The violet tree or krinkhout (Afrikaans) presents a memorable sight when in flower. Unfortunately it is not easy to grow. The natural distribution lies in the north of South Africa, mainly in the Limpopo province, but a wider spread of the tree occurs beyond the border in neighbouring southern Africa. The habitat comprises varied bushveld and woodland environments.
Being a conspicuous plant with showy flowers, various parts of Securidaca longepedunculata have since time immemorial been tried in treating ailments of the day. Some of these uses of roots, bark, leaves or other parts sound brave, especially considering a phrase like “has been used for almost every conceivable ailment” (www.plantzafrica.com). Other descriptors of such experiments that come to mind are ingenious, imprudent or reckless, usually selected with the benefit of hindsight. The fact that the roots of this tree are poisonous is a case in point.
The early experimental costs (and sacrifices) of such trial and error community science involving the plants of South Africa (and the world) are unknown. Plant parts form the bulk of traditional medicines. The written word has arrived late in the history of fighting disease; and tradition by word of mouth is so selective that these fragmentary little histories remain shrouded in mystery.
For every cure that works today, a number of deaths must have occurred relating to the quest. Unknown guineapigs, maybe even healthy martyrs have suffered from inappropriate or poisonous substances ingested or applied long ago. Like the unknown soldier, these bold proto-scientists and their victims should be remembered by continuous generations of unwell beneficiaries! But such is the march of progress, the risks taken by desperate and curious people (Coates Palgrave, 2002; Van Wyk and Van Wyk, 1997).