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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 15  |  Issue : 60  |  Page : 115-123  

An ethnobotanical and ethnomedicinal survey of traditionally used medicinal plants in Seymour, South Africa: An attempt toward digitization and preservation of ethnic knowledge

1 Department of Plant Sciences, Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, University of the Free State, Phuthaditjhaba, South Africa
2 Department of Botany, University of Fort Hare, Alice, South Africa
3 Department of Biochemistry and Physiology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Abuja, Abuja, Nigeria

Date of Submission16-May-2018
Date of Decision08-Jun-2018
Date of Web Publication23-Jan-2019

Correspondence Address:
Lisa Valencia Buwa-Komoren
Department of Plant Sciences, Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, University of The Free State, Private Bag X13, Phuthaditjhaba 9866
South Africa
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/pm.pm_259_18

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Introduction: Medicinal plants have been used for the treatment of both infectious and noninfectious diseases by the majority of the world's population for many years. The low socioeconomic standing of Eastern Cape population suggests that the majority of people use traditional methods of health care. Many of the rural communities in this province have no access to Western medical health care and rely on traditional medicine for their primary health-care needs. Materials and Methods: An ethnobotanical survey was conducted from February 2013 to December 2015 to investigate the use of medicinal plants by the people of Seymour in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Information was gathered from nine traditional healers, seven herbalists, and 18 elderly villagers. Results: The information collected revealed six ailment categories that were treated with a wide range of medicinal plants. A total of 50 plant species belonging to 29 families were reported to be used in the treatment of various ailments. Members of the family Asteraceae, Euphorbiaceae, Fabaceae, and Rutaceae had the highest number of species used in traditional healing. Leaves were reported to be the most frequently used plant part, followed by roots, bark, stem, and then corms and rhizomes. The survey indicated that the most prominent method of herbal administration used is orally via extracts that were obtained by boiling, either as a decoction or concoction. Conclusions: This study has documented important information on medicinal plants used by people, traditional healers, and herbalists of Seymour region in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa to treat various ailments.
Abbreviations used: ACE: Angiotensin-converting enzyme; CNS: Central nervous system; ENT: Ear, nose and throat; HIV: Human Immunodeficiency virus; ICF: Informant consensus factor; Nur: Total number of use report; Nt: Number of taxa; TB: Tuberculosis

Keywords: Ailments, ethnobotanical survey, herbalists, medicinal plants, traditional healers

How to cite this article:
Buwa-Komoren LV, Mayekiso B, Mhinana Z, Adeniran AL. An ethnobotanical and ethnomedicinal survey of traditionally used medicinal plants in Seymour, South Africa: An attempt toward digitization and preservation of ethnic knowledge. Phcog Mag 2019;15:115-23

How to cite this URL:
Buwa-Komoren LV, Mayekiso B, Mhinana Z, Adeniran AL. An ethnobotanical and ethnomedicinal survey of traditionally used medicinal plants in Seymour, South Africa: An attempt toward digitization and preservation of ethnic knowledge. Phcog Mag [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Sep 29];15:115-23. Available from: http://www.phcog.com/text.asp?2019/15/60/115/250599


  • Medicinal plants have been used for ages in the treatment and management of various diseases but many of these plants have been poorly described. In order to optimise the use of these plants, there is a need for proper documentation of the indigenous knowledge that will attract different researchers to scientifically validate and do further exploration of these plants in the development of drugs.

   Introduction Top

Plants have been used as drugs for centuries, initially as traditional preparations.[1] It is estimated that about 85% of traditional medicines used for primary health care globally are derived from plants.[2] Even with conventional or orthodox medicine available, most people, especially from rural areas, still prefer using traditional medicine to treat most ailments. The World Health Organization estimated that 80% of the developing world population use traditional medicine.[3] In Africa alone, it is estimated that 70%–80% of people still prefer consulting traditional medical practitioners for health care.[4],[5]

In South Africa, like in other African countries, traditional medicine has a very deep-rooted and rich cultural heritage.[6],[7] An estimate of about 3000 plant species are used by approximately 200,000 traditional healers in this country.[8] More than 60% of South Africans consult these traditional healers for their health-care needs and cultural practices on a regular basis.[9],[10] The Eastern Cape Province of South Africa has high plant species richness, and the low socio-economic standing of this large, predominantly rural province suggests that the majority of people use traditional methods of health care.[11],[12] Conventional medicines, although helpful, are not easily accessible to many people in rural communities where there is limited access to medical facilities as well as increasing rates of unemployment and rising medical costs.[13]

In South Africa, there is great cultural diversity and several ethnic groups. This has resulted in massive use of medicinal plants throughout the provinces. Each cultural group has different medicinal solutions for the management of same diseases.[14],[15],[16] The Seymour area of the Eastern Cape Province is made up of the Xhosa tribes of South Africa and embedded with a strong tradition of using medicinal plants to cure different diseases.

