Buchu is perhaps the best known Aromatic herb from Southern Africa. I am particularly fond of it since my great grandparents farmed it in the mountains of Piketberg. I have vivid childhood memories of going down to the celler and burying my face in the big bags of dried Buchu leaves to immerse myself in the minty black current scent of Buchu. For me the scent contained secret mysteries of ancient times and I felt that if I immersed myself in the scent, I would be able to capture some long forgotten magic.
Buchu is endemic to the mountains of the Western Cape in South Africa and is found from Clanwilliam in the north, to Stanford in the south, and east as far as the Outeniqua mountains, in the so-called “fynbos” strip. In their natural environment they grow in Mediterranean type climate with hot dry summers and rain during winter months. The soils are mostly nutrient poor sandy soils with low pH varying between pH 3.7 and 5.3. Buchu plants grows naturally on steep slopes with altitudes that range between 737 m to 2 028 m above sea level. Buchu plants start to grow during August when the days start to become longer and temperatures increases after winter. It is also the time when rainfall starts to decrease. Most rainfall occurres in the fynbos areas during the months of June, July and August (Ref) Buchu, is classified under the same family as citrus plants, Rutaceae, with its genus being Agathosma. It was previously also known as Barosma.
Buchu and the Khoesan
The use of Buchu has a long and venrerable history in Southern Africa and was particularly sacred to the Khoesan who introduced it to the Western colonists. The word ‘Khoisan’ was a constructed compound that was coined by Leonhard Schultze in 1928 as a collective term for the Khoekhoen and the San. Khoe, meaning ‘men of men’ or ‘people of people’ in most Khoe languages, and San being the word Khoekhoen use for Bushmen Khoe pastoralists and San hunter gatherers. The preferred word today is Khoesan. Although in the past there was a lot of debate as to the exact origins of Khoekhoen, it now appears that the Khoekhoen were originally San hunter-gatherers who adopted the practice of herding sheep and later cattle from neighbouring Bantu groups.The Khoekhoen and the San share the same ancient Southern African genetic heritage that can be traced back to the beginning of modern humanity. [Ref]
Among the Khoesan buchu is both a generic name for a blend of dry ground plants for an aromatic perfume powder, and the name for plant genus with different species. Particular botanical species are obscure in San oral traditions. Only generic terms are mentioned without mentioning particular species. (Ref)
The following story illustrates how intricately woven Khoesan’s cosmological association with buchu is, and it gives clear indications of how Buchu was used by the Khoesan. The Khoesan calls the rain being !Khwa. !Khwa is the embodiment of the rain and of the water in the water hole, his home. The Khoesan thought of the rain as male and female. Heavy rain with thunder is male, and light gentle rain is female. The same can be applied to buchu among the Khoesan, as although buchu has strong feminine associations it is also un-gendered. Buchu is used to both pacify and stimulate. The waterhole is seen as a gate between the worlds of the living and the dead; a gateway between realms.!Khwa possesses the ability to change his form at will, and most often manifest as either the watersnake or the waterbull. The presence of water buchu (possibly A.crenulata) at a water source was taken as an indication of the Water Snake’s dwelling place. (Ref)
One night, as they all gathered around the fire after the evening meal, Mantis began to talk. “Rain,’ he said, ‘was a person of the early race, and rain could take the form of anything he chose.
Once Rain came down to earth in the form of a Water Buffalo. He was trotting along, trotting along, his breath forming a gentle mist all around him. After a while he noticed a delicate fragrance as he breathed in the cool air, and he tracked the alluring scent to a small camp, where, however, there was no sign of any people. Still, the aroma was stronger than ever and he followed his nose to the entrance of a small hut, where a young woman, Khwa, lay on her sleeping skins, sick. She was tended by her sister who was also taking care of her baby. The rest of the people had gone out in search of food. Khwa’s sister had gently rubbed buchu over her body, to help her recover, and it was the smell of the herbs which attracted Rain. There was a bundle of it lying beside Khwa.
