Agathosma Betulina: Receptivity to change
The sacred aromatic
The sense of smell is said to belong to the most ancient part of our consciousness, evoking memory, emotion and different levels of awareness. The First People of this land must have known this and worked accordingly: integral to the Bushman way of life was the practice of anointing the body with aromatic plants for medicinal, magical and everyday uses. It has been said that the name of the San/Bushman people comes from this deep association with aromatic shrubs (“bossies”). The Khoi and Nama people named them the Sanqua - translating to “Bosjesman” in Dutch or Bushman in English. Collectively, the aromatic plants were known as Sȃb, San, Son – or buchu. In later years, buchu came to refer to the Agathosma genus (which includes some 150 species) and to Agathosma Betulina particular. Its leaves are covered, on the underside, in oil glands which release a completely distinctive, sweet-smelling, if rather sharp, camphor-like oil which contains over one hundred compounds. Many of these have been individually and collectively studied in order to try to account for the extensive medical uses of the plant.
The transport of lifeforce
The raising of lifeforce energy through ecstatic dance was an essential part of San, Khoi and Nama culture (and continues to be, where tradition is still practiced). In my view, the best modern description of this may be found in Bradford and Hillary Keeney’s The Way of the Bushman. In this wonderful account of the spiritual practices of the Kalahari Ju|hoansi, we learn how /Nom, or lifeforce energy, is raised and brought to direct experience through music and spontaneous dance movement. As the /Nom heats up, the individual is able to extend “ropes” of connection to God, and healing is able to be channelled through this direct experience of God. At the end of this experience, buchu is rubbed onto the body – either as leaves, in powdered form or cooked in fat – in order to cool down the /Nom and return the person to everyday consciousness.
The interdimensional aspects of water
In many systems of understanding, water is said to represent a gateway to other levels of consciousness. As we break the surface meniscus, we cross the invisible barrier. Certainly, to be underwater, whether in a natural or manmade structure, can feel like being in a different realm. Many people in our northern Cederberg valley can, even today, tell one about die Waterbas (the Water Spirit) and possibly even their experiences with him. The story is highly evocative of the idea that bodies of water represent the place in which the veil between life and death – or different realities – is at its thinnest.
According to local legend, the Waterbas inhabits all bodies of water, but his main home in this area is the sacred Maiden’s Pool at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve. He, and the Waternoointjies (water nymphs), are the guardians of all water. The Waterbas may often take a silvery, snake-like form, most often seen or felt as an unusual ripple or current in the water, and is also said to be able to climb out of the water pools and walk across to the next body of water, in the form of an old man with a silvery beard. If, whilst you are swimming, the Waterbas decides to take you, he will drag you under the water to his kingdom, which is dry and looks exactly like the land, and there you might stay forever, unless he chooses to release you.
The interdimensional property of water might also be interpreted as forming a key aspect of the traditional rainmaking practice, for which buchu was used as guardian and facilitator. If a shaman had to go and request the rain (e.g. in time of drought), they would go to seek the Rain Bull. To appease the Rain Bull, and ensure a gentle, female soaking rain (as opposed to violent male rain) the body would be rubbed in buchu. In a beautiful story found in Bleek and Lloyd, a young maiden uses buchu to put the rain to sleep and escape, after He has captured her. Even today, some people believe that buchu seed which refuses to germinate can warn of an approaching drought.
Practical, everyday use
Buchu was also used to help blend one’s scent with the bush, when out on a hunting trip. The body would be rubbed with aromatic oil, either from fresh leaves, or dried, powdered and cooked in fat. This helps to ensure that prey cannot smell the hunter. On a more everyday level, the same aromatic oil could be rubbed on the body to keep the skin soft, to keep insects away, to disinfect, to relieve pain, and to promote good health.
When European settlers arrived in the Cape, buchu quickly became a popular remedy used for urinary and gastrointestinal complaints. It was most often used as a tincture. Soaked in vinegar, it was also used as a dressing for wounds.
Healing the waters, a modern context
Today, buchu remains a popular remedy for urinary and gynaecological complaints including water retention, cystitis, urethritis, prostatitis, yeast infections and leukorrhea. It is also recommended for gout and stomach complaints. Due to its ability to reduce uric acid, buchu is effective in treating rheumatism and gout. It has gained widespread repute for its anti-inflammatory action and its ability to act as an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-microbial agent. It may be consumed as a tea (an infusion of leaves on their own or combined with rooibos), in the form of buchu water (a by-product of essential oil production), in a tincture or even in tablet form. For inflammation and topical complaints, the essential oil can be diluted in a base oil, or one could make a leaf infusion.
More powerful than we understand
In Chinese medicine, balance in the body must follow a cycle through the elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood, in that order. If the wood (which is represented by the Liver, the Gallbladder and material processes of creativity and growth) becomes overgrown, it may become clogged – like a garden beset by weeds, or the roots of a tree obstructing the plumbing. If this happens, water (the source of Wisdom, represented by the Bladder and Kidneys) cannot flow, and we may feel stuck, fearful and paranoid. Buchu’s efficacy as a diuretic, a “mover of the waters”, has been linked to buchu camphor’s action as an irritant to the gall bladder. Buchu camphor is a terpene known as diosphenol. In this context, it could be said to be treating the obstruction in the water by cutting through the excess wood; an essential function indeed, in today’s growth-obsessed world, but one which cannot be continued indefinitely: if we simply keep on cutting away wood, the water may flow away altogether!
To explore this a bit more, Terpenes, of which there are many in buchu, are compounds which innately increase the permeability of the cellular membrane – the membrane being the boundary of the body’s reality, determining what gets in or out and thus playing an important epigenetic role. Many of these (such as limonene) are commonly used to treat rheumatism, infections, stress and digestive ailments. Another terpene, pulegone, is damaging to the liver but is less present in agathosma betulina than other species.
Buchu also has anti-oxidant properties, which are generally ascribed to the presence of flavonoids, which include diosmin (a blood vessel tonic), quercetin and rutin.
The importance of balance
It has been demonstrated that the molecular structure of water holds an imprint of everything it has experienced and perhaps it is so in our bodies. By modulating the membrane and moving (possibly changing) the water, buchu potentially delivers far-reaching transformation for body and mind. A potent medicine indeed - but yet sold and used very casually. In my opinion, buchu is a plant that should be used mindfully and when it is needed. With long term use, the liver must also be protected (which is also why buchu blends well with rooibos, the creator and protector). Buchu on its own should definitely not be used internally when pregnant or breastfeeding.
Perhaps, for everyday ongoing use, it is perhaps best to follow the example of the ancestors and let the skin, the nose and the consciousness of smell absorb the benefits and make the changes we need. And with this in mind, here is my modernised take on the ancient San remedy of fat infused with buchu
Anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial ointment with Buchu
- 100g beeswax
- 250ml good quality base oil
- 375ml of Buchu leaves - you can use dried leaves, as long as the smell is still potent
- 5ml buchu essential oil
- 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 all ingredients except the essential oil)
- Heat gently for at least three hours. Regularly bruise the leaves using a wooden spoon.
- Remove from heat, cover with a lid and place in direct sunlight for another 6-8 hours.
- Bring inside, and reheat, using the double boiler method. Again, bruise your leaves.
- Strain out all the herbs, using a sieve or preferably muslin cloth.
- Add the essential oil and stir.
- Pour out into your containers and seal immediately.
- Allow to set for a few hours, preferably overnight. Label neatly.
- The ointment can be used as a lip balm, as a balm for infections, or as an anti-inflammatory.