Pelargonium sidoides is a small geranium-like plant which is commonly referred to as ‘South African geranium’ or Umckaloabo in the Zulu language. It is highly regarded by traditional healers as one of the major curative plants.
The plant grows in a rosette pattern and forms thick and very dark brown underground roots that grow up to 15 cm in length. Sparsely branched stems grow from the base and the species is distinguished from others by its long stalks, greyish-green crinkled leaves which are mildly aromatic, heart-shaped and velvety.
It bears lots of characteristic reddish-purple flowers with a distinctive yellow pollen throughout the year.
The plant grows in places where the climatic conditions range from arid to dry. Although Pelargonnium sidoides has the ability to endure frosts, the plants become dormant during prolonged periods of drought or when they are grown in places having extremely cold climatic conditions.
Pelargonnium sidoides is endemic to Lesotho and South Africa. It is harvested from the wild for the manufacture of traditional medicine (phytomedicines) by local and international pharmaceutical industries. It usually grows in short grassland and sometimes with occasional shrubs and trees on stony soil varying from sand to clay-loam and is found at altitudes ranging from near sea level to 2,300m.Ethnomedicinal records show that traditional practitioners and local communities have been using the roots of Pelargonnium sidoides for centuries for treatment of many diseases and disorders within the framework of their therapeutic settings, a variety of illnesses including coughs and upper respiratory infections, dysentery, diarrhoea, hepatic complaints, colds, fatigue, fevers, dysmenorrhea and infections of the respiratory tract including tuberculosis. In fact, the plant’s name ‘umckaloabo‘ is derived from two Zulu words; umkhuhlane, meaning ‘fever- and cough-related diseases’, and uhlabo which means ‘chest pain’.
Indeed the Pelargonnium sidoides plant is highly regarded by traditional healers as one of the major curative plants. Considered one of the mainstream traditional medicinal plants especially in South Africa and surrounding areas, Pelargonnium sidoides is also used in Germany, England and other western countries in form of a syrup as well as a cough drop or tablet. In fact, its remedy as a treatment especially for tuberculosis was popularised in England and Europe by the British mechanic Charles Henry Stevens in the 19th century. The primary purpose for using Pelargonnium sidoides as a home herbal remedy is to first and foremost shorten the period of sickness and to relieve the affected person’s symptoms. The remedy also breaks up mucus, fights bacteria, and works as an antiviral agent.
The main medicinal part of the plant is the fleshy dark brown rhizomes which are dried and formulated into powders, tinctures and infusions. Its potent antibacterial and antiviral properties are ideal in the treatment of chronic respiratory tract infections such as sore throat, sinusitis, colds and flu. The plant is very effective for treating acute bronchitis and has great ability in increasing the body’s natural healing ability from a myriad of diseases and disorders.
Pelargonnium sidoides decoction is used in some communities to treat stomach ulcers. Indeed scientific studies show that Pelargonnium sidoides extracts are effective against Helicobacter pylori bacteria, the main causative agent of stomach ulcers. In addition, Pelargonnium sidoides is also effective in treating acute as well as chronic throat, nose and ear infections.
The plant is used to treat upper respiratory infections, and common cold. It is also used to treat sexually transmitted diseases including gonorrhoea and herpes. Infusion of the roots of Pelargonnium sidoides has been orally administered to treat coughs, and gastrointestinal disorders such as diarrhoea and dysentery. In addition, the plant has also been used to provide a cure for hepatic disorders and dysmenorrhea. Its upper parts are ground into powder form and used as a wound healing agent.
The plant is also used to invigorate the body’s immune system, thereby helping to put off the spread of microbial infections. This is the main reason why many people use this herbal remedy as a substitute for various antibiotics.
The therapeutic attributes of Pelargonnium sidoides are due to the various phytochemicals contained in the plant especially the presence of a remarkable series of simple coumarins, phenolic acids, flavonoids, gallic acid and the gallic acid, methyl ester, which greatly contribute to the herb’s antibacterial, antifungal, anti-mycobacterial and immuno-modulatory properties which make it highly curative. It also contains calcium and silica which are essential minerals in the body.
The greatest threat to Pelargonnium sidoides currently is the over harvesting of its tubers for local and export purpose, habitat transformation and degradation. Loss of the plant population to habitat transformation as a result of urban development and agricultural activities has occurred in most of the historic sites, leading to mass reduction in the wild population of the plant. Therefore, a lot has to be done to conserve this highly valuable medicinal plant and prevent it from future extinction.