Plant Stories from the Agter Pakhuis

A preview to a book:

Tracy has been documenting her own journey amongst the plants of the Cederberg for some time, in the hopes of producing a book. It is a detailed process and takes some time. So, every month, we will publish information about one plant in the book. This month, we're taming the flame with Inflammasiebos. A recipe for anti-inflammatory massage balm and a calming tea are also included. Enjoy!

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An Ancient Intelligence

The Cederberg is a place where time and space follow their own way. Rock art sites dot the landscape, offering a glimpse - and maybe a sense of connection - to our early human ancestors, who lived here for many thousands of years.

Here, the land still talks, telling stories that enlighten, delight and even heal - if we can listen correctly. It is a place at the edge of two realities: the illusory world of material realism - and something else, something eternal, something that can’t quite be grasped with the thinking mind, the computer screen or the written page.

Nowhere is this thin red line between what is measurable and that which can only be experienced more evident than in the plants that have adapted to survive in this world.  Here, at the confluence of no less than four floral biomes, life has evolved with the landscape for millions of years.  The result? A celebration of intelligent abundance: a place that is surprisingly verdant, given the hot dry conditions that exist for most of the year, and which boasts an incredible diversity of useful plants, many of which are endemic to the region.

I believe that every plant harbours its own, unique facet of the landscape’s evolving wisdom. A sacred truth, if you like. A story that is even greater than the infinitesimally detailed intelligence of its component parts. For every plant, the growth habits, appearance, traditional uses and phytochemistry tell a story; a story that reaches back in time to bygone peoples and eras way before them. Here, where much cultural history  has been lost or eradicated, the ongoing relationship between wild plants and people is arguably the one thing that has kept some sense of cultural identity and history alive.

The plants are the secret keepers.

  • Of phytochemical miracles we can break down and analyse, but never fully understand in their healing complexity - or indeed reasons for evolving as they have;
  • Of the remedies and recipes that have been passed down through generations and are still in use today; and
  • Of an almost unspoken world of magic and enchantment; of plants as teachers and facilitators. For many contemporary observers, this latter aspect is dismissed as myth, witchcraft or dangerous muthi-practice. But is it really? It has become fairly conventional to work with the vibrational / subtle healing aspects of plants through homeopathy and plant essences: is magic not the very same thing? Is it not possible that the ancients held awareness of a level of connection between people and plants - and by extension the landscape as a whole - that we have lost, in our distracted, disconnected, reductionist and attention-deficit “reality”?

There is power and healing to stories. It has been said that the ancestors of this land could transcend time and space; reaching out through trance but also through Story. So it is, I believe, with the plants. Their stories are multidimensional, holding keys and clues to our history, but also to our healing and future survival.

So let’s pause a moment…and listen.


An important note:
This piece of writing, which I hope will become a book, is not intended as a scientific text or a field guide. It is also certainly not intended as a substitute for advice from your doctor. I am neither botanist nor pharmacologist, but rather, an African, living in Africa (in the heart of the Agter Pakhuis, Rocklands) using, experiencing and talking about local plants as a part of everyday existence. My research methods veer from scientific literature to personal experimentation, but I can say that without doubt, my most important teachers are the people whose ancestors have been here for generations - the descendants of the San, Khoi and Malay people of the Cape. For many people living here, still today, the use of plants does not have to be believed or disbelieved, or validated by scientific method - it simply Is. Taking my cue from these teachers, the scope of the plants included in this book is not wholly indigenous. There are some plants, like Wynruit (Ruta Graveolens) that are in such widespread use, planted in so many gardens, that they, too, feel part of this evolving landscape.

I am including recipes in this book. These recipes are those used for some of the most popular products made and sold by my Storytellers Fynbos Apothecary. They are all based on old-fashioned methods that utilise the wisdom of the whole plant, and never isolated extracts. I urge you to try them, modify them if you like, and experience the joy and satisfaction of the self-empowerment it brings. I believe in open source: nature’s bounty should not be subject to copyright and patents, and neither should it be captured, tamed or adulterated by chemicals. When working with plants, however, always be cognisant of your ethics - where possible, use your own plants, but if wild harvesting, always do so sustainably and with permission. Remember also that plant remedies do not only work on the level of the biological and pharmacological, but also on the level of vibration or frequency, which is influenced by you, and your approach.  This is an aspect not easily measured or objectively observed (although some good research is being done attempting to do so), but it is something you can feel, if you choose to, and I believe it does affect the efficacy of the product. Ask your plant for permission to harvest. Some people, from this area, say you should not allow your shadow to fall across the plant as you do. Tune in to what you are doing: be present. Listen to the plants - you may hear them suggest a different remedy. And finally emulate the generosity of the plants and pay it forward - always be willing to give some of what you’ve made (or learned) away to someone who needs it.

