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Cassipourea flanaganii – the yellow bone maker

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Family: Rhizophoraceae

Scientific name: Cassipourea flanaganii

Authority: (Schinz) Alston

Common names: umemezi (Zulu), cape onionwood (English), kaapse uiehout (Afrikaans)

Cassipourea flanaganii is one of three plants considered to have a remarkable impact on skin hygiene, appearance, and beauty in Africa. The other two plants being Persea americana (avocado) and Citrus limon (lemon). C.flanaganii is also one of two commonly used plants in South Africa for skin whitening and protection from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the other being umthombothi (Spirostachys africana). 

Cassipourea flanaganii is known as umemezi in Nguni. The term umemezi is derived from the word “memeza” meaning “to cry out loud” in order to draw attention to oneself. This name describes the cosmetic use of the plant to attract attention to oneself by making the skin lighter. Similar to the colourism brown paper bag test in African American, in South Africa being yellow bone or light-skinned with black features, signals racial ambiguity. Being racially ambiguous means you can pass as white when it matters and as black when it is advantageous. Racial ambiguity is a powerful trait as it makes one relatable and pedastilised at the same time.

Skin bleaching is not the latest fad, it’s always been around. More importantly, it’s not a sign that black people hate themselves.

In India, it is a well-known fact that dark skin people tend to not be cast in leading roles in Bollywood. Priyanka Chopra who is currently married to Nick Jonas of the Jonas brothers, won Miss Universe in 2000 and after winning started bleaching her skin. She was even the face of Garnier’s skin whitening cream. In China, being brown skin is associated with being a field worker and thus poor or of low social status. People who work in offices tend to be lighter because they are not exposed to the sun. So, people tend to bleach their skin to appear more affluent.

So, it’s not a black people “thing”, it’s a people in general “thing”. As long as beauty standards exist people will continue bleaching. It’s therefore important to not only remove the stigma of skin bleaching but to introduce more effective and safe methods of skin whitening or lightening.

Plant description

C. flanaganii is a small to medium tree that is endemic to South Africa. In South Africa, it can be found growing in forest patches in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal provinces. 

In the past, the bark was mostly harvested and traded by Xhosa women in the Eastern Cape for cosmetic purposes. Xhosa women that worked outdoors used the bark to make a paste that protects the skin from the sun’s UV radiation. The bark was also used to lighten the skin, improve tone and texture, and to give skin a youthful appearance. Today, the commercialization of the bark as a skin whitening agent and the high demand in traditional medicine resulted in the over-exploitation of the bark. The excessive use and inappropriate harvesting methods has led to fatalities and a drastic decline in the number of trees, thus making the tree critically endangered. 

Plant properties 

C. flanaganii reportedly contains tyrosinase, an inhibitor that reduces hyperpigmentation and is widely used as a skin-lightening agent. It also contains anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antibacterial, antifungal, and antioxidant activities.  


C. flanaganii is used for several purposes, including spiritual, medicinal, cosmetic, structural, ornamental, and others.   

Spiritual benefits

  • The bark is used to treat umeqo omkhulu.
  • The bark is used to treat isichitho sezintwala (isichitho from lice infestation).  
  • The bark is used to make umuthi omhlophe.
  • The bark is used to make protection charms and amulets.

Medicinal benefits

  • It is used to treat melasma, dark skin discolouration common in women. It is sometimes called the mark of pregnancy as it can be caused by hormonal changes during pregnancy. 
  • It is used to manage hypermelanosis (hyperpigmentation), a condition that causes a patch of skin to become darker than the rest of the skin.
  • It is used to treat lymphatic filariasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms (such as roundworms) and their larvae.  
  • It is used to treat dermatological problems such as pimples, acne, burns, itchiness, wounds, inflammation, and eczema.
  • It is used to get rid of excess body water.
  • It is used as an emetic for induced emesis.  

Cosmetic benefits

  • It is used as a sunscreen that protects the skin from the sun.
  • It is used to treat sunburn.
  • It is used for skin lightening.
  • It is used to reduce blemishes.
  • It is used to improve complexion.
  • It is used to treat uneven skin tone and enhance beauty.

Other benefits

  • The timber is used for making poles for building.
  • The timber is used for fuel.

Preparation and administration methods

C. flanaganii is prepared and administered in a number of ways to treat the above-mentioned conditions, ailments, and diseases. 

  • To treat umeqo – the bark is mixed with the barks of unukane (Ocotea bullata) and usolo (Albizia adianthifolia). The bark mixture is boiled and administered by steaming. It is also used as an emetic. Men use the mixture for ukukhafula, a method of treatment that involves spitting of medicine. 
  • To treat sunburn – air dry the bark then ground to fine powder. Add a little bit of water to make a light brown paste that is applied on the affected area.
  • To lighten the skin – mix the fine powdered bark with red oak and add a little bit of water. Apply the paste on the affected area.
  • To treat blemishes – add coconut or olive oil to the fine powdered bark. Apply the paste on the affected area. 
  • To treat melasma – add milk to the fine powdered bark. Apply the paste on the affected area. 
  • To treat acne and pimples – boil the bark and roots in water. Apply the decoction by steaming. 
  • To treat lymphatic filariasis – boil or infuse the bark and roots in water. Soak the affected area in the decoction or infusion.   

In general, the fine powdered bark is made into a paste by adding a little bit of water, essential oils, animal fat, or milk to lighten the skin and to treat skin problems. The bark can also be added to bathing water to improve skin tone and texture. 

C.flanaganii is closely related and often confused with C.congensis and C. gerrardii, ensure you are buying and using the correct Cassipourea species.  

Learn about some of the concepts covered in this article, including Umeqo / Umbhulelo, Induced emesis, & Isiphandla (a traditional amulet).

Safety precaution:

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine.

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