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African Medicines



There are no words to fully describe the value of this African plant to mankind. Words such as phenomenal, extraordinary, outstanding, life-saver, significant all put together still fall well short to describe its value and healing properties.

 The African Helichrysum species is perhaps the most widely used medicinal plant in Southern Africa. In the eastern parts of South Africa, no other plant compares in popularity to Imphepo and with good reason. The plant forms an integral part of African traditional medicine and it is used from the Cape Province to Zimbabwe. Seldom is so much offered by such an easy-to-grow plant. Its uses include food, medicinal, insect repellent, ornamental and spiritual.

The true medicinal value of the African Helichrysum is only now being unveiled by science. New discoveries of its extracts point to a powerful herbal medicine with anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, a possible cure for tuberculosis and herpes amongst other medicinal uses. The scientific value of this plant is such that it has South African universities scrambling to conduct further research.

There are over 600 species of Helichrysum occurring worldwide, with 245 found in southern Africa. The word Helichrysum is derived from the Greek "helios" meaning sun and "chrysos" meaning gold, referring to the colour of many of the flowers of species in this genus.

For Europeans, the Helichrysum ranks as one of the most ancient and valuable healing substances. Helichrysum is said to be more anti-inflammatory than German Chamomile, have more tissue regenerating than Lavender and more cicatrisant (helping the formation of scar tissue) than Frankincense. The oil of Helichrysum has been found to generate tissue, reduce tissue pain, help improve skin conditions, circulatory function, prevent phlebitis, help regulate cholesterol, stimulate liver cell function, reduce scarring and discoloration. It is anticoagulant, anti-catarrhal, mucolytic, expectorant, and antispasmodic. It has been known to help in improving certain types of hearing loss.

Medicinal Uses:

The Helichrysum plants are widely distributed and used medicinally in East and West Africa by indigenous cultures and Europeans settlers alike. The African Helichrysum species are well-known, popular traditional and their use is often linked to their distribution.

Medicinally, the roots, leaves, stem and flowers are used for a variety of complaints and ailments. Depending on the species and distribution area, the uses include: angina pectoris, backache, bladder conditions, coronary thrombosis, coughs and colds, circumcision wounds, eye complaints, fever, festering sores, heart trouble, "heart weakness", hyperpiesia, influenza, insect repellent, kidney diseases, painful menstruation, prevention of infection, rheumatism, urinary tract infections, virility and wound-healing. Infusions may be applied externally as an antiseptic wash and whole leaf as a wound dressing. Infusions may be applied externally as an antiseptic wash.

For HIV/aids patients, imphepo tea is a must. Because of its beneficial activity on the liver and its anti-viral, anti-bacterial, antibiotic and anti-fungal properties, it improves well-being, clears the skin of marks and to a degree and protects the patient. It may also be applied externally on skin for rashes, marks, spots and fungal ailments.

Active Ingredients:

African Helichrysum species contain flavonoids, sesquiterpenoids and acylated phloroglucinols. Helichrysum odoratissimum is rich in an essential oil, with α-pinene and α-humulene as main compounds.

Pharmacological effects:

Pain relieving, anti-infective and anti-inflammatory activity has been reported for several African Helichrysum species. Proven anti-microbial activity provides scientific evidence for the traditional use in wound dressing. Strong anti-viral activity has been shown in in-vitro research.

Literature and Pharmacology:

Pubmed Extracts:

1. J. Ethno pharmacology 1996 May; 52(1): 41-3.

Inhibition of herpes simplex virus type 1 by aqueous extracts from shoots of Helichrysum aureonitens (Asteraceae).

Department of Botany, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Helichrysum aureonitens, a southern African medicinal plant reported to have antibacterial properties, was evaluated for antiviral activity against herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) in vitro. The crude aqueous extract from shoots of H. aureonitens at a concentration of 1.35 mg/ml (w/v) showed significant antiviral activity on HSV-1 in human lung fibroblasts as demonstrated by the absence of a cytopathic effect.

2. J Ethno pharmacology 1997 Apr; 56(2): 165-9.

Antiviral activity of galangin isolated from the aerial parts of Helichrysum aureonitens.