Rooibos: the bonds that bless

Aspalathus Linearis

: Strength born of unexpected connections - the bonds that bless.
FAMILY: FABACEAE (Legumes and peas)

Mind can accept any boundary anywhere. But the reality is that, by its very nature, existence cannot have any boundary, because what will be beyond the boundary? Again another sky.


The needle-shaped leaves offer our first clue as to the protective function of this pretty shrub. These bright-green needles, which turn their characteristic red when fermented or stressed, help prevent loss of water. At the same time, they produce some unique and powerful flavonoids, which help protect the plant (and its users) against harsh conditions, including UV radiation. Thanks to their leaves (and a very long tap root), even commercial plantations can survive without irrigation in the arid Cederberg. In fact, the plant must be left unwatered for some months before harvest to ensure that the flavonoids develop to their full potency.

Rooibos is one of South Africa’s best-researched plants, having been the subject of many academic studies across the world, particularly in Japan. It has been found to be a powerful anti-oxidant, with free radical scavengers that help reduce inflammation and related diseases, as well as spasms and colic. It does so by forming a bond that neutralises destructive free radicals.

Free radicals are reactive molecules, generated by our body by various internal processes, as well as external stresses. Think of them as particles bearing a dangerous loose end: an unpaired electron looking for a purpose. Inside the body, this electron can be donated to another molecule (oxidation), or it can borrow from another (reduction or degeneration). Either of these processes causes wide-ranging damage in the body (to fats, proteins and DNA), broadly known as oxidative stress. There is a theory that all ageing in the body ultimately relates to oxidative stress. It has been linked to many disease conditions, including anthersclerosis, inflammation and inflammatory diseases of various organs, some cancers, diabetes, gastric ulcers, hypertension and neurological disorders.

An antioxidant is a molecule stable enough to donate an electron to a free radical on the rampage and neutralize it, thus reducing its capacity to damage, either by scavenging it, or by promoting its decomposition. Nothofagin and Aspalathin, the two most important antioxidants in rooibos, have been found to have particularly high free radical scavenging activity, also helping to prevent mutation of DNA. Their effectivity, it is thought, may be due to the particular stability of their molecular structure.

Rooibos has also been found to be a good support for the health of the circulatory system, helping to strengthen the blood vessels, reduce blood pressure and lower heart disease risk. It is an ACE inhibitor, and also helps to lower the migration of smooth muscle cells in the aorta (which creates hardening of arteries). It also helps reduce the degeneration of fats in the blood through oxidative stress (lipid peroxidation). It has even been found effective in treating type 2 diabetes.

Inside and out, rooibos combats stress and helps prevent degeneration. It supports the connective tissue in the body, both at a superficial and organ level, and thus slows down ageing. Its anti-mutagenic properties may also help to prevent cancer, or at least slow down its growth rate. Best of all, it is really easy to use (inside and out!), in whole plant form. Rooibos, on its own or in combination with other medicinal herbs, makes a delicious tea (which can also replace the water content of any recipe). Externally, it can be used on the skin (as a poultice, in the form of wet tea bags, or in an ointment), to treat rashes, burns, insect bites, aching teeth and bleeding gums. It also makes a wonderful base for any moisturiser, gradually helping to clear the skin, slow down ageing and even provide a measure of UV protection. Whatever other plant I incorporate into my moisturiser, I always include rooibos - it blends well with anything and its antioxidant superboost is an obvious choice for the most important step in one’s skincare regime. I’ve included the recipe here: try it - you’ll never buy anything else again.

Anti-ageing moisturiser with Rooibos (and optional buchu variant)

- 30g beeswax

- 250ml quality base oil - I use a combination of organic baobab oil, hempseed oil and olive oil
- 130ml rooibos hydrosol, or, if preferred, rooibos and buchu hydrosol - a hydrosol is produced steam distillation through plant material. The slightly milky, condensed result contains all the water-soluble compounds in the plant. Because many of the compounds in rooibos are water soluble, this ingredient is essential - do not substitute with plain water. Tea can be used, but be careful of staining. It is also less potent than rooibos hydrosol.
- 5ml borax
- About 400ml of rooibos and buchu leaves - try to get hold of unpasteurised rooibos, as the anti-oxidant content is far higher. Straight off the plant if you can!
- 25 drops of essential oil (I use a double-distillate of rooibos and buchu)

- Fill a saucepan with water. Keep a jug of water handy and keep checking to make sure it never boils dry.

