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Justicia flava (Impela)

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Family: Acanthaceae

Scientific name: Justicia flava

Authority: (Vahl) Vahl

Common names: impela (Zulu), yellow justicea (English), geelgarnaalbos (Afrikaans)

Impela is the most popular common name for this plant, however, this plant is also commonly known as ikhokhela by many healers. The name “impela” is a Zulu derived from another Zulu word, “ngempela”, which means “for real” or “definitely”. The assumption is that the plant gets its name from the fact that this plant has so many medicinal properties that it will “definitely” treat just about any ailment. 

Impela is scientifically known as Justicia flava. The genus gets its name, Justicia, from a Scottish writer and horticulturist, James Justice. The species name flava is Latin for yellow or golden, referencing the colour of its flowers. 

Impela is a plant that grows up to a height of about 45 cm to 1 m depending on the area where it is growing. It is a pioneer plant hence it tends to grow in disturbed environments. It is native to the tropical and southern parts of Africa. It can also be found growing in Saudi Arabia, where it is declared as an endangered medicinal plant. Impela can be established on just about any type of soil and prefers to be planted under the full sun. The plant is shade tolerant but grows better under partial shade than under full shade. 

Medicinal properties

Impela has a number of medicinal properties. The plant has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and wound healing activities. It also has a compound called Helioxanthin which inhibits human hepatitis B viral replication. That is why it is often used to treat the hepatitis B virus. Impela has another compound called podophyllotoxin, an antimitotic.

The word antimitotic comes from the word anti mitosis. Mitosis is similar to meiosis, they are both types of cell division. Meiosis is how the sperm and egg divide to form a baby and mitosis is how old body cells form new body cells.

Hence, an antimitotic prevents certain body cells from dividing and multiplying and this is how you prevent a disease such as a tumour or cancer from forming. Ergo, impela has antitumor properties and is used in the treatment of cancer. Impela also has analgesic properties which makes it ideal for treating dull pain. Lastly, impela has antipyretic properties convenient for treating fever. This can be a fever that’s due to an infection or a fever that’s not from an infection. 

Uses and preparations:

The most useful parts of the impela plant are the leaves, roots, and seeds. In general, impela can be used for medicinal and culinary purposes. But different groups of people use impela for different reasons. 

  • In Kenya, impela plants contribute to sand-binding vegetation in coastal dunes and sandy riverbanks. In Kenya, impela performs a function that’s similar to some of the acacias in other parts of the world including South Africa. For example: umsasane (Acacia tortilis) is used by most countries to stabilize the sand dunes. Sand is very light and whenever there is heavy rain or strong winds, the sand tends to erode away. So, plants like impela or umsasane are cultivated to prevent sand erosion and to stabilize the sand dunes. South Africa introduced acacia species from Australia in 1845 to try and stabilize the sand dunes in the Western Cape. Some of the acacias that were introduced ended up becoming invasive, an example of such a plant is Acacia mearnsii which is considered as a major invasive plant. Invasive plants are plants that grow uncontrollably and use up most of the soil resources making it difficult for indigenous plants to grow properly.  

The best way to understand alien invasive plants is to look at the relationship dynamics between the citizens of a country and foreigners that come to live in that country. If there are no laws [or if the laws are there but are not properly enforced] which govern how foreigners enter a particular country, how they live in that country, the things they can and cannot do while living in the country, etc. If these laws are not in place or enforced, you end up with an abuse of the countries resource by foreigners. This abuse of resources is neither good nor bad, it’s just nature playing itself out. You see the same thing with plants and animals.

If you introduce an alien plant into a country and you do not control it, it will spread like wildfire and use up most of the soils resources, making it difficult for the indigenous plants to compete. This is the case with eucalyptus, acacias, jacaranda, etc. These plants are considered as invasive plants and controls are put in place to control and manage their propagation in order to preserve soil resources for indigenous plants.

Officials know that this happens in the plant and animal kingdom, and they put laws to protect indigenous plants and animals from the alien invasive. But somehow when it comes to protecting indigenous human beings the same logic seems to fail.  