The sight of her lying there touched Rain’s heart and he began to sing softly. She heard the beautiful sound and lifted her head. She saw him through the mist, standing in the doorway, singing:
O come with me my sweet young maid
That I may be renewed
And give to all upon the earth,
Lifegiving rain, lifegiving rain. Khwa was mesmerised by the music. Little by little she felt the sickness leaving her. She got up and gently took her baby from her sister’s arms and nursed him. When the baby fell asleep, she lay him down on the soft sleeping skins, and left him in her sister’s care. She picked up the bundle of buchu and went to the door of her hut where Rain stood watching her, humming softly under his breath.
Khwa climbed onto Rain’s back and rubbed some of the buchu onto his head. He was filled with elation and he turned around and trotted off with Khwa on his back. They trotted along, trotted along, both singing as they went.O come with me my sweet young love
That I may be renew
And give to all of life on earth,
Life giving love, lifegiving love. After a while Khwa became tired and asked Rain to set her down in the shade of a tree so she may rest. This he did. She rubbed him all over with the buchu and he becamme so relaxed, he fell asleep. While they were resting there, Khwa felt a tapping in her breasts and knew that her baby needed her. She tiptoed quietly away, not wanting to wake Rain, and followed his tracks home. On the way back she came to a waterhole and washed herself clean of the smell of the bull, and all that remained was the sweet scent of Rain.
As the sun was setting, Rain felt cool lying under the tree and woke up. He thought Khwa was still on his back and he trotted along, trotted along, until he came to a crystal clear spring where the water bubbled out of the ground. Finally he found a home from where he could make life-giving rain for the plants and creatures of the earth. And, because Khwa had shared her sweet smelling healing herbs with him, it inspired him to stay and bring rain to the people.
From the story one can also see the important role scent plays in the Khoesan cosmology. The rain, among other things, such as, winds, was said to have smell which represented its power. According to Christopher H. Low Khoisan, the reason for buchu’s significance (among the Khoesan) seems to lie in the richness of the smell and the Khoisan association of smell with potency… unlike Western appropriators of the plant, Khoisan relationships with buchu relate to smell as an agent of physical and mental transformation. The smell of buchu has been conceived by the Khoisan as a potent force with a role in healing, in perfume use and certain rituals.
Among the San, all things in creation have degrees of Supernatural potency called “n/om”. People with strong potency are called “n/om k”xausi” – owners of potency. (Ref)
N/om must be controlled and contained, otherwise the healer is rendered unconscious or turns into a malevolent creature. When the n/om becomes too strong it becomes dangerous. The “n/om k”xausi” can only heal when they learn to control their boiling n/um, or energy. It is in this context that Buchu especially plays an important role.
This “boiling” of the n/om was described to Richard Katz (. “Accepting ‘Boiling Energy’.” Ethos) by an experienced healer, Kinachau, in the following quote:
“You dance, dance, dance. Then n/um lifts you up in your belly and lifts you in your back, and then you start to shiver. [N/um] makes you tremble, it’s hot. . . . Your eyes are open but you don’t look around; you hold your eyes still and look straight ahead. But when you get into !kia (altered state), you’re looking around because you see everything, because you see what’s troubling everybody . . . n/um enters every part of your body right to the tip of your feet and even your hair.” (Ref)
When the healer returns from !kia people let him smell buchu, for they want his “veins to lie down” to calm the n/om. The calming effect of buchu is also described in the capturing of the rain animal. Ethnographers have recorded that “n/om k”xausi with rain potency, would enter the spirit world and capture the rain-bull from the waterhole where it lived when rain was required, and then led it across the land to desired places for rain rites. In order to pacify the rainbull the medicine men had to rub themselves with powder of buchu for ‘if the bull had smelt buchu, it would have been calm and gone quietly without struggling’. (Ref)
Although Buchu was used to calm, buchu was also seen as waking up the body and has an invigorating quality that can open the senses through its ability to transfer power. According to the Khoesan the buchu can enter the body through the ears, nose, mouth and skin pores. The smell carries the buchu into the person where it encourages the inside of the body to be in the “right place.” (Ref)
