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Photo of Richard Symmonds Mr. Cele's Garden

This story shows how indigenous plants provide important materials for South Africa's traditional healers. Now that many plant species are becoming scarce, horticulturists like Richard Symonds work with traditional healers to cultivate and preserve wild species. Following the premier of the Scientific American Frontiers Special Science Safari, Richard Symmonds and Danny Lenferna answered viewers' questions as part of an Ask the Scientists panel. Here are viewers' questions and their answers:

Q Have any western pharmaceutical companies been working with local South African medicine men (women) to "discover" new drugs?

Great interest and research is currently being done by both American and South African companies to discover new drugs. The potential to make a new discovery is fantastic, as our plant species diversity is very large. A lot of the work done is secretive, due to the high research costs and potential earnings. The work is further complicated by the fact that remedies are seldom single plants, but a concoction of a number of plants. The chemical compounds formed are complex and time consuming to break down.

QCould any of the endangered plants be combined to make hybrids that might be faster growing or more hardy?

Yes, the area of plant breeding or plant selection is vital for any programme which hopes to be able to supply a quality "product." Selection is an ongoing operation and the Silvergen Nursery here in Durban works in conjunction with various conservation bodies to ensure that we keep in touch with current demands. A plant hybrid that is faster growing or more hardy sometimes has its downfalls. Due to the genetic variations in plants, a plant that looks better may not have as high a curative value.

QDo South African people tend to place more trust in natural healers like Mr. Cele and his remedies than in physicians offering modern medicines?

"Modern" medicines are used, but the preference is towards traditional medicines. To use an analogy -- If all people in South Africa currently using traditional medicines were to use modern medicines only, the health system would not be able to cope.

QDo you have any idea of the ratio of natural medicines vs modern drugs used in South Africa?

Currently it is estimated that between 70 and 80% of people living in South Africa make use of traditional medicine on a regular basis. It must also be remembered that most local people find western medicine expensive when compared to traditional medicine.

QHave you tried any of the natural remedies on your own illnesses?

Yes, I have tried one or two traditional remedies. Iboza, which belongs to the Sage family, is used widely. The leaves are crushed into a bowl of hot water and the steam is inhaled. This infusion clears the sinuses. The other preparation which I have used is that of Natal Ginger. The rhizome is crushed into hot milk, which you then drink. I normally use this when I feel a cold starting to flare up.

QHow many acres is Mr. Cele's garden?

Mr. Cele's farm consists of land given to him by the local Chief. The actual amount of land under cultivation is about one acre.

QHow many different plants are you trying to cultivate in Mr. Cele's garden?

The number of plants is difficult to count, as Mr. Cele's needs are constantly changing. He does, however, have good populations of those plants which are becoming endangered, such as the Pepper-bark Tree, various bulbs and succulents.

QDo you grow marijuana in your garden to help people?

Unfortunately, it is illegal to grow or possess marijuana under South African law. Many countries around world are currently assessing its healing attributes. We tend to focus our energies on growing plants that are threatened or less widely recognized. However, traditionally Insangu (as marijuana is referred to in Zulu) has been used and it is widely grown by the local population.

Q How does the medicine man know how the medicine works and which plants solve which ailments? Who taught him and how does he remember all these recipes?

The recipes for remedies to ailments have been passed down over many hundreds of years by word of mouth. Many of the recipes are closely guarded secrets and are passed down through apprentices. An apprenticeship may last a long time before he or she can become a fully "qualified" Sangoma or Inyanga (medicine man). Training to become an Inyanga starts as a child, as the apprenticeship can last up to thirty years.

QI'm interested in creating a South African section in our horticulture garden at school. I've collected many species indigenous to S. Africa which are available in the United States. I am a resident of Southern California, and have been told that our climate is very similar to that of South Africa. Is it possible to obtain seeds and/or cuttings of South African plants for inclusion in our garden? With whom might I speak to arrange such a transfer?

In South Africa we have about 14 different climatic zones ranging from Tropical to Alpine conditions. You are quite correct in saying, however, that the climate in Southern California is similar to that along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. A word of warning -- I am not sure if all the pollinating agents of our plant material would be present in Southern California. A range of our South African bulbs can be purchased through commercial companies:

Hadeco P.O. Box 7 Maraisburg 1700 South Africa Telephone: 27-11-9581350 Fax: 27-11-9581409

Sunburst Flower Bulbs CC P.O. Box 183 Howard Place 7450 South Africa Telephone: 27-21-5319829 Fax: 27-21-5313181

QThe men interviewed in this segment mentioned something about how when after people swallowed a certain kind of poison, they got really sick and vomited. Have any medicine or herbal concoctions developed by the South African healers been proven to be harmful, and banned by the government?

The herbal remedy rendered by the Sangoma or Inyanga (medicine man) is taken by the patient to make them vomit; i.e., it is done quite intentionally. This can be be done with both physiological and psychological complaints. It is said to cleanse the patient prior to treating the illness. Some of the plant extracts are highly toxic and, if mixed in the wrong concentrations, could lead to death. I do not believe the Sangoma or Inyanga would intentionally kill a patient, as with western medicine, his healing powers and reputation are at stake. I am not aware of any specific remedy which has been banned by the government.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.