Medicinal plants on the muthi market

A hippo’s skull, starfish, and chameleons are easy enough to recognise, but other parts of animals and plants in heaps on the muthi market are much more cryptic.  Johannesburg’s busy and vast muthi markets supplies its occupants with materials for a medicinal practice that is much older than the city. Muthi markets sell not only the plants and animals used in local traditional medicine but also diagnostic services as some of the vendors diagnose and treat their customers.

red sap

I was guided around the winding stalls of Faraday market by Ledile. Not only has she carried out research using DNA analysis to identify some of the plant materials on the market, she also speaks a couple of local languages. So I was very lucky to be able to chat with vendors as well as see what was being sold.

Most of the plant material is chopped and dried. Which makes is difficult to identify.  I was told that one of the most popular botanical items was Leopard orchid (Ansellia Africana), which is used in love potions.  Most vendors just sell medicinal plant and animal materials but do not prescribe them. However one vendor also worked as a witch doctor and his knowledge of plant collection as well as their uses was fascinating.  He said he had even been asked to use his skills in the garden of one of Johannesburg’s wealthy residences – planting plants that would protect the household.  

Merwilla plumbea

Merwilla plumbea has a range of uses in traditional medicine. Laboratory tests have found some anti-inflammatory action from its extract. Active ingredients isolated from the bulbs include homoisoflavanones.



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Bhutanese farmers’ market

Thimphu’s Sunday market is open every day except Tuesday. Numerous varieties of Bhutanese culinary essential the chilli and different kinds of incense appear alongside standard market fare of fruit, vegetables, dried fish and dairy products.

Bitter gourd Bitter gourdWearing willow Wearing willowYak cheese and fern fronds Brewing yeast with fern frondsEdible ferns Edible ferns Heaps of dried chillies Heaps of dried chilliesChilli powder Chilli powderJuniper incense - powdered leafy shoots on the left, powdered wood on the right Two kinds of juniper incense – powdered leafy shoots on the left, powdered wood on the right

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Wild orchid trade in Turkey: flowers

wild orchids from marketSeeing bunches massed together it is easy to forget that the orchids are just one type from the variety that are on sale at the weekly market as part of the fresh seasonal produce.  In the picture above a sprig of lilac is amongst the orchids from a mixture of genera including: Cephalanthera, Himantoglossum, Anacamptis, Orchis and Serapias.

Himantoglossum Anacamptis Cephalanthera

Bunches of orchids also appear next to edible wild collected vegetables such as wild asparagus

anacamptis 2

with dairy

Wild orchid flowers are often a by product – it is the swollen roots known as tubers that are worth more for the trade in salep. It is no surprise to see people who sell dairy products selling orchid flowers. A lot of orchid tuber collection and orchid flower picking was done by people as they walked with their grazing livestock.

Serapias & Orchis

Although there are reports suggesting that at least some collection is now done systematically with orchid tuber collection as the sole focus of activity.  Intensive collection combined with changes in land use that alters habitats inhabited by wild orchids may mean that eventually they disappear from markets as orchids become rare in the wild.

wild orchids and other market produce

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Edible flowers

Cercis edible flowers











It is the time of the year when the banks of the Bosphorus turn pink with the blossom from Cercis siliquastrum, known as the Judas tree in English. Its flowers make a visual impact because they emerge before the leaves so there is nothing hiding them from view.  Further south from Istanbul in the Aegean region the flower buds and freshly opened flowers are still used as part of the range of edible wild plants in the region.  They don’t have a particularly strong flavour, but there are not many foods that are naturally pink so it certainly makes a colourful addition to a chef’s repertoire.

Another edible flower in the spring flora of the Aegean is Lavandula stoechas.  Known as ‘French lavender’ in the UK but translated from Turkish to English it is referred to as ‘Blue lavender’. It is used to make tea, which is considered to induce sleepiness and drunk as a bedtime tea.  One labour intensive use of the flowers is picking off the purple bracts at the top of the flower head to make blue lavender syrup. A non-traditional but alternative use is to infuse the purple bracts and flowers in gin. With tonic lavender-gin makes an excellent aperitif. On its own the gin is also remarkably soothing when applied to mosquito bites. Alcohol evaporating has a cooling effect, and Lavandula stoechas has anti-inflammatory properties.  Possibly the smell and taste of a lavender gin and tonic is also a compelling distraction from the lingering itch of a mosquito bite.

