Fauna - Vertebrates

Eswatini's Flora - siSwati Names and Uses

Compiled by Chris Long, © December 2005

Arranged by botanical name

SiSwati names (alphabetical order)

Usage (by category)


WARNING: The publisher and author do not assume any responsibility for any sickness, injury, ill effects, death or any other harmful effects resulting from handling, eating or otherwise using any plant listed in this book.

I wish to acknowledge, with heartfelt thanks, those many people in Eswatini who encouraged and helped me in the construction of this book and in particular to Cliff Dlamini, Gideon Dlamini, Titus Dlamini, Kate Braun, Linda Dobson-Loffler, Thandi Lupupa, Futhi Magagula, Mxolisi Mdluli, Lungile Mhlanga, Comfort Nhleko, Busi Dlamini-Nkomo, Mamba and so many others. It was not only the technical help that meant much to me but the friendship of so many Swazi people that drew me back to the country so many times that I was finally able to complete this work. Doubtless there are mistakes within this work - they are my mistakes.

Chris Long - November 2005. (Email: chrisswazi@yahoo.ca)


In 2001 I came to Eswatini under the auspices of Canada Crossroads International to assist in the production of the Forest Policy and Legislation Project (FPLP) and spent much time at the National Herbarium in Malkerns Research Station. Although not a botanist, I became fascinated with the huge diversity of the flora in Eswatini. Indeed while only a fraction of the size of my own country, Canada, it probably has as many flora species.

Moreover the Swazi people have a great appreciation of their bounty and it would seem that their thinking is in line with early Buddhist and current Jainist beliefs (Findly 2002:1). Plants are seen as sentient beings with at least one of the five senses (that of touch) being well developed. Many traditional healers, both in Eswatini and around the world, will add the ability to communicate as being another sense that exists in plant life. They maintain that the plant will tell them about the optimum time to harvest the resource for healing or other purposes. Swazis look at their rich bio-diversity as being more sacred than temporal and make multiple uses of it.

Notes to the Reader

In Michael Balick's book "Plants, People and Culture" it is noted that: "The way people incorporate plants into their cultural traditions, religions and even cosmologies reveals much about the people themselves" (Balick 1996: 4). A good starting point to learn about Eswatini and the Swazis is to learn about their flora. It is my hope that this book may contribute to that end.

This book is divided into two parts. First there is a Usage section outlining how the flora is used by the people, and secondly a siSwati section which is an attempt to help readers, and users, connect the common siSwati (or in some cases the Zulu) name to the botanical name.

Human's relationship with the earth's flora is more intimate and stable than their relationship with the fauna although the latter may appear to be more exciting. There are many reasons for this: Firstly, plants are producers; without them animal life on earth is not possible. Animals (including humans of course) are consumers of the earth's resources and are supplied by the flora. Even much of the fossil fuels on which we are so dependent today, in our modern society, was originally plant life. Secondly, plants for the most part are immobile. The Marula tree from which fruit was harvested last year is still there in the same place this year. But the kudu that was seen grazing nearby may be many miles away and hard to find. Thirdly, a complete and balanced diet can only be obtained if it contains floral material. The Masai of Kenya, whose main diet consists almost totally of animal products, nevertheless stir tree bark (Acacia and Albizia spp.) into their broth, to provide the nutrients without which, they might suffer and die from heart diseases (Balick 1996: 69).

The early human inhabitants of this planet were "hunter-gatherers" who relied on a wide range of plant species, together with the food from the animals resulting from their hunting activities, on which to feed themselves. Undoubtedly they had an inherent experiential knowledge of how to maintain a balanced diet. Moreover their knowledge allowed them to find alternate food sources, when any one species failed to produce due to natural causes, "Famine Foods" were available and known for use in times of need.

Species suitable for domestication and agriculture were selected and improved. The selection and improvement process is well explained and illustrated in the first chapter of Darwin's "The Origin of Species" (Darwin 1958: 31-57), and, more recently, in Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel (Diamond 1999: 114-130). This process continued for thousands of years, but still only a few hundred species were domesticated and (according to Diamond) only 12 species (and their varieties) account for "over 80 per cent of the modern world's annual tonnage of all crops" (Diamond 1999: 132).

Southern Africa and Eswatini has a huge biodiversity of plant life and in the "Usage" section of this book I have identified over 700 species indigenous to Eswatini that are in part edible. Are there species within that list that could be improved and domesticated? Some progress has been made, and is being made with Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) but there may well be other potential candidates.

This introduction of domestic agricultural crops and the rise of subsistence farming led to some disturbance in human patterns of food consumption; even though undoubtedly hunting and gathering activities remained on a lesser scale. Diets became less diversified and nutritional deficiencies arose possibly opening the door to dietary diseases. Perhaps the genetic inheritance of changes to digestive systems may have been slower than changes to the diet itself.

Following domestication, crops were diffused from one country to another around the world. Monoculture became common and people became susceptible to crop failures. A change in climatic conditions or the emergence of a disease could wipe out, or destroy, a mono-crop upon which the people were heavily dependent. For example, the Irish became totally dependent on the potato crop, (a species which had been imported from South America), until a fungal blight destroyed the crop in the 1840s forcing the people into starvation or emigration. It is believed that one million people starved to death and one million emigrated. Their inherent knowledge and hunting-gathering abilities had been lost. "Famine Foods" were unknown or did not exist.

The Swazi people, by retaining so much of their culture, have undoubtedly retained much of their indigenous nutritional knowledge and "Famine Foods" such as Commiphora spp. and Jasminum multipartitum fruits are still remembered and known. But this knowledge is slowly being eroded as so-called "development" takes place.

