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The mysteries of Cussonia the mighty cabbage tree

The mysteries of Cussonia the mighty cabbage tree

What do mental illness, malaria, wounds, inflammation, cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, diarrhoea and other gastro-intestinal problems have in common?

Cussonia, or the cabbage tree. The 21 Cussonia species that occur in the grasslands and woodlands of South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Yemen are well documented in African traditional medicine as an effective treatment for all these maladies.

Any ruler of Cussonia-blessed countries who cares for the health and wellbeing of his people, might well declare ‘my kingdom for a cabbage tree’ for it is an all-in-one traditional cure for the most vicious killer diseases on the continent. Regrettably, while you won’t have much difficulty locating the cabbage tree, you might be hard-pressed to find a caring ruler.

On a more positive note, the governments of certain African countries, including South Africa, Ethiopia and Tanzania, have recognised the importance of recording traditional medicinal knowledge for further development.

“The evaluation of the efficacy, safety and dosage of these medicines is crucial, not only for the possible development of the compounds but because plants are still the main source of medicine in Africa,” explains medicinal plant specialist and the head of the Botany Department at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk, who recently participated in a scientific analysis of Cussonia.

“One of the aims of the analysis was to find scientific evidence in support of its traditional medicinal uses. The leaves of 13 Cussonia species were tested,” says Van Wyk. “The antimicrobial and antimalarial activities observed in Cussonia species provide a scientific basis for the use of the plants in traditional medicine.”

cussonia spicataExtracts of Cussonia showed promising results against gonorrhoea, diarrhoea, malaria and various pathogens that cause infection. Gonorrhoea is one of the most common venereal diseases in Africa. The infection is traditionally treated with certain Cussonia species, either by topically applying a decoction or maceration of the leaves, root or bark, by drinking a root tea or by bathing in a leaf or root-infused bath.

There are many different traditional treatments for malaria and diarrhoea – one is to drink a leaf or root decoction of certain Cussonia species. Malaria, as we know, is Africa’s biggest killer. The World Health Organisation cites an average of 250 million clinical cases of malaria per year, with one million deaths, mostly among children living in Africa. Diarrhoea is also an extremely common African disease, which can be life-threatening when untreated. It is caused by various pathogens and can also be one of the symptoms of malaria.

The leaves and the roots of certain species, such as Cussonia spicata (the Lowveld cabbage tree), have also been reported as being poisonous, and the safety aspect of the species for traditional medicine needs further investigation.

But one man’s meat and medicine is another’s poison. The Lowveld cabbage tree is also widely recorded as a traditional emergency food and source of water, along with the mountain or Highveld cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculata) and the Cape cabbage tree (Cussonia thyrsiflora). The starchy, tuberous roots of these species are peeled and eaten raw. The roots were also ground and used by early settlers as a coffee substitute.

Cussonia was named after a celebrated 18th-century French botanist, Pierre Cusson, by explorer, physician and botanist Carl Thunberg, known as the father of South African botany. In 1771 Thunberg worked his passage to South Africa as a ship surgeon with the Dutch East India Company. Between 1771 and 1775 he collected a substantial number of plant species during his expeditions into South Africa’s interior.

It is believed that the tree’s Afrikaans name, kiepersol, comes from the Portuguese (Quinta-sol) or Indian (Kitty-sol) word for parasol. Thunberg would have come into contact with both influences through his travels with the Dutch East India Company.

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Pictures: Ben-Erik van Wyk

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