The famous buchu (Agathosma betulina) is probably South Africa’s best-known medicinal plant. The Khoikhoi dried and powdered the leaves and used this as a dusting powder for skin treatments and wounds. The leaves were used for a variety of ailments – for treating wounds, stomach complaints, rheumatism, indigestion, indigestion, kidney and bladder ailments – and are still used today in country districts.
Buchy leaves steeped in vinegar were once an essential part of the medicine chest. This was used as an embrocation for fractures, swellings and slow-healing wounds and country people in the south-western Cape still use this today, as do the coloured people.
The buchus belong to the family Rutaceae, to which the genus Agathosma belongs; and under this genus many species fall. Here I write of the well-known Agathosma betulina and A. crenulata, which are both known as the true buchu and are both grown widely for their oil and their leaves, which are dried and used medicinally.
The buchus occur naturally mainly in the south-western Cape, but have been introduced into other areas of South Africa and even overseas.
The shiny, dark green leaves are small and oval, rich in oil glands and strong smelling. The small star-like flowers ranging in colour from pink to white are beautiful in pot-pourris and bath preparations and the shrub is an attractive addition to the garden.
Buchu was first exported as a medicine in the early 1800s and it is still exported today in the form of packaged dry leaves and oil. Probably the best-known way of using it is in the famous buchu brandy, and a South African medicinal buchu wine is fast gaining popularity here and overseas as a digestive tonic that benefits rheumatic and urinary tract ailments.
Buchu brandy is made by steeping a few thumb lengths sprigs of fresh buchu in a bottle of brandy. Sometimes 3 or 4 cloves are added. This is shaken daily for a week then stored, and a tablespoon is taken twice a day for stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, rheumatism, bladder and kidney infections and coughs and colds.
I have used buchu brandy as a small liqueur after a heavy meal. Overseas visitors to whom I introduced it were enchanted by it, saying later that they slept astoundingly well. I later remembered my grandmother’s maid telling me years ago that a teaspoon of buchu brandy would help you sleep and keep nightmares away!
Buchu is a strong herb, so use it with caution. Make a tea by pouring 1 cup of boiling water over 1 teaspoon of fresh buchu leaves. Leave to draw for 5 minutes, then strain and drink to ease cramps, colic, indigestion, chills, coughs, colds and anxiety. Often only half a cup is needed before you feel the benefit. Sip it slowly and keep the rest in the refrigerator, warming it up when required.
Tie a bunch of buchu leaves in some old pantyhose and drop it under the hot tap as you fill your bath. Then relax in the hot water to ease backache and rheumatic aches and pains. The leaves warmed in water can be used as a poultice or embrocation over a painful joint or back. Hold it in place with a crepe bandage.
The active ingredient in buchu is diosphenol (once known as barosma camphor), to which the antiseptic and diuretic effects of buchu have been ascribed. This would probably also account for the stimulation of perspiration that an infusion of buchu brings on, as well as its remarkable flushing action of the kidneys. Buchu is one of the ancient treatments for cholera and for infections of the prostate gland. It is also a remarkable treatment for rheumatic aches and pains taken as a tea twice daily – the increased perspiration is greatly beneficial to this painful affliction, and acts this way on rheumatism as well.
It is interesting to think that buchu was one of South Africa’s first medicines, and that now, so many decades later, research is still being conducted into the untapped properties of this fascinating plant.