Smell or scent is thus a carrier of potency – n/om: Odour, in San thought, is a medium for the transference of power. (Ref). The same belief of smell as carrier of potency is extended to burned fat, ointments and aromatic herbs. Medicine plants especially possess strong n/om and the etymology of the word ‘n/om’ itself gives clues to the conceptual link between plants and potency. The metaphor “boiling ([n/om] – to boil) refers not only to the boiling water, and the boiling of the n/om, but also to the ripening of plants. (Ref) Most San groups say that plants have inherent powers and like animals, each has potency with different strengths and are appropriate for different individuals in different contexts. (Bleek, D.F. 1933. Beliefs and customs of the /Xam Bushmen. Part VI: Rain- Making. Bantu Studies)
Siyakha Mquni suggests in his thesis on the rock art symbololgy in the Matopo Hills Nanke Caves in Zimbabwe, that trees and plants acts as symbolic cosmic mediators or as an axis mundi (like the symbolic rainbow bridge) by shamans to transfer their persona into other planes of being or to access the spirit realm. It is reminiscent of the concept of transference of consciousness in esoteric wisdom traditions. “Like a waterhole, a tree is itself a mediator of realms in that its roots are below and its branches are above the plane of daily life. At another level, the role of a healer or “n/om k”xausi” parallels that of trees and plants – both can link various realms of existence, the earth, the sky and the underground.” Generally, in San folklore, trees,plants and animals were people in primordial times until the gods commanded the present order of things. In the !Kung texts, the trickster /X?é, is able to change back into vegetable persona. He transforms into different kinds of trees and plants. So, trees and plants are in some ways avatars of potent spirit divinities that make their presence known through their scent. What appears to matter most to the San is not the physical presence but its degree of intensity and anyone who has experienced Buchu can certainly testify to the intensity of scent. As the San so often simply say, “It is strong” (Ref)
An alternative Khoesan word for the buchu is sâi. The word buchu seems to be used more in South Africa and sâi more in Namibia. In contemporary Khoe the verb sâi means to ‘gather, glean, collect, and pick up. (Ref)
Sian Sullivan and earlier researchers have found that there is a particular Khoe association between women and perfume preparation and that the buchu held in a Khoe woman’s powder box, ‘was the symbol of her femininity, and the symbol of her feminine potencies, of fertility and ‘giving life’. During puberty rites the initiate, referred to as the “new maiden”, represented “the rain’s magic power” A young girl emerging as a woman first task was to go to and sprinkle buchu on standing water to appease the watersnake or rainbull. Young girls who experienced their first red moon (menarche) have particularly strong n/om and can transfer the potency. The girl, is thought to possess power to confer fertility, and with this object in view the girl scatters buchu on all male animals and growing plants which she encounters. (Ref)
Sian Sullivan made an eight year field study among the Damara pastoralists in Namibia with a focus on women’s use of aromatic plants for perfume. She recorded forty species of plants currently used by Damara for making sâi. A supply of buchu or sâi was always carried on the person in a small leather pouch or in a tortoise-shell vanity box suspended from a strap encircling the waist. Buchu or sâi is highly-valued among women throughout the region and has a wide sphere of trade. The precise species of plants used in a buchu mixture varies depending upon local availability, on trade networks in different historical periods, and on the context for which it is collected. It was used as a perfume and for ritual and healing. One can indeed say the the Khoesan women were the true ancesters of natural perfumers. The Sesfontein Damara says of sâi as a perfume, “When you wear it all the boys will come running.” (Ref)
Introduction to the West
Buchu was introduced to the first Dutch colonists when they arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Medicines sent from Europe were extremely expensive and the settlers in remote parts of the country did not have access to apothecaries. They were often without their necessary stock of medicines and had to learn from their Khoe neighbours. (L. Pappe, 1857:19) (Ref)
Consequently many useful remedies were discovered through the use of indigenous plants of Africa. From then on it became part of the Afrikaner folk medicine chest and was generally regarded as a panacea for all ills. Illona Meyer mentions in her article “Home Remedies at the Cape” that she found in a study of the inventories of the people at the Cape, from 1673 to 1826, that Buchu in all its forms, is mentioned in the inventories during this period: a bag with dry boecko, boegoe brandy and buchu vinegar. Steeped in vinegar it was used as an embrocation for fractures, swellings and slow healing wounds. To this day whenever I smell Buchu I see images of Buchu steeping in bottles of brandy. Buchu Brandy was used as a digestive, for nausea, rheumatism, bladder and kidney infections and for coughs and colds. The tea was used to ease cramps, colic, indigestion, chills, coughs, coughs and anxiety.
