religious ceremonies. Maya Indians incorporated Mexican rainforest plants into daily spiritual rituals. And Incas created medicines from the high-altitude herbs of the Peruvian mountains. Over time, each culture developed its own uses and recipes for therapeutic herbs.