by Department of Environmental Affairs

Monitoring The Trade in Medicinal Plants

The trade in medicinal plants is a complex, worldwide issue. An estimated 50 000 to 70 000 medicinal and aromatic species are harvested from the wild, according to Traffic


There are various factors to consider: the trade provides an income to millions of often poor and rural households involved in collection; it supplies industrial production of a wide array of medicinal and household products; trade is increasing; and illegal trade in threatened species is ongoing.

The majority of medicinal and aromatic plants in use and trade are wild-collected, says Traffic, and wild plant populations are declining the world over. One in five of the world's plant species is estimated to be threatened with extinction in the wild, and unsustainable harvesting is a major factor.

In South Africa, there is a variety of plants harvested for traditional medicine and lifestyle uses, from rooibos and buchu tea to Siphonochilus aethiopicus, or African ginger. The fresh roots or rhizomes are chewed to treat influenza. It is also used for colds, asthma, to treat malaria and by women during menstruation. The plant has also been traditionally used as an appetite suppressant and sedative.

More well-known is hoodia, which is on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) list of protected species. Commonly known as queen of the Namib, African hats or milkweed, it is a spiny, succulent, leafless plant that grows in the north-eastern part of Western Cape and the north and north-western regions of Northern Cape.

Its leaves and stems are widely used as an appetite suppressant, thirst quencher, mood enhancer and as a cure for severe abdominal cramps, haemorrhoids, tuberculosis, indigestion, hypertension and diabetes.

Aloes, many of which are used for medicinal and household products, are also on the CITES list, although Aloe ferox, or bitter aloe is not. Aloes grow throughout Western Cape, Eastern Cape, southern KwaZulu-Natal, and south-eastern part of the Free State.

The crop is ready for harvesting after 18 months of cultivation. Only 10 to 15 of the lower leaves of an adult plant are harvested once a year, and are cut with a sickle. They have been traditionally used for stomach complaints, arthritis, eczema, conjunctivitis, hypertension and stress. They are also used to treat skin irritations and bruises.

Other medicinal plants indigenous to South Africa include the African potato, or Hypoxis hemmerocallidea. Also known as the star lily, its tuber, leaves and bulbs are used, with the tuber traditionally used to treat benign prostate hypertrophy, urinary tract infections and testicular tumours. They can also be used to treat dizziness, heart weakness, nervous and bladder disorders as well as depression.

But the battle to control the trade in plants is an uphill one. Plants do not get the same attention as big animals such as rhino or elephants; they don't push people's emotional buttons as easily as issues such as the loss of rain forests; and the need to balance rural livelihoods with conservation and sustainable use of the wild plant populations is key.

Did you know that one in four South African plant species is of conservation concern? If you spot one, you can notify the Red List team at the South African National Biodiversity Institute's Threatened Species Programme of your find by adding your observation to the Red List Alert project on iSpot.

To report an environmental offence, phone the tip-off line: 0800 205 005.

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