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Psoralea pinnata (Umhlonishwa)

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Family: Fabaceae

Scientific name: Psoralea pinnata 

Authority: L.

Common names: Umhlonishwa (Zulu), fountain bush (English), founteinbos (Afrikaans)

From a distance, the flowers of umhlonishwa look like blue colored moths.

Moths rest with their wings open while butterflies rest with their wings closed. For that reason, the petals of this flower look like the open wings of moths.

The name umhlonishwa is a Zulu term that means respectable or honourable. This plant’s ecological, medicinal, and spiritual significance makes it highly esteemed by Africans and deserving of honour.


Umhlonishwa is scientifically known as Psoralea pinnata. The genus name, Psoralea, is derived from a Greek term meaning “warty” referring to the wart-like structures on the bark. The Psoralea genus has over 105 species growing in different parts of the globe. Psoralea pinnata is one of the species that’s native to South Africa. The species name pinnata is Latin for pinnate leaves and refers to the fan-like-scale leaves. 

Umhlonishwa is a shrub that can grow up to 5 m in height. The most notable features of this plant are the aromatic scale-like leaves, the small pods that contain a single dark brown seed, and the flowers that look like moths from a distance. The flowers are variable in colour, they can either be blue, lilac, mauve, or white. The plant is known to grow in the Western Cape fynbos wetlands and seepage areas. Although it can also be found growing in areas such as the forest, grassland, savanna, and karoo. In general, the plant prefers growing in well-drained soils under full sunlight and germination is higher in moist soil.   

Ecological significance:

  1. Umhlonishwa is a pioneer plant.

A pioneer plant is a prominent plant in the ecosystem. It helps re-establish plant life after a disaster such as a fire. For example: the Fynbos, where this plant readily grows, is a fire prone biome and fires occur at intervals. When an intense fire occurs that burns all the vegetation to the ground. Pioneer plants are the first plants to grow in the burned area. They help make the environment favourable for the other plants to start growing.   

  1. Umhlonishwa is a leguminous plant.

Leguminous plants are a type of flowering plants that produce pods and have nodules in the roots for fixing nitrogen. Leguminous plants play a very crucial role in the plant kingdom, they make nitrogen available in the soil which increases the soil’s fertility. 

To fully grasp the significance of leguminous plants in the ecosystem, let’s look at nitrogen and how it is naturally made available to plants in the soil.

Nitrogen is the most abundant element in the atmosphere, it makes up about 78% of the earth’s atmosphere. Even though it is the most abundant in the sky, in the soil there isn’t that much nitrogen. Reason being that nitrogen occurs as a diatomic gas (two atoms usually of the same elements strongly bonded together). A tremendous amount of energy is required to break the bond between the diatomic nitrogen gas. The only thing in the sky capable of breaking the bond is lightning.

How this works is during a lightning storm, lightning will break the bond keeping the diatomic nitrogen gas together. When this bond is broken, the now single nitrogen can bond with the other molecules such as rain drop water. The single nitrogen bonded to rain drops comes down to the soil as rain and can be used by plants. 

There are other methods of making nitrogen available to plants that vary in cost, namely: soil microbes breaking down nitrogen in the soil, manure, commercial fertilizers, etc. But the method that is not resource demanding or costly to the environment is with leguminous plants. That is why leguminous plants, such as umhlonishwa, are considered crucial in the ecosystem.

  1. Umhlonishwa has outstanding production of biomass

Having outstanding production of biomass along with being a fast grower make this plant one of the best to grow for firewood.

Medicinal properties:

The plant contains the following medicinal properties: 

  • The stems have anticancer activities 
  • The leaves contain anti-typanosomal activity
  • The plant has antimicrobial and therapeutic activities 
  • It contains saponins
  • It is an oneirogen, a psychoactive plant that induces a dream-like state

Medicinal and spiritual significance:

Umhlonishwa is known to treat a number of conditions including the following:

  • The plant is used by medicinal traditional healers and diviners to treat various conditions related to spiritual possessions.
  • It is used to make different kinds of emetics (known as ubulawu mixtures) that are taken by a traditional healer initiate (known as ithwasana in Zulu) for the following reasons:
    • To treat intwaso, a condition associated with an ancestral calling that causes illnesses, dreams, psychiatric disturbances, and inkathazo (trouble).
    • To open up their powers of intuition.
    • To induce vivid and lucid dreaming.

Ubulawu, scientifically known as Silene capensis, is the name of a sacred oneirogen plant that healers use to induce vivid and lucid dreaming. Mixtures made using different oneirogen plants are known as ubulawu mixtures. The mixtures do not necessarily have to contain Silene capensis.

  • Pedi diviners use the plant to improve their memory and powers of observation. 
  • Zulu people use the roots used to treat hysteria, epilepsy, and convulsions.  
  • It is used in ritualistic bathing. The form that froths up is used as a substitute for soap.
  • It is used in cleansing and purification rituals for physical and psycho-spiritual healing.
  • It is used in the treatment of sleeping sickness in human beings and nagana in cattle and horses.
  • The leaves are used as a lucky charm.
  • It is used as an insecticide for fleas.
  • It is used in the treatment of malaria, influenza, colds, and cancer.

Preparation methods:

Umhlonishwa can be prepared in a number of ways including the following:

  • To make ubulawu mixture – a handful of the roots of umhlonishwa are mixed with a handful of the roots of ubhubhubhu (scientifically knonw as Helinus integrifolius). The roots are pounded and added to room temperature water. Twirl the mixture with a stick until white form froths up.  Every morning a traditional healer initiate ithwasana must drink the emetic until the stomach is full and ready to vomit.
  • The leave and roots are mixed with water to make foam for a spiritual bath.

There are different kinds of oneirogens: ubhubhubhu (Helinus integrifolius), ubulawu (Silene capensis), uvuma omhlophe (Synaptolepis kirkii) – they all vary in their popularity among certain groups of people. These oneirogens can be used to make a type of ubulawu mixture.

To learn more about the different plants used by traditional healers for divination and healing access the Top 10 plants for divination used by traditional healers in South Africa

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