Also in Kenya, the leaves of impela are burnt to ash to produce a type of vegetable salt.

I have never heard of something called vegetable salt and I couldn’t find a company in South Africa that makes vegetable salt, or maybe there is one, they just call it by a different name. A Google search for vegetable salt returned two companies that make and sell vegetable salt as a product. The first is Health and Rite in the UK and the Second is Nostimini in Australia. However, these two companies make vegetable salt very differently from the Kenyan people. The two companies mix sea salt with dried crushed vegetables while in Kenya they burn the vegetables. 

Lastly, in Kenya, the leaves are used to treat diarrhoea.

  • In Ghana. impela is used in traditional medicine to treat skin infections and disorders like wounds and yaws. Yaws is a skin, bones, and joints infection caused by bacteria when left untreated, Yaws can cause permanent disability to the person infected. To treat skin infections and disorders, fresh leaves are used to make poultice (an ointment or cream that is applied to treat wounds). Impela is also used to treat haemorrhoids and stomach disorders. To treat stomach disorders, the leaves are used whole to infuse tea or they are crushed into powder and added to food. People in Ghana also make an infusion of impela with egg albumen (egg white) and coconut juice to treat heart palpitations. Impela is also used to treat cough, fever, paralysis, epilepsy, convulsion and spasm. 

Just like in Kenya, in Ghana the roots and flowers of impela are also used to treat diarrhoea in both children and adults. More specifically, the roots treat diarrhoea and the flowers treat dysentery.  

Lastly, Ghanian people use the sap in the leave of impela as an eye lotion. 

  • In Ivory Coast, impela is used to treat painful menstruations and to induce menstruation.
  • In Côte d’Ivoire, impela is used to stop bleeding. For example, when you have a cut that’s bleeding you can use impela to stop the bleeding, that is why it is used as a hemostatic. It is also used to treat menorrhagia, a heavy menstrual flow that usually lasts for more than seven days with severe cramping. It can also be used when you have blood in the sputum. Sputum is saliva mixed with mucus from the lungs due to an infection. Like in the Ivory Coast, Côte d’Ivoire uses impela to treat painful menstrual cycles and to induce menstruation, when they have stopped. To treat painful menstrual cycles Ghanian people make a mixture that includes the crushed the leaves of impela with vegetable ash, the seed of the Aframomum species, and capsicum pepper. After straining the mixture, administer it by enema.

In Côte d’Ivoire, people treat feverish pains in babies by pulping the leaves then rubbing them on the skin.  

  • In Tanzania, impela leaves are used to make an emetic to induce vomiting, or ukuphalaza

Also in Tanzania, the sap in impela leaves is used to treat hookworm (a parasitic infection) and to treat hydrocele, a condition where the scrotum is swollen due to fluid accumulation in the sheath which surrounds a testicle. The sap can be used in a number of ways to treat hookworms and hydrocele. One of the ways is to use the sap when bathing. And as seen with Kenya, the sap can also be used to make lotion. 

Lastly, in Tanzania, the bitter roots are chewed by the Masai people to treat diarrhoea and coughs.

  • In Southern Nigeria, traditional healers use the leaves of impela to prevent premature births and miscarriages. 
  • In Sudan, the seeds of impela are used to treat gum and teeth ailments and nausea. The seeds are used in their powder form. To prepare the seeds, first dry them and then crush them into powder and smear the powder on the teeth and gums to treat teeth and gum ailments.  
  • In Saudi Arabia, impela is used to treat cough, paralysis, fever, epilepsy, convulsion and spasm, and skin infection disorder. The roots are also used in treating diarrhoea. 
  • In Guinea, the leaves of impela are considered as good forage. The leaves are collected from the wild and cooked as a vegetable to make soup or stew. 
  • In South Africa, impela is used to treat cough, stomachache, headaches, menstrual disorders, diarrhoea, as well as to stop bleeding.

In South Africa, KZN, the leaves of impela are often used by business owners as a good luck charm to attract new customers and retain old customers as well as to grow the businesses.

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