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Ethnobotanical Records from a Corporate Expedition in South Africa in 1685



Known today as the Dutch East India Company, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) — directly translated as United East Indian Company — was a chartered company established on March 20, 1602. It was granted an initial 21-year monopoly to undertake trade and colonial activities in Asia by the States General of the Netherlands.1 The VOC was the first company to issue stock and is widely considered to be the first multinational corporation. It possessed considerable powers more frequently associated with a government than a company, including powers to establish colonies, negotiate treaties, coin money, wage war, and imprison and execute criminals.

In 1652, the VOC founded a refreshment and recuperation station at the Cape of Good Hope (the area encompassing present-day Cape Town, South Africa) for the benefit of the crews of its sailing fleets trading between Europe and Asia. The station’s purpose was to supply fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and clean water to the VOC ships’ crews who suffered from scurvy during the long ocean voyages. At this time, the VOC did not intend the settlement at the Cape to become an independent economic or political territory.1

The first commander of the VOC’s refreshment station at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, heard from a native interpreter in 1657 that the copper in tribal earrings and beads came from the Namaqua, a tribe of pastoralists who lived to the north of the Cape. Between 1659 and 1663, seven expeditions were dispatched north to the land of the Namaquas to look for copper and any other riches but they all failed, unable to penetrate the difficult mountainous terrain.

Simon van der Stel was appointed commander of the settlement at the Cape of Good Hope by the VOC in 1679, and he proceeded to concern himself with the development of agriculture and viticulture and the improvement of the Company’s neglected botanical and herbal garden.2 In April 1682, some Namaqua visited the VOC fort at Table Bay in the Cape showing pieces of good-quality copper ore they had brought with them. In October of the same year, another expedition was sent out under Ensign Olaf Bergh, a Swede, to find the source of the copper ore, but it too was unsuccessful. A second expedition sent out the following year, again under the command of Bergh, also was fruitless. Although both expeditions had penetrated far into the territory of the Namaquas, now called Namaqualand, they were unable to cross a mountainous barrier to reach the Copper Mountains.1,2

In 1685, Hendrik van Rheede tot Drakenstein, a VOC commissioner, arrived at the Cape and gave Commander van der Stel permission to personally lead an expedition to find the Copper Mountains, with the obligation to return within four months. In addition to the search for copper, the expedition was charged with cultivating friendly relations with the Namaquas; recording descriptions of the environment including mountains, rivers, tracks, peoples, forests; and anything else deemed noteworthy.3,4 Both van Rheede and van der Stel were keenly interested in botany, with van der Stel once described as “the distinguished botanophile.” Van Rheede authored a 12-volume work on the flora of southwest India titled Hortus Indicus Malabaricus while at the VOC station at Cochin, India.3


The expedition, which left the Cape of Good Hope on August 25, 1685, was a major undertaking even by today’s standards, illustrating van der Stel’s determination to reach the fabled Copper Mountains. The party included van der Stel as commander, his three slaves, 56 people of mainly European extraction, as well as a prince from Macasser (now within Indonesia) and his slave,3 46 local people of mixed ancestry as drivers and leaders for the wagon train and accompanying stock animals, and a number of Khoikhoi translators. The expedition included a carriage, seven wagons, eight carts, a boat for river crossings, and two small cannons.4 The accompanying animals included riding and carriage horses, draught and pack oxen, and a flock of sheep.

Technical specialists in the expedition party included a navigator, VOC-employed mineralogist Frederich Mathias van Werlinckhof, and the apothecary and artist Hendrik Claudius, who also served as the expedition’s cartographer.3,4 Claudius had been sent to the Cape from Batavia in the East Indies to procure botanical specimens for a private collector and then was retained at the Cape by the VOC on account of his exceptional abilities as a naturalist and artist. A visitor to the Cape at that time, Pere Tachard, had been highly impressed with Claudius, writing, “He draws and paints animals and plants to perfection.”4 Claudius also had accompanied the previous failed expeditions under Olaf Bergh.

