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Coetzee, C., E. Jefthas, and E. Reinten. 1999. Indigenous plant genetic resources of South Africa. p. 160–163. In: J. Janick (ed.), Perspectives on new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.


Indigenous Plant Genetic Resources of South Africa

Cobus Coetzee, Elton Jefthas, and Emmy Reinten


  1. MEDICINAL AND CULTURAL USE OF INDIGENOUS PLANTS
  2. FOOD INDUSTRY
  3. ORNAMENTAL INDUSTRY
  4. ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION
  5. REFERENCES

South Africa is considered to be a "hotspot" for biodiversity and more than 22,000 plant species occur within its boundaries. This represents 10% of the world's species, although the land surface of South Africa is less than 1% of the earth. The country is divided into seven biomes and into 68 vegetation types (Low and Rebelo 1996). The Savanna biome covers 33% of the surface of the country, but it is especially the Flora Capensis that is unique. This, the Cape Floral Kingdom, is the smallest of the world's six Floral Kingdoms. It contains 8,700 species of which 68% are endemic.

Despite the enormous richness in plant species, relatively few of these plants are economically utilized. Business ventures that have developed from the use of indigenous plants is the trade in medicinal and cultural plants, food crops, and ornamental plants. Although indigenous wood has been previously used, the source is almost depleted and today these wood types are utilized on a limited scale. Dekriet (Chondropetalum tectorum Pillans), and dekgras (Schizachyrium semiberbe Nees) is still largely used to thatch vernacular buildings.

South Africa beholds her indigenous plants as a valuable natural resource and accepts responsibility to conserve the unique flora. Attempts are also made to utilize the plant kingdom economically for the nation, but with legal acknowledgement of the legal owners.

MEDICINAL AND CULTURAL USE OF INDIGENOUS PLANTS

Indigenous medicinal plants are used by more than 60% of South Africans in their health care needs or cultural practices (Table 1). Approximately 3,000 species are used by an estimated 200,000 indigenous traditional healers (Van Wyk et al. 1997).

Due to urbanization, a large informal trade business has been established with medicinal plants. Unfortunately, utilization of the plants has depleted the wild populations, resulting in many plant species being considered vulnerable, and being lost from their natural habitat. If raw materials of medicinal plants can be delivered in sustainable quantities (Mander et al. 1995), indigenous plants will continue to form an important component of the primary health care in Southern Africa.

Table 1. Selection of indigenous medicinal plants used in South Africa.

Species

Family

Popular name

Agathosma betulina (Bergius) Pill.

Rutaceae

Buchu

Agathosma crenulata (L.) Pill.

Rutaceae

Buchu

Aloe ferox Miller

Asphodelaceae

 

Artemisia afra Jacq. ex Willd.

Asteraceae

Wormwood

Balanite maughamii Delile

Balanitaceae

Torchwood

Bersama tysoniana Oliv

Melianthaceae

White ash

Boophane disticha (L.f.) Herbert.

Amaryllidaceae

Tumbleweed

Bowiea volubilis Harv.

Hyacinthaceae

Climbing lily

Cassine papillosa (Hochst.) Kuntze

Celastraceae

Common saffron

Clivia miniata Regel.

Amaryllidaceae

Bush lily

Cryptocarya latifolia Sond.

Lauraceae

Broad leaved quince

Curtisia dentata (Burm.f.) C.A. Smith

Cornaceae

Assegaai

Dioscorea sylvatica (Kunth) Ecklon

Dioscoreaceae

Elephant's foot

Eucomis autumnalis (Mill.) Chitt.

Hyacinthaceae

Wild pineapple

Gunnera perpensa L.

Gunneraceae

Wild rhubarb

Harpagophytum procumbens DC.

Pedaliaceae

Devil's claw

Ocotea bullata (Burchell) Baillon

Lauraceae

Stinkwood

Pelargonium sidoides DC.

Geraniaceae

Umkcaloabo

Pittosporum viridiflorum Sims

Pittosporaceae

Cheesewood

Rapanea melanophloeos (L.) Mez

Myrsinaceae

Cape beech

Scilla natalensis Planch.

Hyacinthaceae

Blue hyacinth

Siphonochilus aethiopicus (Schweinf.) B.l. Birtt

Zingiberaceae

African ginger

Stangeria eriopus Nash

Stangeriaceae

Natal grass cycad

Warburgia salutaris (Bertol.f.) Chiov.

Canellaceae

Pepperbark tree

Xysmalobium undulatum R.Br

Asclepiadaceae

Uzara

Few medicinal plants are cultivated and only Warburgia salutaris (Bertol.f.) Chiov. (pepperbark tree) and Siphonochilus aethiopicus (Schweinf.) B.l. Birtt (African ginger) are known to be propagated for cultivation. Phytomedicine plants in South Africa with a position in the international trade are Cape aloes (Aloe ferox Miller), buchu (Agathosma spp.), devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens DC), umkcaloabo (Pelargonium sidoides DC) and uzara (Xysmalobium undulatum R.Br) (N. Gericke 1998 unpubl. report). Buchu is cultivated commercially, but is also harvested in the wild, although under supplied. This can lead to over utilization of the natural habitat. Aloe ferox Miller is sustainably harvested from the wild. In the case of devil's claw the natural habitat can be over utilized. From the diversity of medicinal plants, a large number of species containing chemical components have the potential to play a role in the medicinal market on a global scale. At present bioprospecting is done on all plants in South Africa to determine among other things its pharmaceutical potential.

FOOD INDUSTRY

Although Southern Africa is very rich in the diversity of plant species, only a few are used as edible food material. The leaves and roots of edible plants have a high nutritional value and can play an important role in the prevention of malnutrition in rural areas. (Venter and Van den Heever 1998). With urbanization there is a movement away from traditional crops and more Western eating habits are developing.

