Buchu is a familiar word in South Africa but is mostly associated with brandy. What else do you know about it? Like many things that we take for granted, there is more to this insignificant looking shrub than meets the eye. Here are a few fast facts about this miracle plant.
For a start, it is a traditional medicinal or ‘’muti” plant, belonging to the Agosthoma family, and if you are walking in the mountains in the South Western Cape where it is an endemic, you may notice a characteristic aromatic, black currant -like smell when you brush up against the little leaves of this small shrub.
Two main species of buchu are used medicinally, the round leaf and the oval leaf variety for infusions or tinctures for a whole range of ailments, including colds, hangovers, cystitis and as a diuretic. Aside from traditional use, both types of buchu are farmed to obtain essential oil which is used mainly in the food industry as flavouring.
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Known for centuries as a muti or medicinal plant among the Khoi people, buchu which only grows in the Western Cape, has a reputation for being a cure all, especially when taken as a tincture in buchu brandy. But it also has a very exciting future both as an adaptogenic to enhance the body’s ability to counter physical and emotional stress, and as an anti-inflammatory when taken as buchu water.
Two varieties of buchu are involved in making remedies Agathosma betulina (round- leaf buchu) and Agathosma crenulata (oval- leaf buchu).
“It is the most amazing plant,” says Professor Patrick Bouic, immunologist and chief technical officer at Synexa Group, which specialises in clinical trials and diagnostics. According to Patrick, buchu- based remedies can be used to treat hypertension (high-blood pressure) and diabetes successfully, as both conditions are caused by underlying inflammation.
“It may also have a role in one of the most pressing issues facing us: the growth of anti-biotic resistant super bugs.” Tests are still being carried out to determine what exactly the active pharmacological constituent in the plant is that makes it so effective.
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“What we are finding is that buchu’s effects can vary depending on the time of year and the region where the plant is growing,” says Patrick. The seasonal variation is due to the clever way these plants produce a substance at a certain time of the year that repels insects and animals and prevents them from eating the leaves.
At Synexa, Patrick in co-operation with Stellenbosch University is pinpointing the molecule in buchu that could be effective against superbugs like Methicillin- resistant Staphylococcus Aureus MRSA that cause infection. Once isolated, this molecule can be reproduced synthetically in much the same way that penicillin is, and used commercially after clinical trials.
Buchu, though, is just one of dozens of plants in the Cape Floral Kingdom which have been used traditionally as medicines (some of which may come into mainstream pharmacology). “The Western Cape has bigger number of plants with medicinal properties than the whole of the Amazon region in South America. These mainly belong to the fynbos group,” says Patrick. Truly the Cape is Nature’s medicine cabinet.
Check out more of our bloomingly beautiful Fynbos.