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Conservation Through Propagation

Number 16 - July 1998

R. Symmonds


Résumé en Français

It is currently estimated that 80% of the people in South Africa use traditional medicine in some form or other. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal alone, the value of the trade has been estimated to be worth about R60 million per year.

The idea of growing medico-magical plants, or "muthi" as it is known to the Zulu, is not entirely new to Traditional Healers. However, the idea that "muthi" plants should be farmed in order to alleviate the pressure on wild stocks has created cultural dilemmas for many medical practitioners. Plants that have been cultivated in a nursery are deemed not to have the same curative power as those of wild-grown plants and this has led to some resistance. There are also many rituals that are associated with the harvesting of material which are often difficult to follow when plants have been grown in a nursery situation.

Silverglen Medicinal Plant Nursery was established in 1986, within Silverglen Nature Reserve, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Initially the aim of Silverglen was to produce plants which were becoming difficult to obtain from the wild and then supply this material to the markets, or to re-introduce plants into secure areas. This line of thought has only been partly successful due to cultural resistance, and for both political and economic reasons. Silverglen's emphasis has now shifted towards environmental education.

As a working nursery, Silverglen has the capacity to provide on-the-spot practical training with regard to the growing of medicinal plants. A three-day basic horticultural training course was introduced in 1988 to pass on the practical experience that the nursery has built up over a number of years to the people at grassroots level. Our dominant theme is conservation-through-propagation.

During 1997 over 300 students, (traditional healers, environmental educators and entrepreneurs) attended our three-day course. Not all students are "gardeners" or will become growers, but all leave Silverglen with a basic conservation message.

The course is conducted in either Zulu or English. The course aims, whether directly or indirectly, to:

  • Empower people with life skills.
  • Provide citizens with an option to personally address the increasing shortage of "muthi" plants.
  • Ensure that these plants will be available for primary health care in the short and long term.
  • Promote the conservation of threatened medicinal plants.

The most important aspect of the course is the practical experience, which is gained by working in a fully operational nursery, mixing soil, pricking out and repotting.  With the assistance of 3 trained lecturers, all basic horticultural aspects of propagation are covered. Time is set aside for demonstrations of the various techniques involved in sexual and asexual propagation. Seed cleaning, storage and seed sowing, along with the various cutting techniques and air layering are all practiced, using local plants as examples. Nursery design is also discussed. Central to Silverglen's training programme is that appropriate technology should always be transferred to course attendees. Most students who attend the courses do not have the infrastructure or the financial backing to return home and set up a commercial nursery. Silverglen tries to provide innovative options using readily available materials.

To provide some sort of encouragement, a "starter pack" of plants is given free to each student on completion of the course. Students are allowed to choose their own plants. This gives Silverglen an idea of what plants are in high demand.

Silverglen has successfully propagated many of the most threatened muthi species identified for the region.

With an ever-increasing population requiring affordable primary health care, the teaching of propagation skills is becoming vitally important. Silverglen's approach is only part of the solution. If we ever hope to meet the needs of the people in this region, a greater awareness and acceptance of the role of traditional medicine in our society is needed, as is a commitment to sourcing less "muthi" from the wild and more from cultivation.

French Résumé

Du fait d'une croissante demande pour les plantes medicinales traditionnelles certaines especes sont recoltees de fa‡on incorrecte au regard de la conservation de la biodiversite. La pepiniere de plantes medicinale Silverglen forme depuis 1988 les gu‚risseurs aux techniques horticoles afin que ceux-ci entretiennent leurs plantes medicinales plus conform‚ ment aux directives de conversations de la biodiversite. Cette facon de proceder a des chances d'alleger la pression pesant sur les stocks de semences d'especes sauvages.

 La medecine traditionnelle joue un role important dans la culture zulu. Le commerce des plantes medicinales est largement repandu et les plantes sont utilisees sous de nombreuses formes.