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Sarcophyte sanguinea (Umavumbuka)

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Family: Balanophoraceae

Scientific name: Sarcophyte sanguinea

Authority: Sparrm.

Common names: umavumbuka (Zulu), wolwekos (Afrikaans)

Umavumbuka is a very odd plant, at first glance it looks more like mycorrhiza rather than an actual plant. Mycorrhiza is a type of fungus that grows on the roots of other plants. The reason that most people confuse umavumbuka with mycorrhiza is because umavumbuka, like mycorrhiza, grows on the roots of certain plants, especially the Vachellia species, formerly known as Acacia species. 

Even though both mycorrhiza and umavumbuka grow on the roots of other plants, the relationships they each form with the plants they are attached to is completely different. Mycorrhiza forms a symbiotic relationship with the plants they are attached to. A symbiotic relationship is a give and take (balanced) relationship where the plants make the glucose (or food) and share it with the mycorrhiza, and the mycorrhiza in turn break down the phosphate ions in the soil to make phosphorus available for the plants to absorb. Without the mycorrhiza the plants may not be able to absorb the phosphorus from the soil. With umavumbuka, the relationship with the plant is parasitic instead of symbiotic, meaning umavumbuka takes the food from the plant but doesn’t reciprocate or does not in turn do anything for the plant. 

The name umavumbuka comes from the Zulu word vumbuka which means “to suddenly appear from nowhere”. That’s because the plant is a parasite, and it usually just appears without being planted. The plant’s scientific name is Sarcophyte sanguinea. The genus name Sarcophyte is a Greek word that means fleshy plant, referring to the thick and soft tissue of this plant. The species name sanguinea means blood-red or scarlet and refers to the colour of the plant. 

Plant description

S. sanguinea naturally grows throughout Africa and can be found in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. In South Africa, the plant can be found growing in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, and Mpumalanga regions. As mentioned earlier, S. sanguinea is a parasitic plant that grows on the roots of trees and shrubs especially Vachellia species. Unlike most plants, S. sanguinea, has separate a male and female plants. The male plants typically grow up to 0.3 m in height, while the female plants tend to be shorter than 0.3 m. S. sanguinea doesn’t have leaves, the leaves are reduced to scales in order to reduce the surface area to volume ratio so the plant can preserve water. 

The leaves of plants have stomata (pores on the surface of the leaf). In the morning, when the sun comes up, the stomata open up so the plants can begin a process called photosynthesis. When the stomata open up, the plants absorb carbon dioxide from its surroundings, however, when the stomata open up to take in carbon dioxide the plants also lose water, due to evaporation. To prevent the loss of water some plants will evolve over time and reduce the size and shape of their leaves. This is so they can reduce the number and size of stomata on the surface of the leaf. The less stomata that a leaf has, the less water its losses. But it also means less carbon dioxide is absorbed. 

S. sanguinea has a red and rough-textured rootstock with a red sap and small white flowers. Lastly, the plant has a foul smell that attracts different insects for pollination.   

Uses and preparation

As a medicinal plant, S. sanguinea is used to treat a number of conditions and diseases. Reportedly, the plant is used to treat wounds, irregular menstruation, dysentery, diarrhoea, swollen glands, various bacterial infections, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). 

  • To treat STDs such as gonorrhoe – Boil a handful of S. sanguinea stem and a handful of chopped roots of impindamshaye (scientifically known as Adenia gummifera), and a handful of chopped leaves of iphakama (scientifically known as Erianthemum dregei). Add the decoction in 10 litres of water and let it sit for 5 hours. Take half a cup of the liquid twice a day to cure the gonorrhoea.
  • To treat STDs such as syphilis – Take a handful of chopped stems of S. sanguinea and the stem and leaves of uqandolo (scientifically known as Bidens pilosa) and combine them with a handful of chopped stem and leaves of ufufuno (scientifically known as Clematis brachiata), and the stem and leaves of uxhaphozi (scientifically known as Rununculus multifidus). Add all these plants in a pot, add water, and boil. After boiling, allow the mixture to cool and then drink the liquid to treat syphilis and the syphilis sores. The dosage will depend on the seriousness or the stage of the infection.
  • Sores and wounds can be treated with a poultice, a mixture of S. sanguinea that can be applied topically, or directly on the skin. To make the poultice – Mix S. sanguinea with the roots of isidumbu (scientifically known as Cladostemon kirkii), the roots of intolwane (scientifically known as Elephantorrhiza elephantina), the bulb of Drimia delagoensis and uxhaphozi (scientifically known as Ranunculus multifidus).
  • Even though S. sanguinea is also used to treat different types of STDs, it is mostly known for treating hypertension or high blood pressure. Hypertension is a very serious medical condition that can put a person at risk of getting a heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure. To treat hypertension – Boil the stem of S. sanguinea with the roots of isidumbu (scientifially known as Cladostemon kirkii), and the leaves of umhlaba (scientifially known as Aloe marlothii). Allow the mixture to cool and take orally.
  • S. sanguinea is also known for treating diarrhoea. To treat diarrhoea – Mix S. sanguinea with the crushed leaves of the mango tree (scientifically known as Mangifera indica) and boil the mixture. Wait for the infusion to cool down and then strain it. Take a quarter of a cup (75 ml) twice a day until diarrhoea subsides. In some parts of Transkei, the rootstock of S. sanguinea is crushed, then boiled, and the decoction then drank to treat diarrhoea.  
  • To treat swollen glands – Mash the rootstock of S. sanguinea with the roots of isinama (a common weed that’s scientifically known as Setaria verticillata) and the roots of amaselwa (a calabash creeper scientifically known as Lagenaria siceraria). After mashing the three species, add the mixture and 1 litre of water in a pot, and then boil it so that the mash mixture makes 1 litre pulp. When the pulp mixture cools, use it as a poultice on the affected glands. 
  • To treat dermatological conditions such as acne and other skin blemishes – Dry the stem and ground to powder add a little bit of water to make a paste and apply this paste on the affected area of the skin.
  • Livestock farmers in South Africa use the plant to treat a disease called black quarter (or the quarter evil). Black quarter is a fatal bacterial disease that causes high fever and swelling in cattle, sheep, and buffalo. The swelling may even cause the animal to be unable to walk. It’s said that the appearance of clinical symptoms is an indicator that the animal does not have long to live. In Keiskammahoek, farmers treat black quarter by taking a handful of S. sanguinea stems, drying them, then crushing them and soaking them in 5 litres of warm water overnight and administered orally using a 750 ml bottle (dosage) fortnightly until the animal show some improvement.
  • The plant is also known to fight cancerous growth. 

The name umavumbuka is actually the name of another creepy looking parasitic plant called Hydnora africana. Because Hydnora africana is also a parasite it is often confused with Sarcophyte sanguinea. But they are not the same, they don’t even look the same. The fruits of Hydnora africana are said to be used by Khoi Khoi people to make a traditional dish.  

Learn about some of the concepts covered in this article, by accessing: Impindamshaye (Adenia gummifera) and Intolwane (Elephantorrhiza elephantina) | Discover other relevant concepts, by accessing: Indabulaluvalo, Induced emesisi – ukuphalaza, Faith healers (abathandazeli), and Traditional medicines

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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