The endangered pepper-bark tree of southeastern Africa, Warburgia salutarus, grows in South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The name ‘salutaris’ means health giving, alluding to the pepper-bark’s medicinal uses. A related species, known as ‘Karambaki’, has been used medicinally by Arab traders, East African residents since ancient times.
Pepperbark is extremely rare to find in the wild and is listed as a Red Data Book threatened species. Heavy harvested by traditional healers for its much sought-after bark used in traditional medicine, considerable effort is made to encourage propagation of this tree.
It grows easily from cuttings or root suckers in well-drained soil rich in organic matter and makes an attractive landscaping plant. A tropical tree, the slender evergreen pepper-bark grows 5-10m tall and fixes nitrogen in the soil while its leaves makes an nitrogen-rich mulch.
Small yellow-green flowers form 30 mm round berries that ripen to a purple colour. Leaves, fruit and inner bark have a strong peppery taste and harvesting is severely impeded by the fruit’s popularity with fruit flies and monkeys. The trees are slow to mature and can only be harvested at around 10 years old, but takes 20 years to reach full maturity.
The bark and leaves of the pepper-bark tree contain various compounds with antibacterial, anti-fungicidal (particularly against Candida yeast infections), anti-ulcer and diuretic properties. The plant material is dried, then crushed into a powder and used as infusions and decoctions to treat vaginal thrush, chest infections, venereal diseases, body aches, stomach problems (diarrhoea, aches) and malaria.
Used as a snuff, it clears nasal passages and when the bark is chewed or the smoke inhaled, it remedies chest complaints, relieves constipation, fevers and body pains. An infusion of the pepper-bark tree leaves helps against rheumatism and skin diseases, while boiled roots are added to soup to cure diarrhoea.
Both stems and pepper-bark tree root bark are remedies for malaria and when ground up and mixed with water, it can cure mouth sores. In Kenya, the leaves are added to flavour curries.
Research conducted to compare the active ingredients in the bark to that of the leaves indicated that the difference is negligible. Replacing the bark with the leaves in the use of traditional medicine will allow for more sustainable harvesting of this endangered plant.
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