The expedition encountered the first peoples of South Africa, the Khoisan. The San (or Bushmen) were bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in small mobile groups made up of extended family units, using rock overhangs and caves as natural shelters or constructing small informal huts made of grass and brush packed over a rough frame of branches. The San were not metal workers; they were skilled trackers who hunted using bows and poison arrows. They used a wide range of plants as food and medicine and have left a lasting artistic legacy in the form of finely executed rock paintings in caves and under rock overhangs. The Khoikhoi people, which includes the Namaquas, are related to the San genetically and linguistically. The Khoisan were semi-nomadic cattle- and sheep-herding people who also worked copper and iron. They lived in temporary huts made of woven reeds that could be packed on ox back and moved to new sites.


It is not known what became of the original journal of the 1685 expedition or of Claudius’ original drawings, but copies of the expedition journal and accompanying drawings were sent to the Netherlands and at least one copy was kept at the Cape. One copy, thought to be an official summary report to the VOC of the expedition, is in the collection of Trinity College Library, Trinity College MS. 984 (TCMS).5 It is presumed to have been removed from the Archives of the Dutch East India Company in 1691 or 1692.4 TCMS includes 71 pages of color drawings, believed to be the work of Hendrik Claudius, with descriptive text on alternate folios. The drawings include two landscapes within the Copper Mountains, a Namaqua man and woman, 43 plants, 11 birds, nine reptiles, one fish, and eight insects.

Watercolor copies of Claudius’ drawings are in the collection of the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, known as the Codex Witsenii (CW). These copies were made in 1692 for Nicolaas Witsen, a prominent citizen of Amsterdam and a director of the Amsterdam Chamber of the VOC.3 Watercolor paintings were reproduced from the originals by at least two different artists for the CW,3 though most were executed without the finesse of the copies in the TCMS. Some plant drawings are missing from the TCMS, as the CW includes 59 illustrations of plants compared with the 43 of the TCMS.

A third manuscript referring to the van der Stel expedition was written by Jan Commelin (JCMS) between 1687 and 1692, but never published. It is based on 42 of the 43 botanical drawings in the TCMS. The only omission is the drawing of a single corm (TCMS folio number 197) with no attached above-ground plant parts. The drawings closely resemble the drawings in the TCMS, with the exception of the roots of the illustrated plants, which are sometimes depicted separately from the above-ground portions. The original JCMS is in the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, as ms. germ. qu. 238.2 Commelin enjoyed a successful career as a pharmaceutical commodities merchant, making the transition into government positions in Amsterdam, and was nominated to commisaris-practicus of the Amsterdam medicinal plant garden Hortus Medicus in 1690.6

The far more meticulous plant descriptions in JCMS indicate that the information was copied from a detailed version of van der Stel’s journal, and support the view that TCMS is an abridged version of the journal submitted as a summary report to the VOC.


Claudius’ map of the 1685 expedition (see map on pages 48 and 49) is in the collection of the National Archives in the Netherlands as 4 Vel 851 and depicts in detail the route of the expedition, 26 named points of interest, and the main rivers and mountain ranges between the Cape of Good Hope in the south and the Copper Mountains in the north.1,7


The expedition traversed five distinct vegetation types in the Cape Floristic Region, a floristic region of enormous species diversity that includes some 9,000 plant species, most of which are flowering plants and approximately 70% are endemic to the region8:

Strandveld (beach veld), characterized by low coastal plains adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean with winter rainfall averaging 50-300 mm per annum.


Sandveld (sand veld), a 30 km-wide coastal belt adjacent to the Atlantic stretching from the town on Lambert’s Bay to the Namibian border in the north, with winter rainfall averaging 50-150 mm per annum.


Renosterveld (rhinoceros veld), an area of relatively fertile soils derived from shale, named after the dominant renosterbos (rhinoceros bush; Elytropappus rhinocerotis, Asteraceae) after van der Stel’s wagon was charged by a rhinoceros in this vegetation. Renosterveld is rich in spring-flowering bulbous plants.


