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.