The Storytellers The Storytellers Experience the Rocklands wilderness


Lobostemon species (BORAGINACEAE - the Forget-me-not family)

INTEGRATION: The alchemy of Death and Rebirth

What is a wound? It is a place of brokenness or damage to the Self. Sometimes wounds are transient; sometimes they leave permanent scars. Sometimes the scars are on the inside, invisible. At other times they are worn like a soldier’s stripes on the battlefield of life.  To integrate a wound or scar, the damaged or altered tissue must merge with the healthy self. This implies a breaking down of sorts, and is where our story about Agtdaegeneesbos begins.

Agtdaegeneesbos, the eight-day-healer-bush, has been known as a wound healer for centuries. It was used by the first people of the Cape (the San and Khoi), while its relatives, some of the European Boraginaceae, such as Comfrey and Borage, have been used as healers of bones and wounds, fortifiers of soldiers…and compost activators, since antiquity. Yet much about the plant and its family remains an enigma, shrouded in myth, misunderstanding and seeming contradictions, because while these plants build up, they also break down.

The evidence of our senses may offer the first clue.

When Agtdaegeneesbos is applied to the skin – whether cut, burn, bite or rash, the pain intensifies quite radically before fading away as the healing begins. Traditional users call this the process of “pulling out the pain”. In homeopathy, one would say “like cures like”. But perhaps it is simply the death of compromised cells and pathogens.

Science tells us that Agtdaegeneesbos contains important wound healing and tissue rebuilding compounds, as well as amino acids, the building blocks of human protein. There are also compounds that protect the heart. But the plant (indeed much of the Borage family) also contains substances that are potentially toxic to the liver, if taken in isolation, at very high doses. These substances, known as Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (PA’s) exist in order to protect the plant from herbivores, but also have many benefits in the body – they are potently anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory, and at high doses, able to kill cancer cells and interfere with the action of viruses, even HIV.  They may play a role in composting – a process quite as alchemical as scar integration.

Sometimes, it is essential to eliminate what is dead or detrimental to life before promoting new growth.

The process of composting involves the breaking down of that which has been discarded, in order to prepare rich and fertile ground, ready for new life. Comfrey leaves have been known, for a very long time, to aid and accelerate this process. The weedy but gorgeous Echium Vulgare (Blueweed or Vipers Bluegloss) is useful for the very same purpose. Blueweed is a cousin that is not indigenous, but still grows wild and plentiful, on the verges of land disturbed by agriculture. Like Comfrey, it is highly medicinal but also full of PA’s.
The gorgeous, trumpet shapes blooms with their pyjama pinstripes appear in Spring
From seemingly dead, dry wood sprouts fresh new life
The dried flower calyxes from the previous year look like little stars

The archetypal story of death and rebirth is one that is poignantly told by Agtdaegeneesbos as it grows in the wild.

On a mature plant, you will always find the old, woody growth, which is almost black and may seem dry and dead, but from which suddenly sprouts new and vibrant growth of the purest aquamarine. Flowers from the previous year look like blackened stars and the seeds, too, are grey-black and hard. Yet the new life is soft and fleshy, and the flowers are exquisite, trumpet-shaped blooms that range from pink to lilac to cornflower blue, often with “pinstripes” – double-lines of colour which are though to attract and direct the pollinators. The very story of life and death, all clearly distinguished by colour, yet fundamentally intertwined on the plant. Entangled yet separate yet also one thing. Even the new plants are connected: while the plant does produce seed, it mostly reproduces vegetatively from runners below the ground, meaning that all the plants in a small area may be connected as one. Ailments can be shared with other plants over a much broader area.

The miraculous plaster bush

Lobostemon fruticosus and related species are known by many names, including Agtdaegeneesbos (eight day healer bush), Pleisterbos (plaster bush), Douwurmbos (ringworm bush) and Pyjama Bush. The plant is best known for its ability to heal any wound within eight days – quicker for burns and bites, but it is also good for scar integration, eczema and psoriasis.

The simplest way to use it is directly from the plant: simply chew a few leaves and then place the mushy paste on the wound like a poultice. It will blacken and harden like a skin. This technique was practiced by the San and Khoi, who taught it to the colonists. Be sure to do the chewing yourself, if you are the injured party: as it mixed with your saliva, it releases compounds that slow bleeding.

