The Storytellers The Storytellers Experience the Rocklands wilderness

10. Buchu (Agathosma betulina)


RECEPTIVITY: Learning to flow like water
FAMILY: RUTACEAE (citrus family)

Ours is a competitive world. We rush, we burn, we consume. When at rest, we burn some more, broadcasting and consuming information. Applying “reason”. We have lost the Sacred Feminine, the quality of receptivity and water, what an Eastern understanding might call “Yin”. We may say “The Future is Female” but the “Female” we refer to is equally consumed with competitive fire.

In ancient systems of knowledge, the element of water is a symbol of calmness, focus and objectivity. For there to be balance in the world, water must be greater than fire. Yin must be larger than Yang. The ovum is larger than the sperm. The chalice is a container for the divine spark. Before inspiration there is the void – vast, black and silent. But we are addicted to growth, noise and action.

The Sacred Aromatic
The sense of smell is said to belong to the most ancient, primal part of the brain, and of consciousness. Smells can evoke memory, emotion and different levels of awareness. They convey information, often in a way that bypasses the thinking mind.  Our response to smell can be powerful beyond reason, and never more so than with buchu.

The intense, sharply-sweet, citrus-camphor smell of buchu is unique to itself and never fails to evoke a strong reaction; never indifference. Many people hate the smell, showing strong emotional antipathy, even aggression when confronted with it. Others love it deeply, associating its intensity with the essence of the Cape wilderness.

Buchu certainly is an ancient part of human heritage, being an important member of the group of plants that were used by the “Bosjesman” (Bushmen) or San (people of the Sâb; the sacred, aromatic bushes, one of which was the species we know call buchu, namely Agathosma betulina). These first people of the Cape made extensive use of aromatic plants, rubbing them onto the skin both for practical and ritualistic use. For people like the Sâb, stillness and receptivity would have been an innate part of being, listening to the land and observing the sky in order to thrive as nomadic hunter-gatherers – successful trackers. We know from the many traditional stories that both the Sâb and Khoi had a strong spiritual connection to bodies of water and to the practice of calling the rain. Bodies of water, still today, are understood by many people who retain a link to their indigenous selves, throughout southern Africa and beyond, as gateways to another realm.

In the old Cape stories, there exists an alternative dimension below the surface of the water, which looks much like our own. The passage between these realms takes place through the water spirits (the Waterbas and Water Noointjies), who might take you they if they see fit. The presence of rain is also mediated by a spirit being, the Rain Bull, who can bring Masculine (stormy) or Feminine (gentle) rain. In both cases, buchu can be used to mediate, to attract or appease the water beings by rubbing the leaves onto the skin. In one version of the story, a young maiden is captured by the Rain Bull. She rides on his back, but is then able to escape by rubbing him with buchu and putting him to sleep. This is a tale that seems to be both metaphoric of buchu’s ability to mediate between different levels of consciousness, and the idea of union with nature as a sexual act of creation. In modern times, amongst traditional societies (like the Kalahari Ju|hoansi) buchu is still used to mediate the mind back into regular consciousness, after the lifeforce has been raised through ecstatic dance.

The leaves of what we now know as buchu (Agathosma betulina) are quite reminiscent of the skin itself; being covered on the underside with small glands or pores, from which the scented oil is secreted. We as humans can absorb these oils through pores on the surface of our own skin. When buchu is consumed, the many and varied terpenes and other compounds in the plant interact with the visceral and cellular membranes, influencing their permeability and effecting all manner of change to the body’s reality – reducing inflammation, clearing up gout, curing infections and causing the body to pass water. What happens on the inside of the body thus mirrors the stories – mediating through the membrane, the very nature of reality, and then triggering the memory of that mediation through fragrance. This aspect of permeability and flow seems to be key to buchu’s magical teaching: a sense of merged awareness and existence with something outside of what we may think of as the “Self”. Instead of perceiving an objectified universe, the world of buchu is one of flow. Intelligence, then, is to mediate that flow – to select what moves in and out.