Department of Botany, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

The in vitro antiviral activity of galangin (3,5,7-trihydroxyflavone), the major antimicrobial compound isolated from the shoots of Helichrysum aureonitens, was investigated against herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), coxsackie B virus type 1 (Cox B1), adenovirus type 31 (Ad31) and reovirus. At concentrations ranging from 12-47 micrograms/ml galangin showed significant antiviral activity against HSV-1 and CoxB1, limited activity against reovirus, and no antiviral activity against Ad31.

3. J Ethno pharmacology 1996 May; 52(1): 27-33.

Preliminary antimicrobial screening of four South African Asteraceae species.

Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of the Western Cape, Bellville, South Africa.

Organic and aqueous solvent extracts of Arctotis auriculata Jacq., Eriocephalus africanus L., Felicia erigeroides DC., and Helichrysum crispum (L.) D. Don, were investigated for selective antimicrobial activities. Organic extracts of A. auriculata and Helichrysum crispum inhibited the growth of Mycobacterium smegmatis. The same extracts, together with organic extracts of F. erigeroides, were active against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Antifungal activities against Candida albicans were exhibited by organic extracts of E. africanus, F. erigeroides, and Helichrysum crispum. Organic extracts of A. auriculata and E. africanus, as well as the aqueous extract of the latter plant, were active against Staphyllococcus aureus.

4. Fitoterapia. 2000 Aug; 71(4): 450-2.

Antibacterial activity of linoleic and oleic acids isolated from Helichrysum pedunculatum: a plant used during circumcision rites.

Department of Botany, University of Pretoria, Pretoria 0002, South Africa.

The antibacterial activity-guided fractionation of the dichloromethane extract of leaves of Helichrysum pedunculatum resulted in the isolation of linoleic and oleic acids. Linoleic acid inhibited the growth of all the Gram-positive bacterial species tested with the minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) varying between 0.01 and 1.0 mg/ml. Oleic acid was active against three of the five Gram-positive bacteria at a MIC of 1.0 mg/ml. Both compounds were inactive against the Gram-negative species tested. A synergistic effect between the two fatty acids was observed against Staphylococcus aureus and Micrococcus kristinae.

5. J Ethno pharmacology 1999 Sep; 66(3): 347-54.

In vitro inhibition of drug-resistant and drug-sensitive strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis by ethnobotanically selected South African plants.

Department of Botany, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Twenty South African medicinal plants used to treat pulmonary diseases were screened for activity against drug-resistant and drug-sensitive strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. A preliminary screening of acetone and water plant extracts against a drug-sensitive strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, H37Rv, was done by the agar plate method. Fourteen of the 20 acetone extracts showed inhibitory activity at a concentration of 0.5 mg/ml against this strain. Acetone as well as water extracts of Cryptocarya latifolia, Euclea natalensis, Helichrysum melanacme, Nidorella anomala and Thymus vulgaris inhibited the growth of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Given the activity of 14 acetone extracts at 0.5 mg/ml against the drug-sensitive strain by the agar plate method, a further study was done employing a rapid radiometric method to confirm the inhibitory activity. These active acetone extracts were screened against the H37Rv strain as well as a strain resistant to the drugs isoniazid and rifampin. The minimal inhibitory concentration of Croton pseudopulchellus, Ekebergia capensis, Euclea natalensis, Nidorella anomala and Polygala myrtifolia was 0.1 mg/ml against the H37Rv strain by the radiometric method. Extracts of Chenopodium ambrosioides, Ekebergia capensis, Euclea natalensis, Helichrysum melanacme, Nidorella anomala and Polygala myrtifolia were active against the resistant strain at 0.1 mg/ml. Eight plants showed activity against both strains at a concentration of 1.0 mg/ml.

6. J Ethno pharmacology 1997 Aug; 57(3): 177-81.

The antimicrobial activity of 3, 5, 7-trihydroxyflavone isolated from the shoots of Helichrysum aureonitens.