The early Dutch settlers in the Cape introduced Buchu to the Netherlands. In the latter part of the 1700’s it became known as ‘Noble’s tea’, because only the very rich and the nobility could afford to buy it. ( Ref) In 1821 Buchu was officially registered in the British Pharmacopoeia as a diuretic. It became one of the few South African herbs to be listed in modern pharmaceutical reference books in America, Britain and Scotland, particularly with reference to its use as a treatment for infections of the genito-urinary tract.
In the late 1800’s leaves were dried and baled and exported to Europe and America. The first commercial plantations were planted in the Piketberg region. Buchu was first distilled in South Africa by the Chicken Family for its essential oil in1968.(Ref)
Before that South Africa only exported the Buchu leaves and it was vacuum distilled overseas at huge cost. A myth existed that Buchu could only be vacuum distilled. When South Africa started to produce Buchu oil locally, blind tests conducted confirmed that the oil produced locally was as good if not better than that produced with vacuum distillation, at a fraction of the costs of vacuum distillation.
Commercialization of Buchu
Currently, buchu oil is one of the most sought after and expensive indigenous essential oils and its demand far exceed the supply. This species requires typical mountainous fynbos conditions to grow. Buchu cannot be produced easily outside its natural habitat. Although there are more than 130 species of Buchu growing in the wild, only two are commercially viable in the essential oils market. The specie Crenulata and Betulina have a high oil content and are the main source of commercially harvested Buchu. Agathosma betulina (round-leaf buchu) is a perennial shrub indigenous to the mountains of the South-Western Cape. It occurs naturally in the districts of Ceres, Tulbagh, Piketberg, Citrusdal, Clanwilliam and Calvinia. The flowers are star-like and white or mauve in colour. A. crenulata is a woody shrub with larger, elongated leaves and grows to a height of 2 – 3 meters. The flowers are also star like and white to mauve in colour. (Ref)
The main chemical components of A. betulina is Limonene, Menthone, Isomenthone, isoPulegone, pulegone, diophenol, p-diosphenol, c-Mercaptone, t-Mercaptone. and in A. crenulata:. Limonene, Menthone, Isomenthone, isoPulegone, pulegone, diophenol, p-diosphenol, c-Mercaptone, t-Mercaptone, c-Acetylthiol, t-Acetylthiol. (Ref)
Together with rooibos and honeybush tea, buchu is one of three South African medicinal plants used in international medicine and is recognised by the British Pharmacopoeia Martingdales. (Ref)
A. crenulata however, is not recommended for medicinal use due to its high pulegone content between 31.6% – 73.2% as opposed to 2.4% – 4.5% in A. betulina. Pulegone is hepatotoxic and thus can cause liver damage in high dosages over a long period. It has also been found that if Buchu is harvested before it is more than one year old the pilegone content is also very high as pulegone protects the plant from predators. There are two chemotypes of A. betulina; an isomenthone and a diosphenol chemotype. The diosphenol chemotype contains a high amount of diosphenol content and a low content of of isomenthone and menthone. The isomenthone chemotype has a high isomenthone content of more than 31%; menthone of 27% and low diosphenol of less than 0.14% concentrations. Both chemotypes contain less than 5% of pulegone. The isomenthone chemotype is mainly found in parts of the Piketberg Mountains on northern and western slopes, whereas the distributions of the diosphenol chemotype are mainly found in the mountains surrounding Citrusdal, but the diosphenol chemotype is also found in Piketberg as well as the Cedarberg. (Ref)
The farming and cutting of Buchu is very specialized. Experienced cutters, who hand the specialized method of picking down through generations, harvest buchu. Buchu should be harvested during the months of February through to March. The best time for harvesting is in February. This is based on the fact that that the pulegone content is low during that time of the year. Most species of buchu flower during between September and February, harvesting during this time prevents seed production. For seed production harvesting standards are required to ensure that Buchu is not harvested during the flowering season and that a sufficient proportion of each plant is not picked, to allow sufficient regrowth. The highest pulegone content is recorded between October and November. (Ref)
Buchu leaves that are harvested have to be processed as soon as possible after picking, to maximize the oil yield. The Buchu plant can live and produce for up to 100 years.
