-Dr Gary Stafford

This article is the first of a two-part series by Dr Gary Stafford on South Africa’s medicinal plant resources.

“The extraordinary floristic diversity in southern Africa is not only one of the region’s greatest natural assets, but also one of the botanical wonders of the world.”

Regions of floristic endemism in southern Africa: a review with emphasis on succulents (Van Wyk and Smith, 2001).

Dr Gary Stafford was born in Harare, Zimbabwe and studied botany and ethnobotany (the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (then the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg). It was there that he developed a fondness for the flora of the KZN midlands and the Drakensberg. He also began working with various aspects of Zulu traditional medicine, completing a MSc on the effect of storage medicinal plant chemistry and biological activity, and a PhD on Zulu medicinal plants used to treat central nervous system related ailments. It was also during this period that he became aware of the academic, educational and conservational value of University botanical gardens.

During the two decades of his academic career he has had the privilege of working with the University Botanical Garden, Pietermaritzburg (UKZN), the Botanical Garden of the University of Copenhagen and the Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University. He works closely with the curator of the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, Martin Smit.

The history of the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden starts in 1902 when lecturer Dr Augusta Vera Duthie grew plants next to the then Main Building on campus for research and student practical lessons. The garden now houses an impressive collection of both indigenous and exotic plants (which can be explored online: including the oldest cultivated Welwitschia mirabilis (Tweeblaarkanniedood, Wonderplant, !Kharos) in the world which was planted in 1926 by the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden’s first curator, Hans Herre. Martin Smit has a passion for Victoria water-lilies (Victoria cruziana – a native of the the Paraná-Paraguay basin) and in the summer these amazing plants are well worth a visit.

1966, Helmut Meyer, Welwitschia huis
1966, Helmut Meyer, Welwitschia huis

Currently, according to , there are 1775 botanical gardens and arboreta in 148 countries around the world.  Today botanical gardens are playing a key role in the conservation of plants and the education of people who visit them.

Origins and importance of well curated botanical gardens

Like universities, botanical gardens have part of their origins in the church. The concept of a modern botanical garden evolved from cloister gardens and with them the development of apothecaries and physic gardens and the start of modern pharmaceutical science.

Charlemagne (742 to 814) is credited for commanding that his royal gardens contain medicinal plants, therefore establishing the basis for later botanic and physic gardens.

National Library of Medicine, NLM, NLM, Orto Botanica di Pactova
National Library of Medicine, NLM, NLM, Orto Botanica di Pactova

The Senate of the Venetian Republic founded the oldest existing botanical garden in Padua in 1545. The garden, which is currently affiliated with the University of Padua, today covers roughly 22,000 square meters, and is known for its special collections and historical design.  In 1997, it was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site on the following grounds:

 “The Botanical Garden of Padua is the original of all botanical gardens       throughout the world, and represents the birth of science, of scientific exchanges, and understanding of the relationship between nature and      culture. It has made a profound contribution to the development of many modern scientific disciplines, notably botany, medicine, chemistry, ecology and pharmacy. “ (1997, UNESCO Inscription, 21st Session)

Throughout much of human history, plants have been important sources of not only food but also medicines. These should not be thought of as two separated entities but part of a continuum. Herbal remedies came about by observing nature and by trial and error and were passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years.

Several examples of uses of plants as medicines are revealed by archaeological data. One from South Africa is a 77,000-year-old bedding material found to have included leaves from a plant still valued for its toxicity to mosquitoes, Cryptocarya woodii (

Even today, more than half of the top 150 prescribed drugs in the United States has at least one compound derived from plants, and 80% of the world’s population depends on plants or plant extracts as their major source of healthcare.

Next month, in PART 2 of this article, Dr Stafford discusses medicinal plant use in South Africa and Traditional African Medicine.