A review of the taxonomy, ethnobotany, chemistry and pharmacology of Sutherlandia frutescens (Fabaceae)

B. E. van Wyk, C. Albrecht

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

140 Citations (Scopus)


Sutherlandia frutescens (tribe Galegeae, Fabaceae), a popular plant in traditional medicine, is indigenous to South Africa, Lesotho, southern Namibia and southeastern Botswana. It is chemically, genetically and geographically extremely variable and has been divided into three subspecies and several regional forms. A second species, Sutherlandia tomentosa, is localized along the Cape coast. Sutherlandia is sometimes treated as part of the genus Lessertia. There are numerous vernacular names and a wide diversity of uses, including poor appetite, indigestion, stomach complaints, dysentery, colds, influenza, kidney conditions, fever, diabetes, internal cancers, uterine troubles, liver conditions, backache, rheumatoid arthritis, urinary tract infections, stress and anxiety, dropsy and heart failure. Notable is the use as a bitter tonic ("blood purifier"), anti-stress medication ('musa-pelo) and, at least since 1895, specifically as a cancer tonic (both as treatment and as prophylaxis). Externally it is applied to haemorrhoids, inflamed wounds and eye infections. Recent in vitro and in vivo studies have shown antiproliferative, anti-HIV, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antibacterial, anti-stress, anticonvulsant and antithrombotic activities. Aqueous extracts often differ in activity from organic solvent extracts. The presence of high levels of free amino acids, non-protein amino acids such as canavanine and GABA, the cyclitol pinitol, flavonols and triterpenes (including SU1, a cycloartane-type triterpene saponin) provide plausible hypotheses on how these compounds, individually or collectively, may be responsible for the reputed efficacy in a wide range of ailments. Results of animal studies, as well as a phase I clinical study, have shown no indications of toxicity. Sufficient preclinical data are now available to justify controlled clinical studies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)620-629
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Ethnopharmacology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 28 Oct 2008


  • Biosystematics
  • Chemical compounds
  • Ethnobotany
  • Medicinal plants
  • Pharmacology
  • Southern Africa
  • Sutherlandia frutescens (L.) R.Br.
  • Traditional uses

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Drug Discovery


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