Knersvlakte (gnashing flats), an area of saline soils with prominent white quartz gravel between the Sandveld in the west and the Bokkeveld Mountains in the east. Named after the gnashing sound wagon wheels made as they traversed the gravel, the Knersvlakte is known for its low-growing succulent flora of the family Mesembryanthemaceae.


Klipkoppe (stone hills), also known as the Namaqualand Rocky Hills. This area is an escarpment about 50 km wide between the Sandveld on the west and the plateau in the east, and includes rounded granitic hills interspersed with sandy or gravelly plains. Most areas have an annual rainfall of 100-200 mm.


The 43 plants painted by Claudius and included in the official report of the expedition represent a very small sampling of the incredibly diverse and beautiful plant life that the botanists on the expedition would have seen for the first time, and are likely to all be plants with indigenous uses. A selection of the plants of ethnobotanical interest painted by Claudius follows, with accompanying notes from van der Stel’s journal translated into English from the original Dutch by Waterhouse and de Wet in 1979,4 as well as short notes of historical or recent interest. The numbering of the plants used in the descriptions and illustrations that follow refers to the folio number of the respective manuscript, TCMS referring to the manuscript in the collection of the Trinity College Library.

Acacia karroo Hayne,2,3 Fabaceae

“This tree grows so abundantly in the country of the Namaquaas* that almost all woods consist of it and is called thorn tree by us (because of its abundance of its harmful thorns) and Choë by the inhabitants. It grows fairly high and big, but crooked, and has good, hard and useful wood.”4 “From it acacia sap can be made and gum Arabic collected. The flowers are suitable for making a pleasant perfume.”2

The Afrikaans names for Acacia karroo include witdoring, witpendoring, doringboom, and soetdoring9; it is known as sweet thorn in English. Bark was used to treat diarrhea and dysentery by the Cape Colonists.10 The gum is eaten as a snack food and used to soothe sore throat and oral thrush.11

Albuca maxima Burm.f. (formerly A. altissima Dryand.),2,3 Hyacinthaceae

“This plant, 4 to 5 feet high, grows in stony places, and has its stem close to the root. It is filled with a great deal of slimy juice, is called Gambrij by the inhabitants and serves very well to slake their thirst; they chew the stem, but mostly the root, in order to suck out the juice. It has a remarkable quality to cool and refresh the mouth, grows very luxuriantly and in several places.”4

The local Afrikaans name is slymstok12 (meaning slime stick), and the refreshing sweet juicy basal stem and bulb are enjoyed by rural children to this day. The Swedish physician and botanist Carl Peter Thunberg also reported on its use for quenching thirst in 1773.6

Aloe dichotoma Masson,2,3 Asphodelaceae

Aloe arborescens, of which the trunk sometimes measures two fathoms, has a clear and abundant juice from which aloe gum could be made of good quality and in abundance. The bark is fairly hard, but the marrow and interior is soft, light and spongy. The branches of these trees serve the inhabitants as quivers. They hollow it out and cover one end with leather. Called Choje by them.”4

This is the first documented use of the branches of the tree as quivers. Aloe dichotoma is commonly known as kokerboom in Afrikaans or quiver tree in English. Van den Eynden et al documented the Nama name as //garab.13 Infusions and decoctions of the roots are used to treat female infertility, abdominal pain, asthma, and tuberculosis.14,15 The bitter leaf juice, applied to the nipple, is used to wean infants.14

Babiana tubulosa (Burm.f.) Ker Gawl.,3 Iridaceae

“This pleasant, fragrant flower sprouts from a bulb which tastes sweet and lovely but slightly astringent. It serves the aborigines as a common food which they call Cabong, and grows easily in good and rich soils along the Piketbergh.”4