Few researchers have conducted different researches in Eastern Cape Province including survey-based methodology, but mostly focus on single ailment such as diarrhea; reproductive system diseases; mental illness; respiratory infections; skin ailments; and ear, nose, and throat (ENT) infections.[16],[17],[18],[19],[20],[21] There is, however, a need to collect more data from the knowledge holders of their use of diverse plants in the management of different kinds of diseases. These undisclosed ethnobotanical data are important to be collected and urgently documented as the traditional knowledge about plants and their medicinal use is fast disappearing due to socioeconomic change, land use, climate change, and plant overexploitation.

Ethnobotanical studies encourage the continuous search for natural products for use as medicines. Ethnobotanical surveys have been found to be one of the reliable approaches of discovering new drugs and new drug development.[22] The decline on the knowledge of medicinal plant usage is a concern in Africa. This decline is due to the fact that this significant knowledge is often transmitted from the older generation to the younger via word of mouth and most of it has not been documented.[23] This is worsened by the increase of Western lifestyle among communities and the lack of interest of the younger generation to carry on the tradition, which leads to the reduction in the number of traditional healers.[24] Therefore, to protect our ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants from completely being lost, we need to record it. One of the best modern approaches to the preservation of traditional knowledge is documentation in some permanent form and public accessibility. Documentation and digitization of traditional medicine knowledge is the surest means of preservation; it ensures preservation of the delicate knowledge and ensures wider dissemination. It will also result in codification of best practices which can be transmitted across communities in developing countries.[25] It is an effective tool for defensive protection from biopiracy as well as expropriation without compensation by multinational pharmaceutical companies. It is a veritable tool for checking any attempt by multinational corporations to privatize such knowledge via Intellectual Property Right mechanisms such as patent. Hence, when considering the patentability of any claimed subject matter, availability of traditional medicine knowledge database enables patent examiners all over the world to effectively and efficiently evaluate the novelty of the claim.

The majority of the inhabitants of Seymour in the most rural areas rely on traditional medicine for their health-care problems, and there is no documented information about the traditional medicinal plants and associated indigenous uses in the area. Accordingly, this article was aimed at collecting, documenting, and digitalizing the information for future referencing.

   Materials and Methods Top

Study area

The study was conducted among elderly villagers, traditional healers, and herbalists in four villages (Phakamisa, Old location, Izinyoka, and Joza) of Seymour. Seymour is a poor undeveloped rural area located between latitude 32°37 18 S and longitude 26°48 48 E in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The altitude is approximately 1300 m above the sea level and the vegetation is Veld type 7.[26] The ethnic group in this area is Xhosa speaking.

Data collection

Data were collected between February 2013 and December 2015. Following the methods of Jovel et al.,[27] information was compiled through general conversations with the informants, while structured questionnaires [Table 1] were used to obtain additional information about the methods of treatment. The information that was recorded included local names of the plants used, their local uses, parts of the plants used, the mode of preparation and forms of administration of the medicinal plants, age group, and gender of the persons interviewed.
Table 1: A questionnaire used during an ethnobotanical study

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A total of 34 informants, comprising nine traditional healers, seven herbalists, and 18 elderly villagers were interviewed. Eighteen of the interviewees were male and were between the ages of 39 and 70 years, while the remaining 16 were female whose ages ranged between 35 and 67 years. [Figure 1] shows a female traditional healer being consulted by one of the inhabitants of Seymour. All the interviewees orally consented, without any financial compensation, to share their knowledge with us for the purpose of the study. Arranging the interviews was not a hassle as the researchers are familiar with the location and its residents.
Figure 1: A patient in consultation with a traditional healer

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Informants offered to collect plant specimens they use and those they know to be of medicinal value in the area. They accompanied the researchers to the field to identify the various plant species which were not growing or cultivated near their homes. In the process, plant specimens concerned were collected. The plants were initially identified by their common names (Xhosa) and later validated at Giffen Herbarium at the University of Fort Hare. Voucher specimens (Makinana 01–50) were prepared and deposited at the Giffen Herbarium.

Data analysis

Quantitative indices such as informant consensus factor (ICF) were calculated on Microsoft Excel 2013 spreadsheet and GraphPad Prism software version 5 (GraphPad Software, Carlifonia, USA).

Informant consensus factor

ICF was calculated thus as follows: (NurNt)/(Nur – 1).