- Place a heat-proof glass dish on top of your saucepan and add the beeswax, oil and dry plant material.
- Heat gently for three hours. Regularly bruise the leaves using a wooden spoon.
- Once the oils are nearly done, place your distillate into a saucepan and throw in the borax. Heat until the borax is dissolved completely, and then immediately remove from heat. Do not allow this mixture to boil.
- Remove  the oil from heat, and strain out all the herbs, using a sieve or preferably muslin cloth.
- Pour both mixtures into a heat-proof glass jug and mix thoroughly with an immersion blender.  
- Add the essential oil and stir and keep mixing.
- Pour out into clean glass jars and seal immediately.
- Allow to set overnight. Label neatly.
- The resultant moisturiser can be used on the face and body, is safe for babies and for sensitive skin. Keep away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures. Keep it sealed.

Of course, if this all sounds a bit complicated, you can always buy any one of my range of moisturisers, either directly from me, or from various retailers in the Clanwilliam area.

At a biomolecular level, we’ve already seen how much of rooibos’ power comes from it’s ability to form bonds that make positive changes. As an aromatic, it has also been found to bond or combine well, and this is certainly true of its practical usage. Many medicinal plants prefer to work on their own, or in specific synergistic combinations, but rooibos seems to work well with anything. In its traditional use, it is often used as a carrier to assist in consuming various herbal preparations. In contemporary commercial use, it has spawned massive creativity through all the combinations it supports - there are over a hundred rooibos-based herbal tea blends, just for starters.  

Rooibos seems to facilitate great combinations, bringing its own strength and restorative function but also acting as a connector. Of course, its very existence as a commercial crop has been a co-creative process. It is believed that European settlers first learned of its use as a relaxing beverage from the Khoi. In the mountains around Wupperthal and Eselbank, people would collect the wild rooibos plants and carry them to the village on the backs of donkeys. Back at the village, it would be processed by chopping the tea on a wooden block, sprinkling it with water and leaving it covered by sticks overnight. The following morning, the tea would be spread out to dry and then used as a tea, which would be consumed all day. The modern process remains largely similar. The very first person to start trading the tea commercially (Russian Jewish settler, Benjamin Ginsberg, in 1904) would buy it from the Khoi.

The process of obtaining seed was similarly co-creative. In the 1930’s, Lefras Nortier was attempting to cultivate the tea at Klein Kliphuis farm. His first challenge was collecting the seeds - the rooibos pods tend to burst open at different times, scattering seeds everywhere, and they are truly hard to find. Nortier would purchase the seeds from neighbouring Khoi people, but one Khoi woman, Tryntjie Swarts, discovered a secret that is still used by many farmers to source seeds today: she followed a line of ants to their nests, where she discovered a granary of seeds, ready to harvest. Another advantage of following the ants is the fact that they actually eat away the hard outer shell of the seed, which otherwise needs scarifying or in today’s world, pre-treatment. Even today, rooibos seeds fetch an unusually high price. Transplanting the germinated seeds proved equally challenging, and it was eventually discovered that one must work strictly in sync with the weather, planting just after heavy rain, when more rain is due (once established, rooibos does not require watering). According to Lawrence Green, “In the land of afternoon (1959)”, a farmer would count himself lucky with a 50% hit rate. An incredible story, then, of interdependence, between plants, animals, the weather - and people working from different types of knowledge systems. This interdependence is being tested, even today, as the rooibos industry moves forward in an attempt to find common ground on the issue of “Access and Benefits Sharing” between traditional knowledge holders and commercial beneficiaries. A contentious process, perhaps, but potentially one in which Aspalathus’  calming, neutralising bonds will be felt, in an interaction that makes history by being beneficial and healing to all involved.

In the words of the great Lao Tzu, “The wise cultivate inner strength and tranquility. That is why they are not seduced by addictive temptations”. That, to me, is the true genius of rooibos and indeed co-creation: to dissolve “boundaries” by realising our inescapable interconnectedness, but with the inner strength to maintain one’s core essence, and thus, one’s true contribution.

COMPOUNDS: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Iron, Potassium, Calcium, Copper, plus various phenolic glucosides, including key flavonoids Aspalathin, Nothofagin, Quercitin, Rutin and Chrysoeriol. The flavonoids, as glucosides, consist of a sugar that is biochemically bonded to an aromatic ring (or, in the case of dihydrochalcones like Nothfagin and Aspalathin, three open rings). From this stable base, they can interact chemically with other substances, and in the case of rooibos, perform the vital anti-oxidant activity that allows the plant to deliver such a vital range of health-giving benefits. Of the various compounds in rooibos, Rutin and Chrysoeriol are credited with conferring vascular health (strengthening blood vessels), but Nothofagin and Aspalathin have been found to have particularly high free radical scavenging activity, also helping to prevent mutation of DNA.