The corms of a number of Babiana species are eaten by baboons16 and also enjoyed raw or roasted by humans.12 The name Babiana is derived from the Dutch word for baboon, baviaan. Thunberg recorded baboons eating the corms on Table Mountain in 1773, and Burchell (1811-1812) reported the corms of B. hypogea being a favorite food of the Griqua and Koranna people.12 Four Babiana species are reported to be used as food in the Kamiesberg in Namaqualand, with B. hypogea considered to be a local staple food.17

Cotyledon orbiculata L., Crassulaceae

“This is a kind of Sedum called Hobeep by the Namaquaas, and is found along their shores in low, stony and sandy places.”4

Cotyledon orbiculata is known as plakkie in Afrikaans and pig’s ear in English, and is a commonly used medicinal plant in South Africa. A single leaf is eaten as a vermifuge; peeled leaf is applied to plantar warts and juice expressed from a warmed leaf is used to treat earache and toothache; a warm leaf poultice is used to treat boils.11,16 The leaf is also used to treat burns, diaper rash, and fever blisters.14,18

Cynorhiza typica Eckl. and Zeyh. (formerly Peucedanum sulcatum Sond.), Apiaceae

Previously the illustration was thought to be of P. gummiferum (L.) Wijnands,2 or Glia prolifera (Burm.f.) B.L. Burtt.3

“This root is called Gammare by the aborigines and is used much, and esteemed greatly by them. It relieves flatulence and water. The leaves have a strong smell and resemble parsley in flavour.”4

The use of this plant’s perennial tap-root, strikingly similar in appearance to Claudius’ painting (TCMS Folio 811) was described in detail by the late Dawid Bester18:

“The root is cleaned of sand, cut into thick slices, which are put onto paper to dry. As the root dries it becomes yellow and the outside shrinks. The middle of the root is easily pushed out and discarded. When the rest of the slices are dry they are finely ground and added to water together with honey-comb. It is important to include honeycomb that contains bee embryos. The mixture ferments fast, and after the bubbling has stopped, usually after one day, the grounds sink to the bottom. They are strained and dried, and kept as starting material for future beer making. The honey beer is kept for half a day before drinking.”

“The name of this root is kerrie.”18 The vernacular name kerrie is a corruption of karee, the vernacular for mead.

Cyphia digitata (Thunb.) Willd., Campanulaceae

“This root grows in damp and marshy places amongst the Namaquaas, who call it Berroé and eat it daily. It has a sweet but watery taste.”4

Cyphia digitata is still known by the name Berroé , as well as Berou, Barup, Vlaktebaroe.12 Dawid Bester reported that Cyphia tubers vary in size from a diameter of 1cm to fist-sized, and are eaten raw. The tubers are pleasant tasting, a considerable quantity can be eaten as a meal; they are a highly valued as a food by impoverished people.18

Diospyros acocksii (De Winter) De Winter, Ebenaceae (TCMS Folio 847)

“This shrub grows on sandy soil, produces a pleasant but extremely astringent fruit, called Baviaans kerssen [baboon’s cherries] by the Dutch.”4

Diospyros austro-africana (De Winter), Ebenaceae

“This shrub is found in the country of the Namaquaas and in stony and sandy places. It bears a very pleasant fruit, resembling the Indian kouki [persimmon, Diospyros kaki], not so much in appearance as in taste. It causes constipation, and whoever eats too much of it will suffer constipation and other discomforts. It is called Kanobe.”4

The vernacular names kraaibos, kritikom, and bloubos have been reported in the Cape. The fruits of Diospyros austro-africana are still eaten.16 They are astringent and do, in fact, possess a flavor reminiscent of persimmon. In the Kamiesberg area of Namaqualand, leaf infusions and decoctions are used as a purgative to treat constipation and excessive bile.14

Euphorbia stellispina Haw.,2,3 Euphorbiaceae (TCMS Folio 851)

“This rare Esula seems to be some sort of Euphorbium and is found around the mineral mountains and amongst high rocks. The inhabitants call it Thaubij and use its milk or juice to glue their arrows and quivers.”4