wild lavender

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Oriental borage – Trachystemon orientalis

Oriental Borage Trachystemon orientalis on market as wild vegetable, Turkey

Farmers bringing cultivated crops and wild harvests to the Black Sea farmer’s market in Kasimpaşa Istanbul provide a glimpse of north Anatolian landscapes. In March many market stalls had large heaps and sacks of Oriental Borage (Trachystemon orientalis) for sale by the kg. It is a native Turkish plant that grows in deciduous forests, on shady riverbanks and damp ravines. On the edge of the Black sea in north Anatolia high rainfall throughout the year creates a damp climate, very much a contrast to the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts that have scorching hot and dry summers, and to the concrete dominated landscapes of cities.

Oriental borage is used as a vegetable and is also considered to have medicinal properties in Turkey.  Outside of its natural distribution from east Bulgaria to west Caucasia that includes Turkey Oriental borage can occasionally be seen grown as an ornamental garden plant.  As an early blooming and nectar yielding plant it is good for bees.  It also grows vigorously – perhaps best demonstrated by its abundance on markets – and tolerance of shade makes it a good groundcover plant.

In Germany Turkish immigrants cultivate Oriental borage as a crop since it is not a native species in Germany and it is not available on the market. However it has the potential to become naturalised in Germany as it persists in ruderal places if it is not collected and used. This introduction of Oriental borage as a crop species in Germany is relatively recent, it is a neo-hemerophyte.

Other members of the Boraginaceae family are known to contain pyrrolizide alkaloids, which may also be present in Oriental borage. Consequently there may be health concerns over consuming this plant in large quantities.

Oriental borage Oriental Borage, Trachystemon orientalis, wild harvest, Turkey


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Plant blindness & botanical illiteracy

Despite the importance of plants to people as foods, medicines, materials, fuels and fundamental elements of most habitats, people undervalue them. Plant blindness and botanical illiteracy, affect scientists seeking funds to carry out plant science research. Plant blindness is disinterest in and inattention to plans. Botanical illiteracy occurs when people lack basic skills and knowledge that enable engagement with botanical topics. There is scope for addressing both plant blindness and botanical illiteracy even through common plants by exploring their histories and properties.

Some research is investigating how to increase botanical awareness. One study found that exploration of plant defense mechanisms made plants more engaging for students.  Another study found that colourful visual presentations of plants, and incorporating survival-relevant information such as edibility, toxicity and medical significance increased retention of information about plants.

Improving botanical literacy isn’t just a topic for classrooms, or exclusively about learning what botanists consider important. Plant science, in its varied forms, including taxonomy, phytochemistry and the cultural history of plants can connect with people in realms that are pertinent to them ranging from cultural studies, local foraging, foreign travel, gardening, and cooking, to a glass of gin and tonic.  Here are a couple of examples of plants that can be interesting to people who aren’t botanists:

Essential for Hittite city cursing: seeds of desolation

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

When the Hittites conquered a city, the site was cursed to deter future occupation. A token amount of ‘marashanha‘ seeds were sown during the cursing ritual.  Analysis of Hittite texts, linguistics, distribution and medicinal properties of fennel species, suggests that F. vulgare, used as a contraceptive and symbolic of barrenness,  is likely to have been the plant referred to as ‘marashanha‘.

fennel seeds

On Schedule 9, in Chinese medicine and expensive face cream

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica)

A vigorous plant that is considered to be invasive in some places Japanese Knotweed is one of the richest natural sources of Resveratrol, a plant polyphenol that features in many face creams. Resveratrol has also been found to have antibacterial, antifungal, anti -inflammatory, antioxidant, neuroprotective, and anticancer properties.  Japanese knotweed has been used in traditional medicine systems for thousands of years.

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Useful invasive: Salal

Salal Gaultheria shallon

Salal (Gaultheria shallon) is considered an invasive species in the UK, but back in its place of origin it was a useful edible plant.

Introduced from North America to the UK in 1824 as an ornamental shrub, salal was also planted as game cover on shooting estates, and grown as foliage for the floristry trade. By 1914 it could be seen growing in the wild.  It is ericaceous and can tolerate drought, but is not tolerant of severe frost. In the UK it  thrives on lowland heath, a rare habitat, that provides acidic soil and is warmer than upland heath . Spreading by suckers salal can form dense evergreen thickets that other plants struggle to grow through. It is now found scattered across the UK and is locally naturalised in areas of the Thames Valley, Hampshire, Dorset and Scotland. Salal is currently listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in Scotland, but not in England and Wales. Listing on Schedule 9 makes it an offence to dump or plant salal in the wild and gives the Government powers to ban its sale.