It is the diosphenol and isomenthone content of Buchu essential oil that is a valuable raw material for the flavour and fragrance industries. It is mainly for this reason that for over 30 years, buchu oil has been exported to the world’s major flavour houses to be used as a natural flavour (fixative/enhancer) in food products requiring a black currant flavour.
The oil is approved by the American Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) and the European Union for use in foodstuffs. (Ref)
The South African Buchu industry has had mixed fortunes in the past and is considered to be in danger of substitution once again unless the prices drop. In the last century, it was much in demand in Europe until the 1960’s onset of the synthetic flavour market. Cheaper, easier synthetic options pushed Buchu off the international map, and it was only in the late 1980s and 1990s, with Germany’s burgeoning consumer interest in things ‘natural’, that Buchu made its current comeback. (Ref)
Due to the high demand for for natural ingredient alternatives as opposed to the synthetic versions, the demand for Buchu oil increased significantly from the beginning of 1990, resulting in a marked increase in the price of the product over the following ten years. The weakening rand during 2000 and 2001 contributed in further inflating the price – it traded up to R70 a kilogram. Buchu was harvested in the wild every second or third year, allowing the plants to seed and ensure long-term stability. With the demand growing, unsustainable annual harvesting and illegal poaching became the order of the day, and there there was even talk among some farmers to employ the San to protect the Buchu. With the increased exploitation of wild buchu supplies Buchu’s future survival was jeopardized and it became extinct in some areas.
In August 1999, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) of South Africa initiated a project to protect the country’s indigenous genetic material, prevent buchu from becoming extinct, create jobs and serve the national economy. Cobus Coetzee from Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Elsenburg, in his paper “Buchu Commercialization: South Africa” comments;
Until 1995, the only sources of buchu were wild plantations in the mountains of the Western Cape. This put the resource at risk. As the local population, unemployment, European demand for buchu, and the plant’s value and marketability all grew, harvesters were encouraged to collect more and more of it. Poor cutting procedures, overharvesting and harvesting at the wrong times of year were preventing buchu plants from producing seeds for the next generation. At the same time, frequent fires, pests and diseases and the spread of agriculture were encroaching on buchu’s natural habitat, leaving it with less space to grow in and more problems to contend with.
Fortunately, a group of local farmers in the buchu zone realized how valuable this natural resource could be. Patches of buchu grew wild on uncultivated corners of the farmers’ lands, and they became concerned when these patches began to shrink and deteriorate. Action had to be taken before it was too late. The farmers shouldered the initiative themselves by investigating possible ways of cultivating buchu on their farms. At the same time, a wordwide shortage of buchu oil fueled fears that other countries might start cultivating their own plants or developing synthetic substitutes. This would have robbed South Africa — where buchu and knowledge of its medicinal uses were first developed and used — of the chance to exploit one of its commercially valuable indigenous resources.
A previous move to cultivate buchu in the 1950s had failed because farmers chose to plant a species (Agathosma crenulata), that was easy to cultivate rather than the more demanding Agathosma betulina, which produces far more oil and has a better flavour. In fact, these earlier experiments with buchu cultivation worsened the situation for valuable wild A. betulina supplies because A. crenulata was introduced to A. betulina areas, leading to hybridization between the two species that made it increasingly difficult to propagate pure A. betulina.
The project therefore had to monitor and protect the surviving wild A. betulina genetic material. That is where the gene banks first came into play. Working with private companies, ARC set up mother blocks of buchu plants from which to take cuttings to apply research to propagation without damaging the wild resources. The cuttings also produced good-quality seeds that ARC and the private companies germinated and planted to build up a sustainable supply of seedlings and rooted cuttings. These seeds were then sold to farmers who planted and cultivated them on a commercial scale in new plantations on their land. ARC also gave seedlings away to farmers who were willing to allow researchers to collect seeds from the wild plants that grew on their land.