Just in case you don’t have a plant on hand, another option is to make an ointment. In days gone by, both the settlers and the Khoi would fry the leaves in lard, but beeswax and a quality carrier oil work better (see recipe section for details). An ointment of Agtdaegeneesbos can be applied to open wounds, sores, bites and rashes, but its action is most spectacular when working with burns. Applied to a burn, the pain will intensify for a minute, and then die away. Keep applying and be assured of little (if any) scarring. Speaking of scars, the ointment can be used for scar integration, but gentler results can be used with a cream. A moisturiser infused with Agtdaegeneesbos can heal the skin from long-term acne damage and scarring, leaving the skin luminescent.

In the not too distant past, Agtdaegeneesbos was regularly consumed as a tonic tea, and to combat ringworm and syphilis. It was also taken as a blood purifier. However, this is no longer recommended (or legally permitted, in the case of its cousin, Comfrey), due to the previously mentioned PA’s. It is worth mentioning that complex, low doses, as one might obtain from drinking leaf tea, have not been proved to be toxic – only concentrated, isolated extracts, which cannot be metabolised and excreted from the body. That being said, it is still best to let Agtdaegeneesbos do its healing work from the outside.

Some food for thought: allowing the wound to die so we can live

Sometimes we tend to hold onto our scars. They close up and seal off what is past, but underneath, the shadow of that past remains.

In South Africa, we have many scars. To truly heal a scar, you need to integrate the wound from within, and so it is with emotional wounds too. Rather than separate from our past, we emerge stronger if we can acknowledge our pain, assimilating the lesson and eliminating dead or toxic material. Then we can integrate - personally, locally, globally – and be reborn, whole.

Make it at home

Agtdaegeneesbos healing balm

100g hard wax - I like to use raw beeswax
250ml good quality base oil
375ml of Lobostemon leaves and young stems. Always harvest sustainably and with permission.

When making herbal oil infusions, always use a double boiler method, and always use glass to avoid the leaching of harmful metals and chemicals into your mixture.

  • Fill a stainless steel saucepan with water. Keep a jug of water handy and keep checking to make sure it never boils dry.
  • Place a heat-proof glass dish on top of your saucepan and add your ingredients.
  • Heat gently for at least three hours. Regularly bruise the leaves using a wooden spoon.
  • Remove from heat and allow to stand overnight.
  • Reheat, using the double boiler method.
  • Strain out all the herbs, using muslin cloth.
  • Pour out into your containers and seal immediately.
  • Allow to set for a few hours, preferably overnight.
  • The resultant ointment can be applied directly to any open wound, burn, bite or sore. You can also try it out on scar tissue.

A little bit of science

The chemical composition of Lobostemon would appear to vary, certainly based on the published research data that we have read. For a long time, its phytochemical mode of action was assumed to relate to the presence of Allantoin and Symphatine, well-known topical healers common to its relatives, Borage and Comfrey.  However, based on more recent studies of the actual plant phytochemistry (and what is already known about some of the compounds that have been discovered), it becomes possible to piece together from the components how the plant may potentially do what we know it does….

Like many plants in the Borage family, Lobobostemon fruticosus has been found to contain Rabdosiin and Rosmarinic Acid (both of which are anti-microbial, anti-diabetic, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, liver protective and beneficial for skin ailments). Rabdosiin inhibits degradation of hyaluronic acid, whilst Rutin helps to produce collagen. Alanine, another piece of the puzzle, is an amino-acid that helps to biosynthesize proteins (rebuilding tissue), while GABA is calming.

There are also a variety of anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-cancer compounds that have been identified: Kaempherol is potentially antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anticancer, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, antidiabetic, analgesic and anti-allergic. Lolliolide is anti-cancer, antibacterial, antifungal and antioxidant. Anthocyanins (present in the flowers) are thought to be anti-oxidant and anti-cancer. In a study, in which Lobostemon extract was found to cause cell death of lung cancer, the effects were attributed to coumarins, sarpagines and flavanoids found in the plant.

However, Lobostemon also contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA’s), compounds common to plants in the fynbos area, but which are currently receiving a great deal of concerned attention due to studies that have shown their toxicity to the liver and DNA. PA’s are thought to be produced by plants in order to deter insect herbivores, but are the reason that Comfrey, that well-known healer of broken bones, may no longer be sold as a health supplement. However, there remains no epidemiological evidence for human risk from regular low dose exposure, particularly since PA’s have to be highly specific, structurally, in order to be reactive, and other compounds in the plant may counteract their metabolism, causing them to be excreted, unchanged. Laboratory studies on animals using single PA compounds from herbal extracts have shown carcinogenic properties, but not the complex extracts. And even in rats (a common trial subject for PA’s), the particular PA discovered in Lobostemon, Lycopsamine, has been found beneficial, in that it helps to aid recovery after spinal cord injury.