Why you should care
It’s called “magic” for a reason.
If you’ve ever been on an African safari, chances are your ranger crafted a bush toothbrush for you at some point. Cutting a twig from a Magic guarri tree and fraying the ends into bristles is a common ranger’s ploy to keep excitement levels up when the Big Five aren’t playing ball. But it’s not all smoke and mirrors either. Folks don’t give names like Magic guarri to run-of-the-mill trees.
As its Latin name suggests, Euclea divinorum is used for divination in Zambia, sorcery in Angola and to remove spells in Uganda. Medicines made from its roots are used throughout Africa to “cure” everything from cancer and arthritis to miscarriage, snakebites and leprosy. And its branches are used to purify water in Ethiopia and to assist in preserving milk for months on end in Kenya. There’s no shortage either — this evergreen tree, which can grow as high as 15 feet, is found in about 20 countries across Africa.
… ointments and teas made from the roots of several Euclea species are used for the treatment of convulsive conditions such as epilepsy.
Jean-Francois Sobiecki, a South African ethnobotanist, medicinal plant researcher and healer, describes Euclea divinorum as “one of the trees that captured my curiosity” while researching whether traditional healers in South Africa were using plants to facilitate visionary and trance states similar to those South American shamans are famous for. He discovered that South Africa was incredibly rich in psychoactive plants, which shouldn’t be confused with “drugs.” Most foods we eat have subtle psychoactive effects that “influence how we think, feel and act,” he explains, citing the examples of chocolate and rooibos tea.
Sobiecki found that ointments and teas made from the roots of several Euclea species are used for the treatment of convulsive conditions such as epilepsy — probably because they contain compounds that have healing effects on the nervous system. (He reckons that the compounds are at their most potent in the roots to protect the tree from “underground pests.”) While much more research into all of Africa’s psychoactive plants is needed (Sobiecki is on the case!), he suspects that this same compound helps to focus the mind — hence the plant’s longstanding association with divining and sorcery.
Of course, the Magic guarri isn’t all witchcraft and wizardry. Its bark is used to tan hides (it turns leather a rich red color) and to dye palm leaf baskets brown. And its fruit — beloved by birds — is used in the fermentation of beer (yes please) and as a strong laxative (no thanks). When I worked at a game lodge during the great floods of 2000, I even relied on it as a navigational aid: I soon learned that any ground harboring Magic guarris would be too soggy to drive on.
But is it time to ditch the trusty Oral B? Euclea divinorum is one of many species used as chewing sticks throughout Africa and Asia, but it seems the scientific jury is still out on whether it actually prevents tooth decay. A 2008 study conducted in South Africa showed that the chemicals contained in the plant inhibited the spread of five different common oral bacteria, while a 2013 paper out of Zimbabwe — which focused specifically on one streptococcus bacteria associated with dental decay — found two other local plants to be far more effective cavity busters. As for Sobiecki? He prefers to tend his pearly whites with another bushveld tree, the small knobwood, aka Zanthoxylum capense.
It’s kinda like trying to convince a Colgate family that Crest is king.
GET SOME: MAGIC GUARRI
- In the wild: Where there’s a Magic guarri, there’s often a lion or elephant nearby. Don’t pick your own!
- At home: Not coming to Africa anytime soon? The toothbrush will have to wait, but you can order a bottle of the good stuff here.
- Perfect partners: The ash of another African tree, the mighty leadwood (Combretum imberbe), is commonly used as a toothpaste.
- Knowledge is power: To learn more about the wonders of Africa’s medicinal plants, sign up for one of Sobiecki’s courses, which can be conducted in person and online.