Although salal is pest and disease free in the UK it can be grazed by cattle and deer. People can also make use of it in several different ways. The leaves formed part of traditional diets in North America as tea or food flavouring. While contemporary use of the leaves as a food is minimal it has economic significance, to indigenous and non-indigenous people,  as a part of commercial trade in Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs). It is collected and sold for use by florists. As the UK cut flower trade is increasingly using UK grown flowers it would make a great alternative to imported foliage. Particularly if nature conservation sites invited florists to pick the stems for use, thereby making a saving on costly control measures.  Salal regenerates quickly so it would take years of sustained picking to curb its growth.

Salal leaves were a small component of traditional North American diets, which was dwarfed by consumption of salal berries. It is part of the Ericaceae family and its berries taste quite similar to another member of that family, bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus). Native to Europe bilberries are tiny and extremely labour intensive to pick, although their flavour is far more complex than more easily pickable North American native blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum). Salal has much more of the flavour of bilberries, but with berries hanging in small bunches it takes less than 20 minutes to pick enough for a batch of jam.

A codicil on making use of invasives is the need to know if they have been sprayed with herbicides, which can make them toxic to use.  Considering that by definition an invasive species is one that is doing well, they are a good subject for foragers’ attentions.

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Social plant science

Nigella sativa cheese

Cheese with Nigella sativa seeds in it


Plants with medicinal properties or edible plants are the sexy side of plant science, and research on plant diseases such as phytophthora that threaten agriculture captures attention. Plant science is not often perceived as a science that also operates in the social realm. However thanks to Nestlé’s application to patent Black Cumin (Nigella sativa), the value of research on historical or traditional plant use has been highlighted as a method of protecting plant knowledge from appropriation by large corporations. Suddenly, documenting traditional knowledge of plant use seems more important.

Events planned around ‘Fascination of Plants Day’, on May 18th, to highlight plant science not only drew on the headline grabbing medicinal and edible plants but also showcased the social side of plant science by bringing history to life. One fascinating example is ‘Seeds of Change’ a floating garden in Bristol, which illustrates Bristol’s maritime history and culture through seeds germinated from ballast discarded by trade boats in the river.  ‘Shadows & Ghosts: Lost Woods in the Landscape’ was an intriguing conference looking at the lifespan and community of trees under landscape management schemes, such as parkland, and the connection between trees and people who inhabited the landscape.

Garden plants overwhelmingly demonstrate social constraint, very few of them were first described or named by a woman. Plant-hunting adventures were largely reserved for men, even though ethnobotanical researchers often find that key custodians of plant knowledge and plant diversity are women. One plant-hunting exception was the inspirational plant hunter Marianne North. Travelling as an unaccompanied woman through North America, South America, the Indian Ocean and Australasia from 1871 to 1885 was remarkable. Her travel was both driven and accompanied by her talent as a painter and her botanical paintings, including the species she painted that were new to science, can be seen at Kew’s Marianne North gallery.

Gendered differences in plant knowledge and access to plants, and plant knowledge as intellectual property are just two examples of the ways in which social factors continue to be significant in plant science. Engaging with social concepts tied to plants can be more complex than citing uses of plants or describing laboratory-based research.

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Anthropogenic landscapes: industrial orchids

Anthropogenic landscapes are those that have been shaped by human actions. There are numerous ways to define these landscape and infinite examples of them that can be described. A brief outline of how in the post-industrial age in the UK old industrial sites have become home to an array of biodiversity that often includes orchids is the first example that illustrates the sometimes surprising connections between human activity and the abundance and distribution of other species: Industrial orchids

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Novel Crops

Once a plant has been adopted by one group as something to be deliberately grown, why and how do other groups of people start growing it? There are different answers to this question for different plants and different groups.

Emma Cooper is currently doing research on novel crop adoption in the UK. She is focusing on ‘Lost Crops of the Incas’ specifically Achocha (Cyclanthera sp) and Oca (Oxalis tuberosa). She is interested in hearing not only from people who grow these plants in their allotments or gardens, but also people who are not growing them.

If you live in the UK and are a gardener and you are not growing Achocha or Oca please do answer her 6 questions in an online survey

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