A special programme was initiated to increase the area planted in buchu. Interested people in disadvantaged communities were encouraged and assisted in buchu-growing ventures with supplies of seedlings and financial support. Thanks to its long history of traditional uses, the plant enjoyed a good reputation in these communities and virgin land was used for the new plantations to avoid affecting existing agriculture.
About 50 percent of the buchu sold and distilled in South Africa still comes from the wild, which makes it an unacceptable import to many industrialized country markets, including the United States. However, one of the plant’s main attractions, especially in Europe, is that it is an organic product. South African cultivators therefore have to follow strict guidelines and prove to their international clients that their crops have been cultivated organically. There is no organic certification scheme in South Africa. As a result, growers must pay high certification fees to foreign companies at a cost that is beyond the reach of many poorer, potential buchu cultivators. ARC is working on a certification scheme for organic produce in South Africa as a way around this problem.
Thinking ahead, ARC is also tackling the potential problem of oversupply. At present, the buchu market, estimated at US$2.5 million, is undersupplied and production needs to double to satisfy the demand. However, if production increases too quickly, there is a risk that the market will be oversupplied, prices will slump and the benefits of the newly established commercial cultivation will be lost. The answer, according to ARC, is to insist on high standards and quality from buchu cultivators.
Buchu is the only plant in the world that produces the chemical component diosphenol genetically. It is the unique molecular structure of this component that gives the blackcurrent scent and flavour which also intensifies other fruit and food flavourings as super flavours. (You can try an experiment for yourself; Take any fruit juice and add one drop of Buchu oil to at least 500 ml of the fruit juice and you will find that the fruit flavour is much more intense.) About 80%-85% of Buchu oil is used in the food flavour market to intensify and accentuate flavours. Buchu is also used as a fixative in various commercial products
The current price of Buchu oil is between R7,000/kg and R15,000/kg, depending on its quality. (Ref) This is about twice the price of some of the more expensive essential oils like German Chamomile With the commercialization of buchu and large scale cultivation, it is however, predicted that the prices of Buchu oil will stabilize. It appears that in the future the cultivation of buchu will be focused on the A. betulina with the diosphenol chemotype. (Ref)
Due to the increased interest in indigenous herbs Buchu Brandy and other Buchu liquers are also experiencing a ressurcence.
The odour of Buchu is most often described as sulfurous, green, minty, cooling camphoraceous, sweet, fruity, berry, musty, catty, with vegetative and fruity nuances of peach and apricot. The oil of A. betulina varies in colour from golden to a brown-gold. I have found that the darker the colour the more intense the so-called catty and wild green note which is so distinctive of buchu. To work with it you have to dilute it way down as it is similar in intensity to Galbanum and will overpower all other scents if not used in a small percentage. If you add it in minute quantities it enhances and fixes fruity and green notes. The lighter coloured oil has stronger minty camphorous notes.
A. crenulata is paler in colour, and has less of a green note than A. betulina. In general it is softer than A. betulina but with a stronger campherous-minty note. Wheras the A. betulina becomes sweeter on the dry down the A. crenulata becomes more minty-campherous with a musty-woody note on the dry down.
I was also given a sample of oil from a Buchu Hybrid distilled by Afriplex as a test. Unfortunately the plant yield of oil was too low warrant production. The oil has a bright golden colour and its scent is not as intense as the A. betulina and not as campherous-minty as A. crenulata and has more of a woody-green-floral note than the others. It becomes freshly floral mid-way on its dry down and then lighter minty-campherous notes come through.
After a couple of days on the scent strip, the darker A. betulina basenotes are a fruity with hints of woodiness and the lighter A. betulina’s basenotes are a minty fruitiness. The A. crenulata’s basenotes are more fresh herbal than minty and the Hybrid’s basenotes are woody with a creamy herbalness to it.
Buchu oil is mostly used in men’s colognes and chyprè bases, and for fruity notes.