In ancient and traditional use, buchu on the skin is linked to slipping between different levels of consciousness, or for hunting and tracking. On a practical level, the scent would help to disguise the human smell, but there is also an aspect to tracking that involves a merging of awareness with the animal being tracked. Used on the skin in modern times, the applications are more prosaic, but linked to same essential gift: buchu oil has gained widespread repute for its anti-inflammatory action and its ability to act as an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-microbial agent (thus, modulating what is permitted into the system, as well as the body’s response to physical and emotional stress). Similarly, buchu leaves Infused into a carrier oil or balm make a great disinfectant and reliever of pain. The Cape settlers (who learned much from the San and the Khoi) would deal with inflammation and injury through the application of a cloth soaked in buchu-infused vinegar.

Buchu lends itself to infusion; appropriate given its relationship to the movement of fluid. It can be infused into water, oil, food or alcohol.

Infused into water (via steam distillation), buchu has long been known as a diuretic tonic, good for all kinds of urinary and gynaecological complaints, as well as acidity and inflammation (it can also treat rheumatism and gout, being able to reduce uric acid). Because of the diuretic action, it is also popular for weigh loss. (Tablet forms of buchu are also popular for this purpose).

Tea is, of course, a simpler method of infusion. Used like the distillate, it serves as a disinfectant, diuretic and detoxifier, but beware of long term use. Stimulating the passing of water in from system should not be done long term or it will cause the body to dehydrate.

But water is not the only fluid…buchu brandy is an archetypal Cape remedy. An alcoholic distillation or even a simple infusion of buchu leaves into brandy is not only quite delicious, but is a good tonic for infections, pain and urinary complaints. In the past, it was a tonic for most ills! A tincture is just as good.

And finally, there is the option to infuse buchu leaves into the fluid content of food. Aside from the health benefits, it also makes a wonderful and distinctive flavour addition. Use the leaves as you would a tea, into the water or syrup content of any recipe. It imparts a distinctive, fynbos tang to any preserves! The taste is intense, however, so use sparingly.

Using buchu sparingly, or at least with proper respect, is an important consideration in our world of “more is better”. Aside from its many benefits, it is also a diuretic, potential irritant to the gallbladder and contraindicated when pregnant or breastfeeding. In another system of traditional knowledge (Chinese medicine), balance in the body must follow a cycle through the elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood (in Africa, we would say Nature), in that order. If the wood (which is represented by the Liver, the Gallbladder and processes of creativity, change 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 Stillness, Focus and Wisdom, represented by the Bladder and Kidneys) cannot flow, and we may feel stuck, fearful and paranoid. Buchu, in this context, could be said to be treating the obstruction in the water by cutting through the excess wood. This is very useful, in our growth-obsessed world, but if we keep chopping away at the wood we may kill the tree, and the water may flow away altogether.

To learn and heal from buchu, we must learn from, and potentially be like, water. Our world has become out of balance in the direction of Fire. We are consumed by the idea of consumption, of competition, ego and growth. Yet perhaps we get in our own way, getting ourselves stuck in the treadmill. The earth was born of water. Many great scientists have said that their true inspiration comes at time of rest. Receptive stillness can be more productive than a whirring engine. Is it possible, for us, to learn from buchu, to open up from our perceived, objectified world-view, and learn to flow like water?


A BIT OF SCIENCE: Buchu leaves are covered, on the underside, in oil glands which release a beautifully 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 plants. Today, we have some of the answers. A good start may be the many terpenes in the oil – compounds which innately increase the permeability of the cellular membrane. Many of these are commonly used to treat rheumatism, infections, stress and digestive ailments. Agathosma’s main terpene is diosphenol (buchu camphor), which is thought to be responsible for buchu’s diuretic effect (although the flavonoids may also contribute to this).  It also contains limonene (an important anti-inflammatory), methone, terpinen-4-ol and 9-mercapto-p-menthan-3-one (thought to be responsible for buchu’s distinctive smell). Pulegone (a compound toxic to the liver) is also present, albeit far less so than in other buchu species.

Buchu’s anti-oxidant and tonic activity has been ascribed to the presence of flavonoids, which include diosmetin, diosmin, quercetin, quercetin-3,7-diglucoside and rutin.

Buchu has also been proved to have strong antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal properties, probably due to the presence of coumarins (which are also toxic in high doses).