“There is so much that’s enriching to learn about,” Tracy du Plessis tells me, as I trail after her on the rocky, fynbos-covered slopes of the Agter-Pakhuis valley in the Cederberg. The patch of wild land around her house transforms into a trove of medicinal plants as she explains the healing properties of each.
I am already familiar with some of the plants like sour figs (commonly known as vygies) which, besides being good to eat, contain gel in the leaves that is excellent for burns. And plenty of rooibos grows here, which she uses in teas for its abundant antioxidants, and as a base for her moisturisers.
A journey of discovery
She shows me lion’s ear or wilde dagga (Leonotis leonurus), which is a remedy for neurological and bronchial disorders, and African wormwood (Artemisia afra) for parasites and infection. Taaibos (Searsia undulata) is used medicinally for fever and dysentery, wild sage (Salvia africana-caerulea) for respiratory and gynaecological ailments, and wild olive (Olea europaea subsp. africana) for cholesterol and high-blood pressure. Tracy’s quick to explain that she’s not qualified to give medical advice, and that, “Healing with plants must unfold as is appropriate for the individual.”
In 2011, when Tracy and her husband JP left Joburg to live in the rugged countryside outside Clanwilliam, Tracy had no intention of starting a fynbos apothecary. It evolved naturally. As a kinesiologist she was already interested in homeopathy and herbalism, and it wasn’t long before she began discovering and researching the plant world at her new home.
“Part of it was a journey of discovery,” Tracy explains “and part of it was to replace everything with natural products.” For her, natural meant learning the benefits of plants and what they can offer.
She started with the pyjama bush or eight-day healer bush (Lobostemon fruticosus), better known by its Afrikaans name agtdaegeneesbos. “This popular remedy for wounds and skin ailments was well known to the San and Khoi, and then the Cape Settlers, who picked up the local knowledge,” she says. “It was used as a topical remedy often in the form of a poultice.”
The Settlers fried the leaves in fat, but Tracy makes her own version, infusing the leaves in beeswax, and coconut and olive oil, for her skin ointment and climber’s balm, which helps to heal broken and inflamed skin that rock climbers regularly experience. After much positive feedback, she began to explore other plants and her fynbos apothecary grew.
Thanking the plant
Although Tracy gleaned her initial knowledge from books, she wanted something that was living. “The scientist in me first started reading books and theses, but the spiritualist in me wanted to find out the healing story of each plant. And then there’s the culturist, who wanted to know how it was historically used and how it is still used today.”
Some of her information came from her walks, talks and workshops with people living and working in the Agter-Pakhuis, and listening to their stories about the plants and their practical, everyday uses. Some also came from research into old myths and local tales, and from personal experiences and perspectives gained while working with the plants.
Tracy’s favourite teacher is Jerome Jantjies, who lives in Brugkraal, one of the mountain community settlements between Wuppertal and Heuningvlei. Although Tracy had been working with plants for many years, she had yet to come across the so-called ‘magic plants’. Jerome introduced her to this world.
One of the plants he showed her was witvergeet (white forget or Asclepias crispa), used to relieve stomach ache, back pain and headaches. ‘It lets your body forget the pain’, Jerome told Tracy, ‘but it can also make people forget in a nice way, making it handy for court cases, small arguments, or when you go somewhere and want to forget who you’ve seen. You need [a poultice from] a small piece of root in a bag or root infused into a cream’.
Jerome told her about plants for making people forget ‘more urgently’ (like rooistorm and swartstorm) but that ‘witvergeet is white magic’. Tracy was hooked on this way of looking at the world and, once she could identify the plant, was able to find out the scientific name and do her own scientific research.
From Jerome, she also learnt about unusual plant combinations. But he was very specific, ‘Do not take parts of a plant if your shadow has fallen on the plant. And, very important, always thank the plant’.
Cape’s people and their stories
Tracy found that the natural lore had never died in the Agter-Pakhuis region. “It’s all there, in real, practical everyday use,” she says, eyes shining. “Locals will chew on a piece of kraalbos [Galenia africana] if they have toothache, and always make use of natural remedies before venturing into town to see a doctor.”
