Sutherlandia frutescens is regarded as the most profound and multi-purpose of the medicinal plants in Southern Africa. Because of its efficacy as a safe tonic for diverse health conditions it has enjoyed a long history of use by all cultures in Southern Africa.

Sutherlandia powerfully assists the body to mobilize its own resources to cope with diverse physical and mental stresses, and it should therefore be more correctly known as an adaptogenic tonic.

The common names that have been and are used for Sutherlandia in Southern Africa include:

- Sutherlandia (Bot.)
- Cancer bush (English)
- Kankerbos (Afrikaans)
- Wildekeer (Afrikaans)
- Rooikeurtjie (Afrikaans)
- Kalkoenbos (Afrikaans)
- Belbos (Afrikaans)
- Gansies (Afrikaans)
- Unwele (Zulu)
- Insiswa (Zulu)
- Musa-Pelo (Sotho)
- Motlepelo (Sotho)
- Phethola (Sotho)

The traditional Tswana name Phetola alludes to this:

Phetola means it changes, meaning that the plant changes the course of many illness into a favorable outcome. (Similar to the European concept of an alternative).

The North Sotho name Lerumo-lamadi means the spear for the blood meaning that Sutherlandia is a powerful blood-purifier or all-purpose tonic.

The indigenous, folk, and contemporary uses of Sutherlandia include use as a tonic for:

  • enhancing well-being
  • immune support
  • longevity
  • stress, depression and anxiety
  • wasting from cancer, TB, and AIDS
  • quality-of-life tonic for cancers, HIV/AIDS and TB
  • appetite stimulant in wasted patients, but not in healthy people.
  • influenza
  • Chronic Fatigues Syndrome, ME Syndrome and Yuppie Flu
  • viral hepatitis
  • asthma and bronchitis
  • type 2 diabetes
  • mild to moderate hypertension
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • peptic ulcer, gastritis, and reflux oesophagitis
  • hot flashes and irritability in menopause

Sutherlandias are lax spreading shrubs to 1,2m high, with prostrate to erect stems; leaves compound pinnate with leaflets oblong to linear-elliptic, mostly three or more times longer than wide, slightly to densely hairy, the latter silvery in appearance; flowers (Jul-Dec) bright scarlet, borne in terminal racemes; fruit an inflated leathery pod, 1.3-2 times as long as wide, bearing a persistent upturned style; seeds black, flattened, ± 3mm in diameter.

Sutherlandia frutescens is one of five currently recognised Sutherlandia species, all of which are confined to Southern Africa. The species are difficult to distinguish because they often grade into each other and some botanists consider them to be merely different forms of a single large and variable species. Three of the species, Sutherlandia frutescens, S. microphylla and S. tomentosa have overlapping distributions in the Western Cape Province and are probably used interchangeably in this area as kankerbos.

Sutherlandia Safety Study
by The Medical Research Council of South Africa

The results of the recent three month safety study conducted by the IKS division of the Medical Research Council of South Africa have shown that Sutherlandia frutescens is totally safe and non-toxic adaptogen within the parameters of this study. more...

To get a copy of the safety study results in pdf format, click here.

Definition of an Adaptogen

  • a substance that invigorates or strengthens the system (also called a tonic).
  • Increases the body's ability to adapt to internal or external stress.
  • is a term that applies to herbs that maintain health by increasing the body's ability to adapt to environmental and internal stress. Adaptogens generally work by strengthening the immune system, nervous system and/or glandular systems.
  • A substance that modifies the metabolism of the body to combat particular forms of environmental stress.
  • herbs that act in a nonspecific way to strengthen the body and increase resistance to disease and stress.

Current applications:

Central Nervous System
Sutherlandia has been used as supportive treatment in mental and emotional stress, including irritability, anxiety and depression. Widows of slain Zulu warriors used Sutherlandia as a gentle tranquilliser during the mourning period.

The Sotho name motlepelo means ‘bringing back the heart’ meaning that the plant is a traditional treatment for emotional shock and stress.

Agitated Zulu warriors returning from battle would be given an infusion of Sutherlandia ‘to take the war out’ - i.e. as a calming tea.

