About the Plant

Pelargonium sidoides, a member of the geranium family, is a small, perennial herb with twisted, tuberous red roots and dark magenta flowers. The long-stalked, grey-green leaves are mildly aromatic, heart-shaped and velvety. The distinctive dark, reddish-purple flowers are present almost throughout the year, but occur mostly from late spring to summer (October - January), with a peak in midsummer (December).

The system of thickened, underground, root-like branches is a special adaptation that enables the plant to survive grass fires, which occur almost annually over much of its range. The medicinal and commercial value of this plant lies in the active compounds (umckalin and coumarins) of its tuberous roots.

Pelargonium sidoides is endemic to South Africa and Lesotho and found nowhere else on Earth. It usually grows in short grasslands and, at times, on stony soil, varying from sand to clay loam, shale or basalt, at altitudes ranging from near sea level to 2 300 m. The plant is found in areas that receive rainfall in summer (November to March), varying from 200 - 800 mm per annum.

This species can be difficult to distinguish from Pelargonium reniformia, which grows in a similar area, but tends to have more kidney-shaped leaves and bright pink flowers.

A Rich History of Traditional Use

Healing with medicinal plants dates back to the beginning of humankind. Over the millennia, medicinal plants have been used by innumerable cultures across the globe for healthcare needs.

Over the last two decades, there has been a significant resurgence in interest in medicinal plants and herbal remedies, with numerous clinical trials proving the efficacy of plant-based herbal remedies. This has resulted in a surge in demand for botanically infused medicines in Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States. Medicinal plants are now universally recognised as the basis for a number of critical human health, social and economic support systems and benefits.

Southern Africa, a region with a strong history of traditional healing, hosts a variety of around 22 000 flowering plant species, accounting for almost 10% of the world’s higher plant species. An estimated 80% of the region’s inhabitants rely on its vast botanical resources for their primary healthcare needs and, more recently, income-generating commercial trade opportunities.

Pelargonium sidoides is an indigenous plant endemic to South Africa and Lesotho. For generations, it has been utilised by indigenous healers of the Zulu, Basotho, Xhosa and Mfengu tribes as a curative for coughs, respiratory tract infections and gastro-intestinal concerns. This plant of immense medicinal, cultural and commercial importance.

Journey to the West

The medicinal potential of Pelargonium sidoides was brought to Europe in the early 1900’s, after a young British explorer, Charles Henry Stevens, was treated in South Africa for his pulmonary tuberculosis by a local healer. A bitter tea made of Pelargonium sidoides root drove his illness into remission.

Upon his return to England, Stevens imported the medicine’s raw ingredients from South Africa and began to produce a remedy called Stevens’ Consumption Cure. This product also went by the name of Umckaloabo, believed to be derived from two Zulu words describing symptoms of illnesses cured by the plant: “umkhuhlane”, which describes coughing and fever-related diseases, and “uhlabo”, which refers to chest pains. While there was some anecdotal evidence of successful treatments, the British Medical Association all but drummed Stevens out of town, and he spent a fortune on legal actions.

In spite of this, word of the cure spread and, subsequently, Umckaloabo was tested and its healing properties verified by Dr Sechehaye of the University of Geneva in the mid 1920’s. After a tentative initial clinical trial, Dr. Sechehaye went on to successfully prescribe the remedy to 800 tuberculosis patients between 1920 and 1929. By the standards of the day, the clinical results were particularly well documented and included 64 detailed case studies.

"Umckaloabo" promotional advert (1931)

From "Muthi" to Medicine

mu-thi (ˈmʊtɪ): isiZulu - botanical medicine prescribed by an inyanga or traditional herbal healer in South Africa.
In the 1990s, Schwabe, a German phytomedicine company, acquired the rights to manufacture Umckaloabo. Schwabe invested €30 million into clinical trials, patents and registration to ensure Umckaloabo complied with regulations in Germany and other potential EU markets. Following further development, EPs 7630, a proprietary extract from the roots of the Pelargonium sidoides plant, was developed.

EPs 7630 is listed in the European and African Pharmacopoeia and has European approval as a herbal medicine and food supplement. This extract has now been the subject of over 30 clinical studies, involving more than 9 000 patients, including 3 900 children. It has been shown to safely and effectively reduce the duration and severity of acute respiratory tract infections, including bronchitis, tonsillopharyngitis, sinusitis and the common cold.

Schwabe’s withdrawal of the patents for this extract in 2010 has allowed other companies to explore the potential of this natural remedy. Today, Pelargonium sidoides extracts are one of the best researched phytomedicines available on the market.