While I was doing an assessment in a garden on the Heads I discovered this shrub that I was not familiar with, nor did the local plant ‘gurus’ know what it was. Nana Joubert eventually came to the rescue after she accidentally came across pictures that triggered the id.
This unassuming shrub with its velvety grey-green leaves and the tiniest of flowers is of no horticultural value, however it packs a punch when it comes to medicinal attributes. It has been used for thousands of years, it is reported that fruits of this plant were found in a floral collar of the innermost coffin of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. (Mabberley 2008 : 911).
Withania somnifera is restricted to the Old World, it is most common and widespread mainly in the drier regions, from the Mediterranean through tropical Africa to South Africa and from the Canary and Cape Verde Islands to the Middle East and Arabia, India, Sri Lanka and southern China.
It is widely used for medicinal purposes, it contains more than 80 chemical compounds, mainly alkaloids and steroids (withanolides). Numerous studies have been published on the activities of these compounds, mostly obtained from the leaves and roots. These studies have demonstrated antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, cytotoxic, anti-tumour and cholesterol-lowering activities. This is an important plant in the traditional medicine of Africa and Asia. Ashwagandha is perhaps the best known of all the plants used in Ayurvedic medicine. It has narcotic, sedative and diuretic properties and counteracts the symptoms of stress. It is widely referred to as ‘Indian ginseng’, and like the real ginseng from Chinese medicine (Panax ginseng), it is used as a general tonic and considered to be effective against a large number of ailments. Different chemotypes of this plant are known. Wink & and Van Wyk 2008:238 say that W. somnifera has a mind-altering cell toxin which is only slightly hazardous.
In traditional medicine in southern Africa the leaves are used to heal open as well as septic, inflamed wounds, abscesses, inflammation, haemorrhoids, rheumatism and syphilis; a paste of leaves is applied or ointments are made with fat or oil. For internal use the dried roots are taken in the form of a decoction, infusion or tincture. The notes on the labels of several specimens in the National Herbarium in Pretoria give interesting information on the traditional uses of Withania somnifera. B. Maguire 2215, Namibia, 1953: ‘the fruits and flowers are used by Bushmen for ‘charm’ purposes in lion hunting.’ W. Giess 9733, Namibia, 1967: ‘Bushmen burn the roots in a fire to keep lions away.’ A.P. Goossens 929, Free State, 1931: ‘The smear derived by roasting the ripe fruit in fat is said to be an excellent cure for sore mammae of cows.’ G.C. Theron 481, Eastern Cape, 1948: ‘Leaves used locally on open sores; the lower side of the leaf ‘draws’
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Linnaeus first described this plant as Physalis somnifera in 1753. In Flora of Australia (Purdie et al. 1982:184) it is stated that the genus Withania is named after Henry Witham (sic.), an English palaeobotanist of the early 19th century. However, the spelling of the name Withania is conserved under the rules of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. The specific name somnifera means sleep-bearing.