Ficus cordata Thunb.,2,3 Moraceae

“This tree grows to a fair height, is the largest in the regions of the Grigriquaas and Namaquaas, and is found along the Oliphants River. It bears a kind of berry filled on the inside with bitter seed, which small birds keenly eat, covering these trees in unbelievable numbers.”4

A gnarled Ficus cordata is found to this day growing at the entrance to Heerenloggement Cave (Heerenloggement is Dutch for Gentlemen’s Lodgings), where van der Stel overnighted in 1685 and which was used as a comfortable shelter by many subsequent botanists and explorers. Ficus cordata fruit is eaten by baboons and humans.10,16

Fockea edulis (Thunb.) K. Schum.,2,3 Apocynaceae

“This root is generally found in damp and sandy soil. Mostly between the Oliphants and Doornbosch Rivers, and is called Camarebi by the Namaquaas and Camao by the Griquaas, who esteem it greatly. They eat it to relieve themselves of water, and it was on that account taken by us to be a kind of Brionia.”4

The vernacular name kambro was recorded by Latrobe in about 181012 and still is used by local people in the Agter Hantam area of the Northern Cape Province. They use a Fockea spp. as a food, make a preserve from it, and apply it topically for headache.9 The large, water-rich roots of Fockea angustifolia were used as a source of emergency water by San people in arid areas of the Kalahari in southern Africa, and also are enjoyed to this day simply as a refreshing and thirst-quenching bush food.19

Gladiolus caryophyllaceus (Burm.f.) Poir.,2,3 Iridaceae (TCMS Folio 801)

“This is Aqilegia Flore Purpureo, the root of which is eaten.4 The bulbs of this plant are a common food of the Namaquas.”2

This is the first record of this species, and Claudius’ illustration was the basis for Leonard Plukenet’s 1691 Gladiolus africanus angustissimo folio, dilute purpurascens.13 No common name was recorded by van der Stel. This Gladiolus is known in Afrikaans as sandveldlelie (sand-field lily).12 Gladiolus caryophyllaceus was grown in Holland in the mid-18th century.13

Gladiolus speciosus Thunb., Iridaceae

“This is Gladiolus esculentus found on the 10th and 11th September.”4

This illustration is the first record of Gladiolus speciosus, which was illustrated in 1691 Leonard Plukenet’s Phytogeographica as Sisyrinchium viperatum. Gladiolus speciosus was re-collected by Carl Peter Thunberg on the coast north of Cape Town in 1773 and was described by him in 1811 in the first edition of his Flora Capensis.13

Gomphocarpus fruticosus (L.) Aiton f., Apocynaceae

“A strange and unknown kind of Esula Arborescens growing in some stony places along the Oliphants River.”4

Gomphocarpus fruticosus (formerly Asclepias fruticosus) is known as tontelbos and melkbos in Afrikaans and milkweed in English.11,14 Its roots are used to treat stomach pain and general body aches and are believed to have diuretic, purgative, and emetic properties. Powdered roots and leaves are used as a snuff for headache, and powdered leaves as a snuff to treat tuberculosis.10,11,14

Gomphocarpus cancellatus (Burm.f.) Bruyns, Apocynaceae

“A strange and unknown kind of Esula, reaching at times a height of more than a man. It is found in damp places, and then only rarely. Also seen on 30th January by the Hon. Commander beyond the Steenberg.”4

Gomphocarpus cancellatus (formerly Asclepias cancellatus) is known as dermhout, melkbos, wilde kapok, and tontelbos in Afrikaans.14 In the Kamiesberg area of Namaqualand, roots are used to treat stomach ache, and decoctions of leaves are used to treat sores on the scalp, and to make ointment to treat pain.14

Lachenalia hirta (Thunb.) Thunb.,2,3 Hyacinthaceae (TCMS Folio 195)

“This is a Hyacinth species of which the root is eaten.”4

This is the first and only report of the indigenous food use of this plant.