Where Nur= Total number of use report for each ailment category: Nt= Number of taxa used in the category.[28]

   Results and Discussion Top

The survey established that people of Seymour are still making use of medicinal plants. The gathered information was processed and analyzed in order to get the data in these aspects. A total of 34 informants, comprising nine traditional healers (26%), seven herbalists (21%), and 18 elderly villagers (52%) were interviewed. Eighteen of the interviewees comprised 52% of males and 48% of females. Their respective age range was 39–70 years and 35–67 years for the male and female respondents. In the Eastern Cape Province, the care of family is a shared responsibility between the father and mother, hence the observed equal representation of gender involved in the knowledge of different recipes that can be used to manage different ailments and take care of the family. This result is consistent with other surveys with similar societal belief.[29],[30] The results obtained from this survey [Table 2] indicated that 50 plant species belonging to 29 families were used in the treatment of various ailments by the people of Seymour. The results from the study also showed that members of the family Asteraceae (six species) were the most commonly used plants in this area, followed by Euphorbiaceae (four species), Fabaceae (four species), Rutaceae (four species), Apiaceae (three species), Alliaceae (two species), Amaryllidaceae (two species), Asclepiadaceae (two species), Polygonaceae (two species), and Solanaceae (two species), while the remaining 19 families had one species each.
Table 2: List of medicinal plants used for the treatment of various ailments common in the Seymour region of the Eastern Cape Province

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In this survey, nine ailment categories were frequently mentioned and are treated with a wide range of medicinal plants. These are respiratory system diseases; reproductive system diseases; musculoskeletal disorder; gastrointestinal diseases; ulcer, wound, and sores; ENT problems; fever; infectious diseases; and circulatory system diseases which are documented in [Table 3]. Twenty-three species belonging to 18 families were reported for the treatment of these ailments, with members of the families Asteraceae (three species) and Rutaceae (three species) as the most commonly used. Respiratory system diseases included shortness of breath, asthma, and bronchitis, which had the highest ICF value of 0.65 followed by reproductive system diseases and musculoskeletal system of 0.60 and 0.57, respectively [Table 3]. The higher ICF values observed could be due to the ability of the respondents to easily diagnose and treat with the available medicinal plants. Studies undertaken in Morocco and Turkey agree with our finding that respiratory system diseases had the highest ICF values.[31],[32] Reports on pharmacological activities of Asteraceae and Rutaceae included inhibition of rotavirus, antileishmanial, antidiabetic, antioxidant, antimycobacterial, antimalarial, antibacterial, and antifungal activities.[33],[34],[35],[36],[37] Aloe ferox, Alepidia amatymbica, Arctotis arctotoides, Taraxacum officinale, Strychnos henningsii and Tulbaghia violacea were reported to be used in the treatment of digestive system disorders, which included indigestion, constipation, stomach aches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Twenty-one species in 15 families were mentioned to be used in this category, with members of families Asteraceae (three species), Fabaceae (two species), Polygonaceae (two species), Asclepiadaceae (two species), and Euphorbiaceae (two species) as the most commonly used. Gynecological problems included infertility, dysmenorrhea, and menorrhagia. Nine plant species were reported to be effective in treating these ailments. The wounds' category included severe wounds, cuts, ulcers, sores, rashes, and warts. Seven species in six families were reportedly sought for their effective medicinal curative properties in this category. Six species including Helychrisum odoratissimum, Ricinus communis, and Leonotis leonurus were reported to be used for headaches. Most of the plant species discovered in this survey were used to treat more than one ailments. For example, Strychnos henningsii was reported to be used in the treatment of tuberculosis (TB), dysmenorrhea, constipation, and rheumatism. Pharmacological activities reported for Euphorbiaceae families included antidepressant, aphrodisiac, antidiarrheal, antibacterial, anthelmintic, deticking, and antimalarial properties and depression of central nervous system (CNS),[38],[39],[40] while Fabaceae properties included antimicrobial, antidiabetic, cardioprotective, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antihypertensive, and antiparasitic.[41],[42],[43] Medicinal plants from Apiaceae, Polygonaceae, and Solanaceae families were reported by researchers to possess numerous pharmacological activities, including CNS effect, antioxidant, antipyretic, antiathric, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antidiarrheal, anticancer and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitory activities, and effectiveness on serotonin reuptake transport protein.[44],[45],[46],[47],[48]
Table 3: Ailment categories and informant consensus factor values