Some of the indigenous food types (Table 2) such as rooibos tea [Aspalathus linearis (Burm.f.) R. Dahlgren] and honeybush tea (Cyclopia spp.) have developed as an agricultural industry with export potential. Buchu (Agathosma spp.), one of the traditional medicinal plants, is exported in large volumes. This however, is not for medicinal uses but mainly as a fixative in the food industry. Buchu is also used on a small scale in the ornamental industry.

Table 2. Indigenous edible wild plants used in South Africa.

Species

Family

Popular name

Agathosma betulina (Bergius) Pill.

Rutaceae

Buchu

Agathosma crenulata (L.) Pill.

Rutaceae

Buchu

Aponogeton distachyos L. f.

Aponogetonaceae

Waterblommetjies

Amaranthus hybridus (L.f)

Amaranthaceae

Marog

Amaranthus tricolor L.

Amaranthaceae

Marog

Aspalathus linearis (Burm.f.) R. Dahlgren

Fabaceae

Rooibos tea

Cajanus cajan Mill sp.

Leguminosae

Pigeon pea

Carpobrotus edulis (L) N.E.Br.

Mesembryanthemaceae

Sour fig

Cleome gynandra L.

Capparidaceae

Leafy vegetable

Colocasia antiquorum var. esculenta Schott

Araceae

Amadumbie

Cyclopia genistoides (L.) Vent.

Fabaceae

Honeybush tea

Dovyalis caffra Warb.

Flacourtiaceae

Kei apple

Plectranthus escullentus N.E.Br.

Lamiaceae

 

Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra Sond.

Anacardiaceae

Marula

Solanum retroflexum Dun

Solanaceae

 

Vigna subterranea (L.) Werdc.

Fabaceae

Bambara ground nut

Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp.

Fabaceae

Cowpea

ORNAMENTAL INDUSTRY

The Flora Capensis, a plant kingdom contained within the boundaries of South Africa, comprises 8600 species (Bond and Goldblatt 1984). From this floricultural wealth, European explorers collected plant material and a range of new horticultural products were developed over the last two hundred years

Table 3. Some indigenous ornamental plants originally from South Africa, cultivated worldwide.

Genus

Family

Agapanthus spp.

Alliaceae

Clivia spp.

Amaryllidaceae

Chlorophytum spp.

Asphodelaceae

Erica spp.

Ericaceae

Freesia spp.

Iridaceae

Gerbera spp.

Asteraceae

Gladiolus spp.

Iridaceae

Leucadendron spp.

Proteaceae

Leucospermum spp.

Proteaceae

Nerine sarniensis

Amaryllidaceae

Osteospermum spp.

Asteraceae

Pelargonium spp.

Geraniaceae

Plumbago spp.

Plumbaginaceae

Protea spp.

Proteaceae

Strelitzia spp.

Strelitziaceae

Ornithogalum spp.

Hyacinthaceae

Thamnochortus spp.

Restionaceae

Veltheimia spp.

Hyacinthaceae

Zantedeschia spp.

Araceae

Gladiolus and Freesia (Table 3), important fresh cut flowers on the world market, are originally from this region. An important component of the agricultural sector in the Western Cape is based on Flora Capensis, namely the indigenous flower industry (Wessels et al. 1997). The indigenous flower industry supports 20,000 people and is an important job creator in the Western Cape. In the past, indigenous flowers were harvested in the natural habitat—today the industry is in a transformation process and flowers are cultivated. If the process is not successful, South Africa stands to lose its protea industry and countries like Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe will take a leading role in production.

ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION

Economic exploitation of South Africa's rich natural plant resources is limited. At present only the indigenous flower industry has relatively successfully established small and medium scale entrepreneurs. The indigenous medicinal plant industry is large, but fully based on harvesting from the wild. This is not sustainable and will have to be supplemented with cultivation. The commercial utilization of food types is limited, with the exception of the buchu industry which has already been established as a cultivated industry with an export market. Only aloe and devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens DC.) are exported for medicinal use.

The utilization of South African indigenous flora can only be successfully explored if the existing indigenous knowledge of the inhabitants is made available to science. By forming associations between natural healers and scientists, medicinal plants can be investigated. From these associations, industries can be formed to commercialize the products.

Commercial utilization will promote the creation and development of rural SMME's (small micro and medium entrepreneurs). This will enable communities to create wealth from indigenous technologies and plants (M. Deliwe 1998 unpubl. report), and will ensure that natural habitats are protected. The problem is to prohibit illicit exploitation of plant material, as well as other prejudicial actions. At present no official legislation exists, but a proposed law known as the "Protection of Indigenous Knowledge Act" is being prepared to advance the promotion and protection of indigenous knowledge. This act does not prohibit the exploitation of indigenous plants. On the contrary, the act attempts to promote and develop the use of indigenous genetic material. The primary aim is to ensure that the lawful owner is recognized in the development.

The proposed legislature will contribute to documenting indigenous knowledge. The act makes provision for manners and customs related to food, production of traditional medicine from herbs or other sources, and fermentation techniques to be documented without giving away ownership. This aspect is invaluable in ensuring that the cultural heritage is conserved for generations to come.

Communities fear the illicit use and exploitation of indigenous knowledge by outsiders, with the result that most knowledge and especially indigenous medicinal plant knowledge is being kept secret. The proposed act will lay ghost to this fear as the law will now protect the individuals and communities. A protocol and guidance is available to assist communities in negotiations on use of indigenous knowledge. These developments will enhance the maintenance and availability of indigenous knowledge and will contribute to research and development, contributing to the African Renaissance, not only in South Africa but in the whole of Africa.

REFERENCES