LOCATION: Rooibos is most readily found in plantations, on every farm in the area. In the wild, it is most prolific in the hilltops that stretch southward from the Agter Pakhuis towards Heuningvlei.

Inflammasiebos: taming the flame

Pteronia Diverticata

ESSENCE: CALM: Taming the flame

Hiding in plain sight

In the Agter Pakhuis, Inflammasiebos (inflammation bush) is one of the most important and sought after medicinal plants. It is also known as die regte Koorsbos “the real Fever bush”, the other fever bush being Dodonaea Angustifolia or the Sand Olive, a far more widespread plant, which is also much used and respected.
If there were such a thing as a hierarchy of respected “go-to” plants for the Agter Pakhuis, Pteronia Diverticata would definitely rank at or near the top - less common than many, not known to all, but regarded as important and powerful by plant knowledge holders. Which is why it was fascinating for me to discover (in a paper by Hulley et al) that it was another Pteronia, the more coastal Pteronia Onobromoides, that was favourite of the San, Khoi and Nama people, enountered and recorded as early as 1685, in Simon van der Stel’s journey to Namaqualand. The plant was dried and powdered, and also mixed with fat to anoint the body as a medicine, a cosmetic a hunting aid and also for ritualistic use, much like buchu - in fact, it was one of the various plants known as buchu, or Sȃb, San or Son. It has been said that the name of the San/Bushman people comes from this practice of anointing their bodies with aromatic shrubs (“bossies”): the Khoi and Nama people named them the Sanqua - translating to “Bosjesman” in Dutch or Bushman in English. Even though people have forgotten this bit of history, perhaps it still resides in the collective subconscious of the land.

So many ways to tame the flame
Like most medicinal plants of the area, the most popular way to use the plant in modern times is as a decoction or a simple tea. Fresh branches (leaves and stems) are gathered, when the plant is not yet in flower, and then boiled or cooked up with water. This is consumed as such - not usually sweetened. It is commonly said that the taste of the plant is part of its healing work, and that a bitter plant should therefore not be adulterated with honey or sugar.
Inflammasiebos is said to be good for bringing down a fever, or treating a cold or flu. For this purpose, it is sometimes combined with Karmedik (Dicoma Capensis), Wildeals (African wormwood - Artmisia Afra) and possibly sand olive (Dodonaea Angustifolia). Near Heuningvlei, it might be combined with Wildeals and Wynruit (Rue - Ruta Graveolens). Wildeals and Wynruit  are both very popular garden plants in the area.

True to its name, Inflammasiebos is also a very important plant for pain and inflammation, particularly back pain and rheumatic conditions, as well as stomach pain. Again, it can be consumed as a tea or decoction, but another way to work with it is as a poultice - freshly picked plant material is warmed, wrapped in a bandage and placed against the skin. My preferred way to work with Pteronia Diverticata is in a massage oil or massage balm (much like the San, in fact), infused with the plant oils. I might use it on its own, or combined with other anti-inflammatory plants - both indigenous and exotic but locally popular. I’ve included my recipe for a massage oil below.

BRING DOWN THE HEAT: Anti-inflammatory massage oil

- 300ml of a good base oil. My preference is organic hempseed oil, which I blend with olive oil. I might sometimes use sweet almond oil.
- About 500ml of plant material - your oil should be packed full. You may choose to focus on Pteronia leaves only, or you could make a combination oil with:
    Pteronia leaves,
    Buchu (Agathosma Betulina) leaves,
    Cape Snowbush (Eriocephalus Africanus) leaves,
    Sutherlandia (Lessertia Frutescens) leaves and flowers and
    Siekentroos (Arctopus Echinatus) dried, powered root
- A few drops of buchu essential oil (optional)

- Fill a stainless steel saucepan with water - keep a jug on hand to keep refilling as needed.
- Place your plant material into a heatproof glass container and cover it with your oil. Put the glass container on top of the saucepan.
- Put the saucepan onto low heat and bring the water to boil. Use this method to heat your oil - the volatile oils (and any other oil-soluble compounds) will slowly infuse into your base oil. Let it simmer for 3-4 hours. Do not allow the water to run out.
- Remove from heat, cover, and place in the sun. If you like, you can choose a sunny windowsill and leave it there for a few days.
- Return to your saucepan boiler system and turn up the heat again. Simmer for another 20 minutes.
- Remove from heat. Strain all the plant material out using a muslin cloth, which you can squeeze.
- Add your essential oil if you want to - although I often prefer not to alter the scent of my infusion
- Pour into a glass bottle (amber is nice) and get the lid on straight away. Label.
- This massage oil is safe to use as is, and does not have to be diluted into a carrier oil. Simply pour some into the palm of your hand and rub onto the affected area. Great as a rub for sore muscles, cramps of any kind or as a chest rub.