The ancient Zulu name insiswa means ‘the one which dispels darkness’ alluding to its anti-depressant effect, and tot he fact that it is a powerful tonic for diverse health conditions.

The present Zulu name unwele means ‘hair’ - alluding to the fact that the plant stops people ‘pulling out their hair’ with distress.

Sutherlandia was traditionally used throughout its natural distribution to good effect to combat the symptoms of ‘flu during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and is still used to treat 'flu to this day. Sutherlandia is traditionally believed to shorten the duration and severity of the illness and it can also be taken as a convalescent tonic for post-‘flu debility.

Sutherlandia has traditionally been used in both the prevention and treatment of the symptoms of asthma.

Sutherlandia has been traditionally used for centuries to treat the symptoms of TB, including wasting, and bronchitis. It has also been historically used to treat unspecified wasting diseases.

Sutherlandia has been used to treat symptoms of ‘heartburn’, reflux oesophagitis, gastritis and peptic ulceration. Herbalists at the Parade Market in Cape Town, South Africa say that Sutherlandia is for ‘nerves and stomach ulcers’.

Sutherlandia was historically used to treat diarrhoea and dysentary, and it was used as a supportive remedy for people with unspecified liver conditions. It is slightly purgative at higher doses and has therefore been used as a gentle remedy for constipation.

Urogenital Tract
Sutherlandia was used to treat urinary tract infections, including gonorrhoea, and cystitis, particularly what would nowadays be termed ‘interstitial cystitis’.

Sutherlandia is widely used to this day by rural herbalists and ‘kruie-doktors’ to treat diabetes.

Please see our article on Diabetes and Sutherlandia here.

Sutherlandia has traditionally been used to treat gout, rheumatoid arthritis (known to Zulu healers as “the disease of the lady teachers” ) and osteoarthritis.

To this day Sutherlandia is used as a traditional treatment to improve the quality of life in patients with malignant tumours. Please click here for further information on Sutherlandia and cancer

Sutherlandia Safety and Canavanine
by: Dr Nigel Gericke, T.Dr Credo Mutwa, Dr Carl Albrecht and Prof. Ben-Erik van Wyk.

Sutherlandia is a traditional herbal remedy that has enjoyed a long history of safe use. The recorded history dates back to more than 100 years, and the herb has been sold to the public on a small scale for several decades. Not a single report even suggesting adverse effects (apart from mild diarrhoea at large overdose) has ever been recorded.

There has been a recent statement that Sutherlandia is toxic due to the presence of a chemical called canavanine. There is no scientific evidence that long term exposure to the very low amounts of canavanine, found in Sutherlandia frutescens subspecies microphylla, as sold under the brands of Big Tree, can have any adverse effects.

Part of the evidence that has been used against Sutherlandia concerns a historical report of a person who ingested more than a kilogram of alfalfa seeds (alfalfa is also known as lucern, “lusern”, Medicago sativa) in a short period in order to lower blood cholesterol. The person then developed a temporary inhibition of the production of blood cells (a condition known as pancytopaenia, that reversed to normal after the extreme overdose was stopped). It is possible that this condition was caused by the canavanine in the alfalfa seeds, however, the crux of the matter is that the daily dose taken by this person contained 1000 times more canavanine than is found in the daily recommended dose of two 300mg Sutherlandia tablets. At very high concentrations, canavanine therefore may have toxic effects, but toxicity due to overdose is also true for even the most harmless of herbal medicines. Ordinary table salt, taken in large overdose, can cause high blood pressure or even death.

Alfalfa sprouts are widely sold as a health food in all over the world, despite the fact that alfalfa contains more canavanine than Sutherlandia. Even a modest daily portion of alfalfa sprouts would contain substantially more canavanine than the amount present in a recomended daily dose of Sutherlandia. Despite the presence of canavanine in alfalfa, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States (FDA) has placed alfalfa in the category of food “generally regarded as safe”, so-called “GRAS” status. If the statement is correct that daily ingestion of small amounts of canavanine is harmful, one would have expected that this would have become evident from the millions of people all over the world eating alfalfa sprouts. Clearly this is not the case.

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