Lapeirousia jacquinii N.E.Br.,2,3 Iridaceae (TCMS Folio 785)

“This fragrant flower sprouts from a bulb which has a sweet and delightful taste when roasted in hot ash. The aborigines use it as a daily food and call it Chabi.”4

This is the only record of an indigenous name and indigenous use for this plant. Smith12 identifies Chabi from van der Stel’s expedition as Lapeirousia anceps.

Montinia caryophyllacea Tunb.,2,3 Montiniaceae

“This shrub grows in stony places, its fruit initially resembles a clove [in taste], but when it increases in size it begins to burn sharply, not unlike Castilian pepper, with which it might be classified.”4

Carl Peter Thunberg recorded the Dutch or early Afrikaans name peperbos (pepperbush) in 1772 on account of its pungent taste.12 The plant also is known as bergklapperbos in Afrikaans (mountain rattle bush) due to the audible rattle of the seeds in dry pods when the wind blows.12

Nylandtia spinosa (L.) Dumort., Polygalaceae

“This shrub grows in many arid and sandy places, bears a kind of cherry, pleasant and sour in taste. It cools the healthy person, and quenches the travellers’ thirst, who finds that it comes in very handy. Called Cargoe by the inhabitants.”4

Nylandtia spinosa is known as tortoise berry, or skilpadbessie in Afrikaans.12 The abundant juicy fruits still are enjoyed by rural folk of all ages in the Cape, and also are consumed by ostriches and tortoises. In the past, they were collected in quantity by Cape Malay people and sold on the streets of Cape Town.12

Pelargonium carnosum (L.) L’Herit,2,3 Geraniaceae (TCMS Folio 193)

“This plant, called Thumma, was found in several places amongst the Namquaas. Its root and stem is of brittle substance and when roasted over a fire, both have a rather pleasant taste. It is eaten by the aborigines all year round.”4

This is the first report of the indigenous name and food use of this plant. De Beer and van Wyk reported the present local names as aree, oupa-aree, and oupa arrie, and that the stems of the plant are still a popular bush food, roasted in ashes by local people in the Agter Hantam area of the Northern Cape Province.9 The leaves are also eaten and possess a pleasant sweetish-sour taste.9

Pelargonium fulgidum (L.) L’Herit.,2,3 Geraniaceae

“A kind of Geranium with a sweet and edible root and therefore much favoured by the inhabitants. Found in several places, and called Heijntame by the Namaquaas and Areé by the Grigriquaas.”4

This journal entry for TCMS Folio 867 is a duplicate of the entry for TCMS Folio 869 (P. incrassatum) made in error.

Jan Commelin’s manuscript2 describes P. fulgidum as follows:

Geranium Aethyopicum, not bushy, with tuberous root and scarlet flower. Among the edible roots that the Namaquaas use as food, this one is not the least. It is called Heitame by them and Aree by their neighbours the Grigriqua. The root of this geranium is a good two duimen [inches] thick, not very long, like a tuber with fibres below, sweet and pleasant in taste. The stem rises two feet high from the ground and is round, smooth and greyish. The leaves grow in pairs above each other, are deeply incised on both sides and notched on their edges. They have a thick midrib that divides again into smaller ones, and are soft to the touch. At the top of the stem are five-petalled flowers, a beautiful vermillion. Two of these five petals are erect and the other three hang down. They have five red filaments in the middle, which are followed by a long pure red projection like a stork’s bill. The seeds, three together, have course hairs like the other kinds of geranium. The plant flowers in September.”2

The fresh leaves of Pelargonium fulgidum serve as a snack for children in the Strandveld of the Cape.18

Pelargonium incrassatum (Andrews) Sims, Geraniaceae

“A kind of Geranium with a sweet and edible root and therefore much favoured by the inhabitants. Found in several places, and called Heijntame by the Namaquaas and Areé by the Grigriquaas.”4

Jan Commelin’s manuscript2 describes P. incrassatum as follows:

“Lesser tuberous Geranium Aethiopicum with purple flower. The root of this geranium is oval like a small Rammalas [horse radish]. It has a long, little tail below, is flesh-coloured, sweet tasting, edible, much appreciated by the inhabitants and used as a delicacy and, like the previously mentioned one, [P. fulgidum] called Heytama by them. The leaves, which sprout from close to the ground, are like the previous kind of geranium, thin on both sides and deeply notched on both edges, but smaller. The stem is half a foot long or a bit more, thin, smooth and leafless. At the very top of this stem are four or five flowers on long, thin stalks. They consist of five petals, like the abovementioned kind, and are purple with purple filaments in the middle. These are followed by a long stork-bill with three seeds in each, like the previous sort, although smaller in all respects. It blooms in September and was found in many places.”2

Pelargonium incrassatum known as n/eitjie in Nama and ‘nytjie in Afrikaans, is still very common in the Kamiesberg area of Namaqualand, and the roots are collected in large amounts for food between June and October.17

Pteronia onobromoides DC,2,3 Asteraceae (TCMS Folio 191)

No local name or uses were annotated in TCMS. There are few ethnobotanical records for P. onobromoides. The first record of cosmetic and medicinal uses by Nama people dates back to 1854, documented by the medical doctor and naturalist William Guybon Atherstone, and quoted by Harvey and Sonder (1865): “…the leaves are succulent and very aromatic, used by the native Namaquas and Bastards as a perfume, mixed with fat, under the name buchu. It is called Sâb in the Namaqua language, and is dried and collected for sale.”19,20 Other Pteronia spp. are still in use; De Beer and van Wyk recently reported that the leaves of Pteronia divaricata are in current use as infusions for flu,9 while Nortje documented many uses for Pteronia camphorata in the Kamiesberg — a mountainous region passed by van der Stel’s expedition — including topical uses of powder for earache, infusions of leaves and stems for toothache, and in combination with other medical plants as a convalescent tonic.14

Sceletium tortuosum (L.) N.E.Br.,14 Mesembryanthemaceae

“This plant is found with the Namaquaas and then only on some of their mountains. It is gathered in October and is called Canna. It is held by them and surrounding tribes in as great esteem as the betel or areca with the Indians.”4

Sceletium tortuosum is used traditionally to this day by men and women in Namaqualand as a masticatory and as an infusion and decoction. In addition to its use for supporting well-being, it is commonly used as a calming remedy, and to treat constipation and fevers. It also is used to treat infants with colic.14,21 Two varieties of S. tortuosum are distinguished by people in the Kamiesberg area of Namaqualand, a mak (tame or mild) type and a wilde or wild type.14 The wilde type is a variety that is potentially intoxicating if consumed in high doses, particularly if allowed to ferment before drying. The Nama name Canna (also written as Kanna) reported by van der Stel was displaced by the Dutch name Kaauwgoed, meaning “chewing stuff,” and this has evolved into the Afrikaans name Kougoed, first reported in 1830.12 Tinctures of the plant have been in common use among people of European descent in South Africa, as first reported by the German physician and botanist Carl Wilhlem Ludwig Pappe in 1868.22

Veltheimia capensis (L.) DC,2,3 Hyacinthaceae (TCMS Folio 189)

“Its root, according to the inhabitants, has a purgative effect, which in our experience was successfully found to be true. Both the Namaquaas and Grigriquaas call it Quaroube.”4

This is the earliest record of the indigenous name as well as the earliest and only record of the medicinal use of this plant. Quaroube has been spelled Quarobe and Kwarobe, and the Afrikaans name is Sandlelie12 (sand lily).