Department of Botany, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Extracts from Helichrysum aureonitens are used topically by the indigenous people of South Africa against infections. The antimicrobial activity-guided fractionation by bioautography of the acetone extract from the aerial parts of Helichrysum aureonitens led to the isolation of 3,5,7-trihydroxyflavone (galangin). Evaluation of the antibacterial activity of the compound against ten randomly selected bacteria indicated significant activity against all the Gram-positive bacteria tested with the minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) ranging from 0.1 to 0.5 mg/ml. The compound was not active on Gram-negative bacteria except for Enterobacter cloacae which was significantly inhibited at an MIC of 0.1 mg/ml. Galangin indicated considerable activity against the fungi tested with the exception of Cladosporium herbarum. Penicillium digitatum and P. italicum appeared to be particularly susceptible at a concentration of 0.01 mg/ml.

7. J Ethno pharmacology 1996 Jul 26; 53(1): 51-4.

Antibacterial activity of Helichrysum pedunculatum used in circumcision rites.

Department of Botany, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Antibacterial assays of Helichrysum pedunculatum showed that dichloromethane extracts are active against all the gram positive bacteria tested, as well as two gram negative bacteria, Enterobacter cloacae and Serratia marcescens. A water extract was effective against Staphylococcus aureus and Micrococcus kristinae, while a methanol extract showed no activity against any of the tested organisms. The antibacterial activity of dichloromethane extract was also investigated by direct bioassay on TLC plates against Staphylococcus aureus.

8. J Ethno pharmacology 1996 Jun; 52(2): 95-100.

Screening of Zulu medicinal plants for prostaglandin-synthesis inhibitors.

Department of Botany, University of Natal Pietermarizburg, Scottsville, South Africa.

Aqueous and ethanolic extracts of 39 plants used in traditional Zulu medicine to treat headache or inflammatory diseases were screened for prostaglandin-synthesis inhibitors. Extracts were tested in an in vitro assay for cyclooxygenase inhibitors. In general, ethanolic extracts caused higher inhibition than aqueous extracts. Two-thirds of the plants screened had high inhibitory activity. The highest inhibition was obtained with ethanolic extracts of Bidens pilosa, Eucomis autumnalis, Harpephyllum caffrum, Helichrysum nudifolium, Leonotis intermedia, L. leonorus, Ocotea bullata, Rumex saggitatus, Solanum mauritianum, Synadenium cupulare and Trichilia dregeana.

9. J Ethno pharmacology 1995 Jul 7;47(2):109-11.

Antibacterial activity of Helichrysum aureonitens (Asteraceae).

Botany Department, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

The antibacterial activity of extracts from Helichrysum aureonitens was investigated. The dichloromethane extract was active against all five gram positive bacteria tested and the methanol extract was active only against Bacillus cereus, B. pumilus and Micrococcus kristinae, while the water extract had no activity against any of the organisms. None of the extracts inhibited the growth of the five gram negative bacteria tested.

10. Phytochemistry. 2000 Jan; 53(1): 93-6.

An acylated phloroglucinol with antimicrobial properties from Helichrysum caespititium.

Department of Botany, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

A new acylated form of a phloroglucinol with significant antimicrobial properties was isolated by bioactivity-guided fractionation from Helichrysum caespititium (Asteraceae). The structure elucidation, and conformation of the new phloroglucinol, 2-methyl-4-[2', 4’, 6’-trihydroxy-3'-(2-methylpropanoyl) phenyl] but-2-enyl acetate, was established by high field NMR spectroscopic and MS data. The compound inhibited growth of Bacillus cereus, B. pumilus, B. subtilis and Micrococcus kristinae at the very low concentration of 0.5 microg/ml and Staphylococcus aureus at 5.0 microg/ml. Six fungi tested were similarly inhibited at low MICs, Aspergillus flavus and A. niger (1.0 microg/ml), Cladosporium chladosporioides (5 microg/ml), C. cucumerinum and C. sphaerospermum (0.5 microg/ml) and Phylophthora capsici at 1.0 microg/ml.


African Helichrysum species

Common names: kooigoed, sewejaartjie (Afr.); phefo-ea-loti, toanae-moru (Southern Sotho); imphepo (Zulu); phefu, isicwe (Xhosa).

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