Herbal Spotlight: Umckaloabo

By David Bunting, Herb Pharm

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The genus of Pelargonium brings to us a large and diverse number of horticultural and perfumery plants, together with a handful of traditional medicinal herbs. Made up of about 270 species, the largest variety and diversity of Pelargoniums occur in the Cape Provinces of South Africa. Of these 270, one species is conspicuous for its sordid history, promising medicinal potential and now, its renewed accessibility by the people of South Africa and the world. This herb is popularly known by the strange name of umckaloabo.

Locally known as Rabas or Rooirabas, umckaloabo is endemic to South Africa and Lesotho, a smaller country entirely surrounded by South Africa. Umckaloabo and several similar species have been long used in traditional medicine to treat diarrhea and dysentery. Today, umckaloabo has become an extremely popular herbal medicine in Europe for the treatment of variety of respiratory ailments.

In 1897, an Englishman named Charles Henry Stevens was diagnosed with a lung condition and his doctor advised Stevens to travel to South Africa to recover. While in South Africa Stevens was treated with a root decoction by local healer Mike Kijitse and in a relatively short time Stevens was well enough to return to England, where he was pronounced healthy.

By 1908, Stevens was successfully marketing a secret patent medicine in England called Steven’s Cure. He called the active ingredient “Umckaloabo,” a name reputedly derived from a combination of Zulu words. More likely, however, this name was just made up by Stevens based on sounds he had heard in South African native languages. One of Stevens’ primary objectives throughout his venture was to protect the identity of his herbal ingredient. And what better way to ensure secrecy than to concoct a fictitious name. Regardless of the etymology, the name “Umckaloabo” stuck.

Stevens came under the scrutiny of the British Medical Association (BMA), brought about not only by jealousies of the BMA but also by Stevens’ exaggerated claims, his unsupported marketing guarantee and his refusal to disclose the active ingredient in his product. During his time of troubles with the BMA, a purported employee of Stevens opened the short-lived Umckaloabo Chemical Company in New York. Nothing more than a footnote now, it is interesting in that the company’s marketing created the basis for umckaloabo to qualify as an old dietary ingredient under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). After Stevens’ death in 1942, his son sold the product rights, which clearly belonged to the indigenous people of South Africa, to a German drug manufacturer.

Amazingly, Stevens’ protection of the actual identity of umckaloabo lasted until 1974 when a chemist, due to taxonomic discrepancies, mistakenly identified it as Pelargonium reniforme. This error was later resolved based on phytochemical differences between closely related species and the true identity of umckaloabo was finally revealed publicly as Pelargonium sidoides. With the identity mystery solved, research on umckaloabo was renewed in earnest. Especially in the last two decades, numerous papers with positive findings have been published for umckaloabo’s effectiveness in treating a range of respiratory conditions.

As demand for the German preparations escalated, so did the pressure on the wild South African populations of umckaloabo, prompting numerous cultivation projects to help meet demand. Some of these projects were moved overseas, pulling potential income out of South Africa and further upsetting the native communities. Fortunately, the development of cultivation has been so successful that much of the umckaloabo supply today is from cultivated material, thus protecting wild populations.

The convoluted journey this plant took during its introduction from South Africa to the rest of the world seems rather extraordinary. But in fact, many plants carry with them similarly remarkable stories. While at times questionable, such accounts are testaments to the intertwined and complex destiny humans and plants share. From food to medicine to environmental stability and even the air we breathe, our lives are inextricably linked to the green world of plants.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.


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