Of course, if this all sounds a bit complicated, you can always buy it from me.

If we look at the chemical composition and traditional uses of Pteronia, we can start to intuit its role, not merely in combating infection or relieving pain, but in calming body, mind and spirit - figuratively turning down the heat. We know from other stories, particularly in Bleek and Lloyd, that the aromatics (or buchu’s) were important for hunting - to blend the human smell with that of the bush, preventing “flight” - but also ritualistically, for example, to calm the Rain animal, during the process of rainmaking, calming the “fight”.

Stress as our most toxic fire
Inflammation, in its broader sense, is thought to be one of the greatest causes of disease in our contemporary society, preceding everything from chronic pain, to bowel disorders, automimmune diseases and cancer. It is the body readying to fight or flee from all the physical and emotional toxins to which we subject ourselves, all day long. Interesting that this plant (or its relative), with its ability to tone the physiological stress response (whilst providing its own protection) that would be the Sanqua’s  choice for healing.

BRING DOWN THE HEAT: Decoction with inflammasiebos

- Cup of fresh Pteronia leaves and crushed stems
- A few sprigs of karmedik (Dicoma Capensis)
- Water (1.5 to 2 cups)

- Place your leaves into a saucepan (glass, ceramic or stainless steel -not cast iron or aluminium)
- Cover amply with water
- Put on a low heat, cover, and simmer for twenty minutes.
- Strain with a muslin cloth, squeezing out the last plant material
- Allow to cool, and drink

COMPOUNDS: In a recent scientific study (the only one ever conducted on this particular species), 76 volatile compounds were discovered in the essential oil. These were largely monoterpenes  and sesquiterpenes, both of which are commonly used to fight infections, but which might have a variety of other properties - many are anti-inflammatory or sedative. Sabinene (spicy, yet anti-inflammatory, ant-oxidant, anti-fungal), Myrcene (used in perfumery, also analgesic), Pentadecane, Terpinin-4-ol (antibacterial, anti-inflammatory - the main compound in Tea Tree oil), B-caryophyllene (a spicy sesquiterpene which acts on the body’s CB2 Cannabinoid pathways to combat pain and inflammation) and Bicyclogermacrene were the main ones in Inflammasiebos, and then with lower amounts of compounds such as pinene, thujone, limonene, terpinene and others. Valeranone, which is a sedative, was found in extremely high concentrations in some samples, but was absent in others. In short, the story of a plant that not only has the potential to fight infection and mutation, but also to relieve pain, reduce inflammation and calm body and mind. Many of these compounds are shared with well-known sedatives, such as nutmeg, valerian and cannabis.

LOCATION: Pteronia Diverticata is fairly commonplace in the Agter Pakhuis, clustered especially around rocky outcrops in Sandveld and Fynbos areas. It may be found in the Agter Pakhuis, on the Pass, and stretching all the way back to the settlements near Wupperthal and Heiningvlei.

"On-grid" essentials

We do not offer wi-fi within our accommodation - in fact, we don't even make use of wi-fi technology in our own home, preferring old-fashioned LAN cabling, for both performance and health reasons. Most of our guests love the sense of switching off and reconnecting to nature and each other. However, we do understand that when going away, there are times when one needs some form of connectivity, whether for work or personal reasons. 

It is for this reason that we do provide a space for all those on-grid essentials. Situated next to our home, less than five minutes' walk from either of the units, it is a room in which you can:

  1. Plug your laptop into the internet via a LAN point (Apple Macs will need an adaptor);
  2. Charge all your electronics (camera, phones, computers, spotlights for night-time climbing, etc); and
  3. Freeze items that you are unable to fit into the refridgerator in your unit (e.g. extra ice or meat, etc).

NOTE: The Agter Pakhuis Valley also has full mobile connectivity, including data connectivity, but ONLY on the MTN network. Thus, an additional option for connectivity is simply to obtain an MTN SIM card before you arrive, and load some airtime and data onto it.


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