Buchu - Maybe Granny was right . . .

by Sheila Stander


Prior to the event of modern drugs and antibiotics, many South Africans of pioneering stock trusted the buchu herb to treat a wide range of ailments, from headaches, stomach disorders and the common cold, to serious life-threatening viruses such as bilharzia and cholera. Few of the world’s medicinal plants can boast a 400-year-old history as attributed to buchu.


The indigenous Khoi San people introduced buchu to the early Cape colonists at the beginning of the 1700s; the Khoi San considered the herb to be a cure for all ills and an aid to longevity, even at this early stage of its history. Buchu was highly prized and a scarce commodity, so much so that a thimbleful could be exchanged for a whole sheep.


The Khoi San drank tea brewed from the leaves, made poultices to apply to abrasions, open wounds and sprains, and crushed the leaves with the fat from sheep’s tails, rubbing the mixture onto their skins to protect and beautify their bodies. When the Cape colonists introduced buchu into Europe in the latter part of the 1700s it became known as ‘Noble’s Tea’ as only the nobility and wealthy could afford to purchase the leaves.


In 1821 the drughouse, Burchill’s, introduced buchu to the medical profession, and by 1865 the leaf had been imported into the United States as a panacea for most ailments. Buchu has been recorded by every major world pharmacopoeia including the American Merck Index, the British Martingdale’s 1977 edition, and more recently in the Scottish Medical Journal under the heading ‘South Africa’s Amazing Herbal Remedy’. Buchu is the only South African medicinal herb recognized by all these eminent pharmaceutical reference books, particularly with regard to treatment of infections of the genito-urinary tract.


Botanically buchu forms part of the Rutacea family, also known as the Citrus family. This family includes among others, the genus Agothosma which is further divided into Crenulata (oval leaf buchu) and Betulina (round leaf buchu). There are many hundreds of types of buchu growing in South Africa, but Crenulata and Betulina are harvested specifically for their high oil content and grow only in the narrow fynbos strip in the Western Cape mountains, and, to the best of my knowledge, nowhere else in the world.


This fynbos strip runs roughly from Paarl to Citrusdal and is the only area in sub-Saharan Africa to receive winter rainfall with a mild, frost-free, winter temperature of between 6°C and 17°C, and summer temperatures between 15°C and 28°C. In the summer the wind blows from the south-east bringing with it cool misty clouds which, with the Mediterranean climate, is ideal for the cultivation of buchu.

The local government exercises strict control over the gathering of Buchu, and has recently made the terms and conditions more onerous to prevent theft wholesale destruction of the wild plants. The commercial cultivation of buchu is possible, but as with the Cape fynbos, it is doubtful that buchu cultivation can be conducted satisfactorily outside South Africa.


Buchu is farmed organically and hand-harvested by skilled cutters who have passed their expertise down through the generations. Buchu harvesting takes place from October through may, and is never harvested while in flower. The Crenulata buchu plant has a white flower, while the Betulina buchu displays a pretty pink flower. It is important for buchu oil production that the buchu leaves are processed as soon as possible after cutting to maximize oil yield.


For over 30 years, buchu oil has been exported to the major world flavour houses to be used as a natural flavor fixative/enhancer in food products requiring a black current flavour. Buchu oil has the stamp of approval from the American Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) and the European Union for use in foodstuffs. Large quantities of buchu leaf are also dried end sold to pharmaceutical companies worldwide for use in a variety of homeopathic remedies.


With the fast-growing universal awakening to the benefits of natural, alternative medicine form plant sources, the wheel has turned full circle, and once more the spotlight is on buchu, South Africa’s own ‘wonder’ healing herb.

Just as there is an enormous demand for fresh, organically grown food without additives, so people are rejecting the concept of taking chemicals and drugs when there are safe, natural alternatives without side-effects.


The South African Journal of Natural Medicine: Issue Nr. 9, 2003

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