While she learns of fynbos from the local people, she also shares with them what she knows – her knowledge, her recipes for making ointments, herbal salts and jams with the plants. “This validates, from a modern perspective, things that were taught to them by their parents and grandparents, or things they simply just know,” says Tracy.
Locals Sienna van der Ross and her daughter Alicia, and Lena Oktober, were among her first local teachers, leading her to obscure but highly respected plants like Pteronia divaricata, a plant Sienna calls ‘die regte koorsbos’ (the real fever bush) and karmedik (Dicoma capensis), used as a general tonic and as a remedy for liver complaints.
Sienna taught Tracy the importance of tastes, and not to sweeten medicinal tea as the taste must be true to the plant. “Actually, in terms of veld food, my teachers were local children,” Tracy tells me. “Damien Hein and Maxine van der Ross first showed me how to eat sour fig, for instance, and taught me that the wild blueberry or vliebos (Diospyros glabra) is edible.”
While Tracy collaborates with her new-found friends, trading plants and information for waxes, oils, packaging, and product-making skills, and sharing her specialist knowledge of how to infuse medicinal plants with oil-soluble compounds to make ointments, she is also a regular participant in various discussions with researchers from the University of Cape Town.
“To me, the indigenous fynbos plants are secret keepers that hold the story of the Cape’s people, and their culture. With the local people who teach me so much, I try to ensure that the sharing of knowledge is mutually beneficial.”
Tea blends and a medicine cabinet
A range of ointments form the heart of her Storytellers range, with plants like kruidjie-roer-my-nie (Melianthus major), a plant with large, jagged leaves, known to the early Cape residents for relieving arthritis. She combines this with stinging nettle (Urtica urens) for deep joint relief and gout. Agtdaegeneesbos, sand olive and witvergeet (which she now cultivates and sustainably gathers in her ‘garden’), make up her Forgive & Forget balm for wounds, infections and trauma.
Her anti-inflammatory ointment is made from sutherlandia or cancer bush (Lessertia frutescens), buchu (Agathosma betulina), inflammasiebos or koorsbos (Pteronia divaricata) and wild rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus). Tracy distils her own essential oils and uses the resultant hydrosol, a water-based by-product infused with botanical compounds, for her soaps and moisturisers. She also makes dishwashing liquid, medicinal teas, bath salts, vinegars and herbal salts.
In her sitting room, I am treated to one of her fynbos tea blends that I hope will relieve my hay fever, and am introduced to another popular local remedy, known through the ages by people who recognise the natural world as the rich medicine cabinet that it is. “This is rooibos mixed with sand olive, probably one of the most important medicinal plants in the area,” Tracy explains.
As she extolls its virtues, I realise that if it doesn’t cure my hay fever it will surely benefit me in some way or another. “It’s more effective than milk thistle for the liver, it has tested successfully against various chemotherapy drugs for breast cancer, without damaging normal cells, and is used locally here for headache, flu and stomach ache. It can be given to small children – and you can use it topically and as a tea.”
A vein of gold
For Tracy, it’s important that the natural healing range is called Storytellers, not only as plants have many stories to tell, but because the first people of the region were all storytellers, with a proud heritage that is re-emerging in the Pakhuis area. “My original intention was to start telling the story of the land,” Tracy says, looking out onto the fynbos and sandstone so characteristic of the region. “But, while I’m working intensively with plants and the natural-product side of things, I’m also on a journey of plants and people.”
Exploring her small laboratory-cum-workshop, with its large pot still, bunches of freshly-picked plants and fragrant aromas, I have a chance to view the selection of ointments in their attractive containers with bamboo embellishment. Like her products that contain Namaqua Olive Oil, Khoisan salt harvested in salt pans in Velddrif, and buchu from Heuningvlei,
the packaging is also done locally.
“All my methods are very old-fashioned,” Tracy tells me, during the tour around the small, bright space where she hones in on knowledge that has passed down through the ages, combining ingredients with an alchemist’s flair and a modern touch to produce her Storytellers range.
For her, rediscovering the stories the fynbos plants hold and the remedies Mother Nature has generously stocked in our back garden has been part of the journey back to the land. It’s one of the boons to reconnecting with the Earth, providing an opportunity to tap into a vein of gold that is far richer than anything we can imagine.
Pictures Ron Swilling and Tracy du Plessis