As people move away from their natural balanced diet new diseases arise. A world-wide increase in diseases such as diabetes in its various forms, asthma and obesity may be a result. In Eswatini the modern reliance of much of the population on maize can lead to a deficiency of the vital amino-acid lysine; the introduction and use of beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) makes up for this deficiency.

Any listing of edible plants drifts into a register of medicinal plants. We may eat something because "it is good for us"! Is it then a nutritional food or a medicine with curative or preventive powers? There is a blurry line between nutritional and medicinal plants and many species will be listed under both headings in this book.

The use of the plant world as a source of medicines for human afflictions goes back to the earliest times of human habitation on this planet. Recent discoveries at Shanidar Cave in Iraq have revealed that, 60,000 years ago Neanderthals used medicine for their good health and it is widely believed that the 5,000 year old "iceman" discovered in the European Alps in 1991 was carrying a form of herbal antibiotic (Plotkin 2000: 48).

It is possible that humans first learnt the value of medicinal plants from other creatures in the animal world around them. We know through the work of Jane Goodall ("My Life with the Chimpanzees") and Dian Fossey ("Gorillas in the Mist"), that chimpanzees and gorillas instinctively turn to medicinal plants for their curative powers. Plotkin claims that "the great apes are known to employ over thirty species of plants for medicinal purposes" (Plotkin 2000:170). This behavior is not restricted to primates as numerous other writings, as well as personal observations, confirm that other species from domestic dogs and cats up to larger mammals display the same behaviour.

Today the ancient knowledge of the healing powers of plants, entrusted since the beginnings of humanity in the hands of shamans and traditional healers, is beginning to be better understood and respected by the Western world. Eswatini is richly endowed with not only its diverse flora, but also with its number of traditional healers well versed in the art and science of herbal healing.

In this publication my list of medicinal plants growing in Eswatini (most of them truly indigenous) has reached over 900 species. Since many of the books consulted are more general to Southern Africa than specific to Eswatini it is uncertain whether, in every case, the species is used within the country for medicinal purposes. However, some source has identified them as having medicinal properties and they do grow in Eswatini.

A constantly recurring problem in preparing lists such as these is that we have no firm definition of a medicinal plant. At one end of the spectrum, a medicinal plant has a physical, curative effect even without any psychological factors involved in its administration, while at the other end, healing may be the result of a more spiritual placebo effect, induced perhaps by the ritual of the healer. Some plants yield tonics that stimulate the immune system and improve general health: Warburgia salutaris & Hypoxis hemerocallidea are examples. They may have preventative more than curative powers.

Humans do not only rely on plant life for their food and medicines but they also rely on it for their clothing, body decoration, shelter, heat and light, protection against adversity and for most of the tools they use in everyday life. Lists of the main uses that Swazis make of their diverse flora will be found in this book.

The flora is deeply embedded in Eswatini's traditions and culture. As it was difficult to distinguish between food plants and medicinal plants so too is it difficult to distinguish between medicinal plants and what are known as medico-magical plants; plants closely associated with the culture and tradition of the country. Here we find a barrier between indigenous experiential knowledge and Western knowledge derived by algorithmic methods. We run into beliefs of "muti" (magic or witchcraft), which the Western mind has difficulty in accepting. It is based on experiential knowledge not yet proven by algorithmic methods. At times this knowledge is proved to be sound and true. Littonia modesta is reported to ensure birth of a female child. There could be a tendency in Western minds to discount this as illogical and impossible. However, Dr. Ken Glander of Duke University, studying howler monkeys in Central America, came to the conclusion that the "monkeys eat a selection of plants that allows them to select the sex of their offspring" (Plotkin 2000:157). At times the information I was able to gather was somewhat sparse (for example Monanthotaxis caffra is said to have magical properties) and at other times it seemed incredulous (Ochna arborea gives protection against lightning, Crassula alba can make one invisible and Helichrysum cooperi and other species can act as a "Love Charm"). These beliefs are well worth documenting as there is no telling what future insights and discoveries may be in store for us.

It is of great interest that the beliefs surrounding the flora may vary from clan to clan. For some clans a species may be taboo whilst the same species may be a source of food for another clan. The wood of Vangueria infausta (which has up to fourteen different siSwati names) cannot be used as a fuel (nor the fruits eaten) by the Mahanyu and other clans yet its very name suggests firewood. Some species such as Ilex mitis, (inchitsamuti), seem to be universally taboo. Clan differences in attitudes to different plant species would be a whole new area worthy of investigation.

In trying to relate information obtained in the field to that contained in the literature there was a constant problem in linking the siSwati name with the botanical name. In browsing through numerous Environmental Impact Assessment Reports, and other documents, I found I was not the only person experiencing these difficulties! The siSwati section of this book is an attempt to make some headway in bridging this gap between indigenous and technical knowledge. One of the difficulties faced is the constant mix of siSwati with Zulu names. In some cases when given the siSwati name it was necessary to convert to the Zulu name and then research the botanical name from there. In some cases only the Zulu name could be found. SiSwati names vary around the country and in an interesting survey in the schools carried out to unearth hidden, but traditional plant uses, (and to attempt to classify name variations into a geographical, physiological or even a clan basis), I was constantly hampered by a lack of certainty of identification.

Regretfully culture and traditions around the world are being run over and crushed by the advancing modern, money-orientated, Western culture of economics and profit. Nevertheless every facet of modern society touches to some degree on plant life: global warming, drug dependency, pollution, and modern health risks such as diabetes and obesity, all would appear to encompass some contact with the world's flora.

Overall, plants provide food, clothing, medicines and socio-cultural resources, all contributing to the balanced well-being of Swazi society. But the indigenous knowledge of the use of a wide range of flora is in jeopardy of being lost. It is my hope that this book may prove a small step towards documenting some facts that otherwise might drift into oblivion.

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