A 'medical plant' is in hot demand as South Africans seek relief for Covid symptoms

Business Insider SA
    Artemisia afra, also known as Wilde Als, photographed in Johannesburg in winter. (Business Insider SA)
    • Artemisia afra - known as lengana, uMhlonyane, and Wilde Als in South Africa –  has been used as a flu remedy by generations of South Africans.
    • Demand for the plant has rocketed as those with Covid-19 seek relief for their symptoms.
    • Prices have doubled, but you can still get 250g for around R40 on the streets of Alexandra.
    • On Takealot you will pay R349 for the same quantity.
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    * This article has been updated below.

    Demand for the leaves of Artemisia afra – also known as lengana, uMhlonyane, African wormwood, and Wilde Als in South Africa – has soared as South Africans seek it to treat Covid-19-like symptoms. 

    Artemisia has been used for generations as a traditional cure for flu-related illnesses such as colds, fever, coughs and headaches, including by various South African communities.

    As the coronavirus pandemic started to grip Africa, many have turned to the plant to treat their symptoms, and the government of Madagascar has punted a remedy for Covid-19 based on it.

    Artemisia can be found in the wild throughout much of South Africa.

    Earlier this month, South Africa's department of higher education, science and innovation allocated R15 million to research the use of artemisia – among other African plants – in treating Covid-19 symptoms. However, the WHO warned that there are no published scientific studies on the plant’s efficacy in treating Covid-19, and that it should still be tested for adverse side effects.

    Professor Wolfgang Preiser, who heads the medical virology unit at the University of Stellenbosch's medical school, says the plant offers no magic cure for Covid-19, but could provide some relief of symptoms. 

    "Artemisia species have been used for centuries as remedies and I am quite sure that if used wisely they could bring symptomatic relief. We do not have antiviral drugs against Covid-19 currently and I do not see anything wrong with taking medication, including nature-derived medication, for symptomatic relief," he said. 

    According to Mpho Hlubi, a 46-year-old Johannesburg resident who tested positive for Covid-19 two weeks ago, the plant has helped relieve symptoms, including fever, sore throat and teary eyes.

    “I have been using the remedy for two weeks, and although I cannot pin-point what it has done, I’ve been feeling much better since taking it, along with some vitamins.”

    He boils two teaspoons with plain water to make a two litre drink which he consumes throughout the day.

    But finding artemisia has become more difficult as demand - and prices - increased along with Covid-19 infection rates.

    Before the pandemic, the plant was easily accessible from street vendors and various traditional markets. Prices used to range from R20 to R40 for around three-quarters of a cup. These days, the same amount could cost between R40 and R100, depending on the market. 

    Street vendors in Alexandra are now selling standard package sizes for R40, while at popular traditional markets such as Swazi-Inn in Tembisa, it can cost upwards of R70.

    On Takealot, you can now get 250g of artemisia tea delivered for R349.

    Lompumelelo Masilela, a law student at Wits, has started a business selling artemisia with her sister. They source the product from Mpumalanga, where they are from, and sell half a garbage bag of artemisia for R500.

    "We saw headlines about it and did a lot of reading on it, particularly on how it helps with corona. People have been vouching for it a lot, stating that it contributes to their wellness and improving health," she said. 

    * This article was updated to remove references to Artemisia annua.