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Leaves were reported to be the most commonly used part of the plants (22%) as depicted in [Figure 2]. This was followed by roots, bulbs, corms, and rhizomes, and then bark and stem. Fruits were reported as the least used part of the plants. The level of consumption of these parts for medicinal purpose may be due to the presence of active metabolites present in them. The leaves is the center of biosynthesis of different metabolites, which may contain many bioactive principles that have good medicinal properties.[49],[50],[51] Different methods of herbal preparation were also mentioned during the interview process. Preparing decoction and infusion from the plant material was the most commonly used method of preparation [Figure 3]. Grinding the plant material into fine powder was the preparatory method often used in the treatment of headaches, blocked nose, and other nose infections as well as respiratory ailments, while boiling the leaf making a warm brew was mainly used in the treatment of ear aches. Grinding plant material into fine powder and making a paste was often used in the treatment of wounds and skin infections. Heating the leaf and cut open fresh stem, burning the plant material into ashes, and making a paste were other reported preparatory methods used for the treatment of wounds. Using the fresh material as it is, with no preparations, was another method used in the treatment of coughs, colds, and blocked nose.
Figure 2: The different parts of plants used against ailments common among the residents of Seymour area in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa

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Figure 3: Mode of preparation of remedies used in the treatment of ailments common among the residents of Seymour area in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa

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The application methods of herbal remedies also varied [Figure 4]. They included taking the decoctions, infusions, or fresh plant material orally for most reported ailments; application of plant extracts and paste directly on wounds and infected areas of skin; snuffing the powdered plant material for headaches and nose infections; smoking the powdered plant material for respiratory ailments; squeezing the warm plant extracts or sapping directly into the ear for ear infections; administering enema through the rectum for digestive problems; and inserting fresh leaves into the nostrils for blocked nose.
Figure 4: Methods of preparation of traditional medicine. (a) Powdered traditional medicine which is used as a snuff; (b) Poultice which is applied on wounds or sores; (c and d) Leaf infusion and decoction

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Some plants such as Aloe ferox, Alepidia amatymbica, Artemisia afra, Zantedeschia aethiopica, Arctotis arctotoides, H. odoratissimum, C. sativa, R. communis, A. tetracantha, Olea europaea, L. leonurus, M. heterophylla, and Xysmalobium undulatum were frequently mentioned by the traditional healers, herbalists, and villagers during the survey. In addition, it was interesting to note that Cyrtanthus obliquus, A. arctotoides, A. afra, H. odoratissimum, Emex australis, Cassipourea flanaganii, Solanum aculeastrum, Tulbaghia violacea, Asclepias fruticose, Bulbine frutescens, Opuntia vulgaris, L. leonurus, O. europaea, and S. henningsii were the most commonly used species in all the four villages (Phakamisa, old location, Izinyoka, and Joza). These plants have previously been cited in literature for the management and treatment of many ailments in South Africa, some of which were not mentioned by traditional healers, herbalists, and villagers in the study area. For example, A. afra is reported to be effective in treating bronchitis, TB, mumps, pneumonia, pimples, skin rashes, loss of appetite, colic, headache, ear ache, and intestinal worms,[52],[53],[54] whereas L. leonorus is used against diabetes mellitus, eczema, epilepsy, delayed menstruation, intestinal worms, constipation, scorpion stings, snake bites, skin rashes, and boils.[25],[55],[56],[57] A. ferox is a very popular medicinal plant used to treat sores, wounds, acne, burns, blisters, cold sores, cracked lips, insect bites, mouth ulcers, sunburn, rashes, and secondary infections of HIV.[53] This is not surprising considering that a single plant species may contain several chemical compounds that may be active against a wide array of diseases.[58] During the survey, some plants were reported to be more effective when used together with other plants for the treatment of a number of ailments, for example, C. asiatica was reported to be more effective when mixed with R. lanceolatus for the treatment of infertility and other related diseases.

   Conclusions Top

This study has revealed important information on medicinal plants used by people, traditional healers, and herbalists of Seymour region in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa to treat various ailments. It also demonstrates the vital role that medicinal plants play in the primary health care of these people. Fifty plant species, belonging to 29 families, are used to treat a wide range of ailments including respiratory and reproductive system diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, skin infections, ENT infections, ulcers, headache, gastrointestinal diseases, etc. It was interesting to note that some plant species were used to treat more than one ailments, for example, S. henningsii is used to treat TB, dysmenorrhea, constipation, and rheumatism. Some plants were effective when used in combination with others, for example, C. asiatica was effective when combined with R. lanceolatus for infertility. Leaves were reported to be the most commonly used plant parts, with decoction and infusion reported as the commonly used methods of preparation.

To know the proper medicinal value of some of these plants, studies have been undertaken and have confirmed their therapeutic effects. However, more researches on pharmacological, phytochemical, and toxicological studies of extracts prepared from some of these plants need to be conducted. This will help in the development of new plant-based drugs. This is part of a Master degree student work which will lead to writing a thesis which will be available in the university website for all users after submission.


The authors are grateful to the informants for providing information about their practice. This work would not have been possible without their help. Miss Philisiwe Makinana, though she could not complete her Master's degree, is acknowledged for compiling the information and preparing the manuscript.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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