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Why Flora? Understanding plant life.

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

You might not assume that plants and ancestors go hand in hand. But when your name’s Flora – a traditional Sepedi name passed down through generations – and plants are used at home for medicinal and traditional purposes, plants and ancestry really do go together! 

This blog was written by Queeneth Seepano and Flora Molepo, two Bushwise students with a growing interest in botany.

Read time: 5 mins

What is a plant?

A detailed image of grass, one of the many species of plant life we study at Bushwise.

A plant is a chlorophyll-containing organism which produces its own food through the process of photosynthesis, which makes them self-sustaining organisms. Plants provide humans and animals with oxygen, food and everyday used products from paper, chairs to tissues, etc. 

Yes, I know. Botany – the scientific study of the structure, economic importance, physiology, genetics, ecology and the distribution of plants – can be less interesting because I mean they are just trees, they don’t move. Who would want to learn about something that just stands and does nothing all day?

All about plant life!

The authors are fascinated by plant life, from the smallest flower to the mightiest tree.

I had no knowledge about botany or plant life before joining Bushwise Field Guides, but a lot of interest. Bushwise has grown that knowledge and interest. For example, I now have an understanding of the cambium layer, which is the growing part of a tree trunk, to the xylem and phloem, which are used for storing and transporting food, water and nutrients in plants. 

Incorporating plants is an essential part of our field guide training (it’s one of the many modules we must learn at Bushwise). I was able to incorporate traditional, medicinal uses of specific plants during practical drives. 

The author reaches for the branch of a silver cluster leaf, an important plant in the Tsonga culture.

For example, at one stop I discussed using the silver cluster leaf Terminalia sericea. The leaves and roots are important in traditional medicine mostly in the Tsonga culture, they boil the leaves and the infusion is taken every day to help treat stomach-aches, coughs and diarrhoea. 

The leaves are then chewed to create a paste for open wounds, the bark can be used as a rope, shoelaces or even a belt. 

What’s in a name? 

One of the two authors, Flora, leans against a tree. Flora is also the word used to describe all plant life – as in, flora and fauna.

Flora is a distinctive way of naming someone, but in my culture, Sepedi, Flora is a very common name. It’s a generational given name, passed on by my great-grandmother to my grandmother and now to me. 

My love of plants began with the name ‘Flora’, but continued to develop as plants were used as medicine and for other traditional uses at home. For example, when I had serious menstrual pains, I boiled the leaves of a local plant – an ancient plant species that has been used by humans for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. Using it relieved the menstrual pains and I was able to go on with daily activities.

Traditional beliefs, myths and medicinal uses of our plants

The author examines the leaves of a buffalo thorn, a species Bushwise students are familiar with when studying plant life.

I believe that trees are one of the most important aspects of our ecosystems. Plants are the source of life on Earth. All living things depend on plant life to make it through the day. We have many different species of plants in the world. 

South Africa is a very diverse country, with many different tribes and people with different perspectives about plants, also with different cultures, beliefs, myths and medical uses. Each and any culture has its own way of using the plants according to their culture. 

We all know that plants provide us with oxygen, right? But, that’s not all. Let’s explore the traditional uses of some plants starting with Ziziphus mucronata, buffalo thorn.

Many uses of buffalo thorn or wag’n bietjie

The buffalo thorn bush is colourful and sharp, not to be trifled with. It holds significance for many communities in southern Africa.

The buffalo thorn is known locally as wag’n bietjie (wait a minute) in Afrikaans. The buffalo thorn gets this name because the straight thorns on the tree have a really sharp hook on the end (looking a bit like buffalo horns). So when it hooks you, you have to stop and wait to unhook yourself from it. 

Traditionally the tree is used for many things. As culture and beliefs of certain tribes are different, they all have their own ways of using this tree, either medicinally or culturally. 

The fruits from these plants are edible for both animals and humans. After eating the fruits, you can take the seeds and crush them into powder, and from that powder you can make porridge. 

When the tree is starting to have the green new leaves, you can use the leaves as spinach. Depending on how you want them, you can either eat the leaves straight from the tree or you can cook them first.

Honouring and communicating with our ancestors using plants

Authors Queeneth and Flora sit beneath a marula tree, part of the plant life they study at Bushwise.

In many cultures here in South Africa we have similar uses of the buffalo thorn branch when it comes to those who have passed away. Our beliefs and myths are what have kept us safe and protected to this day.

When a member of the family dies and they have passed away far from home – like at the hospital or in a car accident – we use the branch to go to where he/she passed to collect his/her spirit. We believe that the hook thorns represent something in our lives, the hooked thorn shows the past of the person who has died and the straight thorn shows his/her way to the afterlife. 

A marula tree serves many purposes in South Africa, from cultural to traditional to religious beliefs practiced beneath its branches.

The Sclerocarya birrea, the marula tree, is one of the protected trees in South Africa and also one we use in practice. In my belief and culture, we believe our ancestors are always there.

When we want to communicate with them, we go under this tree, with specific items needed to communicate with them. Like the dead we buried using the buffalo thorn, we are able to communicate with them and tell them all that we ask for under the marula tree.

Bushwise students connect with plant life by developing a deep appreciation for the role of plants in an ecosystem, like this marula tree.

Plant life is incredibly culturally and ecologically important. Let’s look after our plants and trees, people!

Did you know how important plant life is in the functioning of an ecosystem and communicating with ancestors? Learn how everything is connected by joining a Bushwise course


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