By Jean-Francois Sobiecki B.Sc. (Hons) Ethnobotany

It is predicted by the World Health Organization that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of disease burden in the first world. This is a scary statistic.
Despite all the advantages of western medicine and technology, it is clear that we are all struggling more than ever to deal effectively with the stresses and challenges of modern day living.

Therefore, there is a great need for places of healing, personal development and general knowledge about the plants that can assist in healing without the need for harsh pharmaceutical anti-depressants that often cause as much harm as the symptom they are trying to fix. This is particularly true in South Africa, where we face many daily pressures and stresses and the cost of medication is too expensive for low income households.

sceletium-tortuosum-480x359My work and passion is to study traditional holistic medicine and especially medicinal plants from around the world (which I have done for over 20 years now) and apply this traditional knowledge to improve people’s health and lives. I have found many plants and methods from diverse ancient traditions such as Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and South African traditional healing that can be used simply and effectively to relax and strengthen the nervous system that most people do not know about in our modern consumer driven culture. Sceletium Tortuosum is traditionally used by the Khoisan people of South Africa as a relaxing and uplifting psychoactive medicine called “kougoed”. It is good for teething babies and is now being investigated for its antidepressant effects.

What has been very revealing to me is the sophisticated use of medicinal plant formulas and mixtures that are used by the indigenous healers and people of Southern Africa to clean and heal the body and mind. There are plant medicines which one burns to relax and alleviate insomnia, drinking medicines that heal the digestive system and countless other gems of healing plants such as ubulawu which can heal the mind.

Despite the evidence there is much negative stigma and media sensationalism that dirties and prejudices traditional medicine as being irrational and unscientific, which is often not the case.
For those of you who wish to see the research please read my paper The Intersection of Culture and Science in South African Traditional Medicine that investigates these issues.

Regardless of these ingrained cultural and societal prejudices, the fact is many of the plants and methods used by authentic traditional healers have scientifically validated actions and therapeutic effects that hold great potential in healing mental and nervous illness. Yet, so little research is being done on the cultural aspects and explanations of plant use in South Africa.

It is our vision that resurfacing this tried and tested African traditional knowledge of medicinal plants can help us meet the new challenges we face today with stress and depression, that will allow us to effectively heal and manage our nervous system and overall health.

To do this, requires the urgent documentation of this threatened healing knowledge from the few authentic traditional healers and elders left in South Africa, many of whom are dying without passing on their healing wisdom to the younger generation who have lost interest in traditional values.

The value of this research and the need for innovative spaces of healing have inspired me to create the Khanyisa psychoactive healing garden project. This exciting South African project aims to grow and showcase plants that are used traditionally in South Africa to effectively treat mental illness and neurological diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and dementia, so as to stimulate research, conservation and sustainable jobs related to these plants, while also providing a unique space in which to heal.

Please consider supporting the project with a small contribution and benefit from the many health promotion perks available such as plant fact-sheets, nervous system health guidelines, consultations and any other support I can provide. You will also be invaluable by helping us to establish this worthwhile project and assist in conserving South Africa’s psychoactive medicinal plants.

For more on the project see the indiegogo campaigns here. You can also join the Khanyisa psychoactive healing garden facebook group for news and updates on the project.

Sharing knowledge of holistic medicine:

There is a great general misunderstanding of what psychoactive plants are. Most people immediately think of the hard drugs or psychedelics. This is a very narrow focus on a very large subject. Most of the food we put into our bodies effects how we think and feel. Even milk is a psychoactive substance, as milk contains tryptophan that makes serotonin and melatonin, brain chemicals that help us sleep, so there is sense to the old wives tales of giving warm milk to children before sleeping.

It is my passion to teach people how to use holistic medicine to improve their health, for example: how eating certain foods and vitamins can help make brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, preventing depression and anxiety, and how tonic plant medicines can boost our adrenal hormones and brain chemicals so as to prevent burn out and replenish our viral energy and life force.

I will be hosting an interesting and resourceful workshop called Psychoactive Plants and Healing the Psyche where we will explore what plant medicines, foods and nutrients from around the world we can use to keep a healthy and strong mind and nervous system. The workshop will be held at Good Vibrations Health Sanctuary in Johannesburg on the February 1st, 2014.

For more information visit

If you are interested in these or other workshops please send me an email at

About the author:

Jean-Francois Sobiecki B.Sc. (Hons) Ethnobotany, (MA. Anthropology in progress) is an ethnobotanist, natural medicines healer and research associate with the University of Johannesburg. He mentors and teaches on the global and South African use of medicinal plants for health and wellness. He is a popular writer for Odyssey and the South African Journal of Natural Medicine. Visit his websites here: &