Sutherlandia frutescens

Herbs gallery - Sutherlandia

Common names

  • Balloon Pea
  • Cancer Bush
  • Sutherlandia

Sutherlandia (Sutherlandia frutescens) is a shrub native to the South of Africa that has been used for a long time both as a legume and as treatment for numerous diseases. It is a bush known for its flavoured bitter leaves and the nice red or orange flowers that have a long bloom time from spring to the middle of summer.

Sutherlandia is a small but very attractive shrub that can grow to a height between 0.5 and 1.2 m. It has soft wood and pinnate compound leaves of a greyish color, which make it have a silver look. Leaflets are extremely bitter and can reach a maximum length of 1 cm.

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Flowers are located on tiny racemes that emerge from leaf axils near the tips of every branch. They can reach a length of 3.5 cm, are orange or red and blossom normally in the middle of summer, which is between September and December in the Southern hemisphere. The flowers are quite different from the ones of other plants from the pea family and consist of very short petals that are hidden inside the calyx.

The fruits develop as large pods that look like a paper balloon with a transparent surface. It is preserved very well after drying, which makes it a popular choice for dried flower bouquets.

Parts used

Leaves, seeds.


This herb is considered the most important medicinal herb in the entire region of Southern Africa, mainly because it can be used to treat multiple diseases. The main reason is that it boosts the activity of the immune system, which allows the body to use its own weapons against a wide range of problems. Since it is effective against both normal diseases and mental issues, sutherlandia has been nicknamed the ginseng of Africa and is classed as an adaptogen, similar to ashwagandha or astragalus.

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Modern tests have made sutherlandia famous among herbalists because the plant appears to be a cure for cancer and can also limit the effects of AIDS because of the immunity bonus, which makes it effective against the worst of the modern diseases.

Local South African tribes were well aware of the plant's properties and have been using it for a very long time. The Khoi San and Nama tribes, who were the original inhabitants of the Cape region, prepared decocts from the plant and used it to clean open wounds, while also ingesting it against fever. The first European settlers quickly learned the value of sutherlandia and noted its effectiveness in digestive problems and the treatment of cancer and chicken pox.

The antiseptic and immune boosting qualities of the plant were useful against many problems and sutherlandia remains in use as a medicinal plant even today. It was particularly effective against eye infections, after washing the eyes with decocts. In rural areas of the Cape, it is still praised against the same diseases: chicken pox, cancer, fever, eye trouble or external wounds.

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Sutherlandia has been used to treat many other diseases and can be considered a general panacea, the list is pretty much endless:

It can also be effective in problems with the bladder, uterus and other female-specific conditions. However, sutherlandia is equally useful in mental conditions and can reduce stress, calm the nerves, act as a mild tranquilizer and reduce depression or anxiety. The plant provides general benefits and can be ingested before meals as an appetizer and digestive aid.

It has been claimed for a long time that sutherlandia can cure cancer but no actual scientific research has been completed. However, some partial results of studies have confirmed its powerful immune system boosting and effectiveness against at least some cancer varieties.

However, it must be said that sutherlandia is not a wonder anti-cancer drug but rather a general energizer and stimulant. It might not attack cancer directly, but it allows the body to use its natural weapons to defend against it. It is a great tonic that improves the morale of people who suffer from serious diseases and allows them to fight on. Many people who have cancer, AIDS or tuberculosis can lose their will to live and start losing weight at an alarming rate. Sutherlandia can renew their strength, improve the appetite and allow them to regain some weight. It is considered a potential treatment for HIV in particular and scientists believed it can stop infection from developing into AIDS, or even cure AIDS completely in patients who already have it.

Habitat and cultivation

Sutherlandia is easy to cultivate in gardens since it grows very fast but not very practical because of its short life span. It is very resilient and does well in almost any soil types. It can grow in full sunlight and in areas with both summer and winter rainfall but it also survives drought pretty well. Too much water can even hurt the plant, so if placed in a container you must be careful not to allow it to accumulate. Sutherlandia is able to reseed itself without any problems, so old plants can be cut since new ones will emerge quickly.

When planted in groups or clusters, sutherlandia can serve as a filler in border areas of the garden, especially ones with rocky or otherwise poor soils. It is also used as a contrast plant in combination with a green background. Its striking appearance helps accentuating the landscape of a garden. It is very easy to grow, can be placed in any type of container and moved around the garden. Since it develops fast, it can also be a good temporary plant for areas of the courtyard that will be developed later. In new gardens, sutherlandia can be the initial plant because of its vigorous growth, until other perennials get established.

Sutherlandia seeds itself easily and also grows very well from planted seeds. Soaking the seeds overnight in hot water before planting will improve the germination chance. Until then, the seeds have to be stored in a warm location, away from excessive moisture. For best results, they must be planted in soil with good drainage during spring or autumn. It will germinate in a maximum of three weeks and can be planted in the garden as soon as possible. In order to create a bigger and more attractive shrub, clusters of 3 to 5 sutherlandia can be placed together.

Side effects and cautions

Like most medicinal plants that haven't been studied properly, sutherlandia is best avoided by pregnant and lactating women.

Collection and harvesting

Sutherlandia is best collected in the morning during the spring or at the start of summer. It takes about three months from germination until the first leaves are ready for harvest. Seeds can be collected when their pods begin to desiccate. One easy way is to just cut the entire plant by either manual or automated means and then separate the useful parts.


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