Imphepho or Helichrysum Odoratissimum is a strong-smelling plant that is widely used both as an insect repellent as well as a perfume as well as for health and cultural reasons. It’s a perennial plant with many branches, small silver-colored leaves and small yellow flowers clustered together in groups at the tips of the branches.
Imphepho is a plant native to South Africa that flowers throughout the year, but predominantly from August to December in the Cape and between January and June in the rest of the country. It is a common plant also found in other parts of southern Africa, particularly Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and further north. It tends to grow on grassy or rocky slopes, forming large clumps that colonize bare areas including roadsides and paths.
The genus name of the plant Helichrysumis in reference to the golden yellow flowers from the Greek words helios (sun) and chrysos(gold). The epithet odoratissimum is a reference to the strong smell of the species.
The History of Imphepho
Throughout history, imphepho has been used by tribes in South Africa, such as the Zulu and the Xhosa for a number of healing and cultural practices. It is most frequently burned as incense as part of a ritual to curry favor with the ancestors. This is part of the belief system that ancestors make contact with the living through dreams and as such traditional healers will use imphepho smoke to induce a dream state with vivid, sometimes lucid dreams.
The herb is also used in dream ceremonies that are an integral part of the culture. In Kwa-Zulu Natal on the north-east coast of South Africa, Zulu traditional healers, or sangomas, smoke imphepho. The imphepho will either be smoked on its own or mixed with tobacco.
The Uses and Benefits of Imphepho
The parts of the plant that are used are primarily the leaves, stems, and flowers, and in some cases, the roots are also used. Imphepho’s healing properties are thought to originate from its rich oils and flavonoids and is used in a number of different ways, including:
As a Smudge
The dried herb is lit to create a smoke that is then used as a sacred incense to invoke trance states, cleanse energy, as an offering in prayer and to call the ancestors. The smoke can also be used as a sedative. When done in the traditional way, the imphepho is placed on a ceramic surface (potsherd) as an offering to the ancestors, and in many cases, the ashes of the plant will be burned, releasing new compounds that have different, additional benefits.
For Skin Healing and Health
Imphepho has been traditionally used as a topical dressing to heal wounds as it is thought to be a natural antiseptic having anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and pain-relieving properties.
It is also made into a wash that can be used on wounds, spots, skin conditions, rashes, and fungal infections and has restorative benefits and can be used to reduce the appearance of scars. In cases like this, the wound or condition will be washed with an imphepho infusion to ensure that the area is clean and sterile, then a dressing of imphepho leaves will be placed on the wounds to promote healing.
Rather than inhaling the smoke from the plant, the leaves and stems can also be harvested and boiled to create a facial ointment for pimples.
Traditional healers add imphepho to steam baths both for protection and to cleanse negative energy.
For Anxiety and Sleep
Imphepho is used to help relieve symptoms of anxiety, and to help people get to sleep easier, as well as promoting deep sleep. This is done by using the leaves and stems to create a smoke that is inhaled and has a sedative effect and helps to relieve insomnia.
Imphepho is also thought to have oneirogenic properties. This means that the herb assists with dream activity and dream recall as well as lucid dreaming, making it similar to the African dream root, Silene capensis. Lucid dreaming is characterized by the ability of the dreamer to enter a dream state where they are aware that they are dreaming. In a lucid dream, the dreamer may have some control over the characters in the dream, the way that the dream unfolds and the environment in which the dream takes place.
As a Natural Insect Repellent
The herb may be stuffed into bedding both for humans and animals to repel insects and can be made into a cream that the user smears on their skin to repel insects.
As a Perfume
In addition to its medicinal uses, Helichrysum odoratissimum is used widely as a perfume. Southern Sotho women are known to make a perfumed ointment or balm from the plant.
For Relief from Fever, Colds, and Flu
The herb is made into a tea using the leaves which is drunk to cleanse organs, including the liver and kidneys and helps to relieve headaches, fever, coughs, colds, and flu. Ongoing research suggests that there may be additional medical applications such as supporting the treatment of tuberculosis and herpes. In rural communities where access to western medicine is limited to treat more serious diseases. In the Eastern Cape in South Africa, the smoke is inhaled to help with coughs and colds.
For Women’s Health
Imphepho can be used to treat menstrual pains along with other menstruation complications such as trouble sleeping.
Getting Started with Imphepho
Imphepho is a powerful herb native to South Africa that has been used extensively for thousands of years in traditional medicine and cultural practices by South African tribes. It offers a wide range of health benefits including skin healing and health, insomnia and anxiety, for relief from ailments such as fever colds and flu as well as a range of other medicinal applications.
In addition to a number of different health benefits, imphepho is widely used in cultural practices as an incense to invoke the goodwill of ancestors and to communicate with ancestors through dreams.
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