The Cape Floristic Region in southwestern South Africa contains over 9,000 plant species, 69% of which are endemic. The fynbos habitat in particular contains many plants with medicinal value. The Khoe and San indigenous peoples have made use of these plants for thousands of years. When Dutch colonists arrived in South Africa in the 17th century, they brought the practice of drinking tea and coffee, which local populations adopted. Over time, Europeans and indigenous people began to use infusions and decoctions of local plants as substitutes for Chinese tea when the latter was too expensive or difficult to find. One of the most important plants in the herbal repertoire of peoples from the Western Cape is buchu.
In the Khoekhoe language, “buchu” refers to fragrant herbs (or powders and infusions made from these herbs) in the genus Agathosma. “Buchu” is used in English and other languages to refer to two species, A. betulina (round leaf buchu) and A. crenulata (oval leaf buchu). Both are perennial, evergreen shrubs that grow to a height of about 2 meters. Their leaves are small (about 2 centimeters wide for A. betulina and 1 by 3 cm for A. crenulata) and dotted with many small oil glands. The flowers are white or pink, with five petals. A. betulina grows in drier areas and at higher elevations (up to 1,200 meters) than A. crenulata. Buchu is used medicinally for rheumatism, kidney and bladder health, cough, digestive issues, and as a tonic. Dutch colonists made a tincture of buchu in Brandy to treat various ailments and buchu steeped in vinegar is taken orally or applied to wounds, bruises, fractures, and sprains. The Khoe and San peoples traditionally mix buchu powder with sheep fat and apply it to their skin as protection against the sun and insects. Many people simply use buchu to make a refreshing tisane. Today buchu is grown commercially as an herbal tea or for its essential oils, which are used in cosmetics and as a flavoring agent, especially to boost fruit flavors. Buchu brandy has also become popular lately. Buchu’s aroma and flavor recall mint and blackcurrant.
Buchu is under threat from land degradation, habitat loss, and invasive species, and to some extent from overharvesting. The cultivation of buchu for commercial purposes has relieved pressure on wild buchu but, because buchu only grows on specific soils that have not previously been cultivated, natural areas of fynbos vegetation must be cleared to increase the cultivated area. Local rural populations (often indigenous) who use wild-harvested buchu for medicinal purposes and to make income suffer from the decreased market price that commercialization has brought about. Harvesting buchu in the wild requires a permit and is completely banned in some areas, but enforcement is often lacking and indigenous people, for whom buchu has spiritual as well as practical importance, are sometimes not allowed to harvest in protected areas. Some members of the Khoe and San communities worry that traditional knowledge about buchu is being lost.