Wurmbea spicata (Burm.f.) T.Durand & Schinz,2,3 Colchicaceae (TCMS Folio 839)

“This fragrant flower sprouts from a small bulb which, if roasted, was found to be sweet and lovely to taste, but if eaten in any quantity it causes constipation and obstruction of the belly.”4



The expedition finally reached the Koperberg (Copper Mountains) in Namaqualand two months after leaving the VOC fort at the Cape. The Copper Mountains were stained green from copper minerals, and the expedition miners dug and blasted horizontal shafts into the hillsides using gunpowder. A smelter was built nearby to assay the yield of the ore. “Monday 29th [October]. Around mid-day the miners again detonated two mines which threw up lovely mineral, some of which the Hon. Commander again decided to smelt and he found that it contained copper.”4

The exploratory shafts excavated by van der Stel’s men are still visible today, signposted from the small town Carolusberg. The yields of copper were initially disappointing, but as the shafts were sunk deeper, the grade of the copper ore increased. Factors including the remoteness of Namaqualand from the VOC fort at the Cape, lack of ready access to a suitable port, and the harsh arid conditions of the region meant that mining operations in the Copper Mountains would not be economically viable. The expedition party arrived safely back at Cape Town in early January 1686.

The copper deposits originally found and used by the Namaqua people in the Copper Mountains eventually proved to be very rich indeed. Commercial mines were established in the area in the mid-19th century, and, by the 1970s, ranked among the top three South African copper producers, with an annual yield of 3 million metric tons of copper ore grading 1.6% copper.23


It was clear that the Honourable Commander had noted the commercial potential of sceletium. On October 20, 1865, he observed that “one can judge and expect some profit from its cultivation.”4 However, it took more than 300 years before commercial propagation and production of Sceletium tortuosum became a reality.24 The South African company HG&H Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd. (HG&H) has successfully domesticated a traditionally used non-intoxicating variety for the production of its standardized extract of Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin®).25 This extract has been shown to be a dual 5-HT uptake inhibitor and PDE4 inhibitor.26 Three randomized, controlled clinical studies have been completed recently, demonstrating that Zembrin is safe and well tolerated,27 has anti-anxiety potential,28 and enhances cognitive-function.29

In recognition of the primary indigenous knowledge holders, HG&H signed a prior informed consent benefit-sharing agreement with the South African San Council. The San Council in turn entered into an agreement to share income from the project with two Namaqualand communities24 close to where van der Stel’s expedition passed in 1685 in recognition of their ethnobotanical research assistance to HG&H.


Van der Stel’s expedition has a left a lasting scientific legacy, elements of which include the first botanical and ethnobotanical records of many of the plants described, as well as the first descriptions of a number of insects, birds, reptiles, and fish. Formal botanical voucher specimens were likely to have been collected on the expedition, but it is not known if they still exist. In their place the fine botanical illustrations of Claudius serve as an excellent record for posterity.

The information accompanying each plant is remarkable for its time, including date, locality, plant description, habit, habitat, relative abundance, indigenous food and medicinal uses, methods of preparation, taste, effects, and side-effects. The plant descriptions in the manuscript of van der Stel’s journal at TCMS are rather brief for pre-Linnaean descriptions, suggesting that TCMS is a summary report of the full expedition journal. As shown in the examples for Pelargonium fulgidum and Pelargonium incrassatum, detailed botanical descriptions of the plants are given in Jan Commelin’s manuscript,2 which offers insight into the quality of the botanical records that the original unabridged journal of the expedition must have contained.


The author of this feature is a founding director of HG&H Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd, which developed the proprietary Sceletium tortuosum extract Zembrin.


The following people and organizations are thanked:

Sharon Sutton, Digital Resources and Imaging Services, Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland, for facilitating permissions and images of the TCMS manuscripts;

René Janssen, National Archives, The Hague, Netherlands, for facilitating permission and image of Claudius’ map of the expedition;

Barbara and Lambert van Rijsewijk, Lemonade Design, Cape Town, South Africa, for producing the map of the expedition overlaid on a Google Earth image;

Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk is thanked for determining the identity of Peucedanum sulcatum from the original botanical voucher specimen, and more recently for confirming that the same plant photographed with the late Dawid Bester holding it, has been revised to Cynorhiza typica (email communication from Prof. van Wyk, December 14, 2013);

Dawid Bester is thanked posthumously for finding Cynorhiza typica, and providing the first known record of the detailed preparation of traditional mead from its root.

The reviewers are thanked for useful comments and suggestions.


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