Above, the fruit and delicate flowers of the`ushar bush. “Self-seeding freely on overgrazed land”, the plant’s presence is often seen as an indicator of exhausted soil, while also known to aid soil binding and improve soil water conditions. With global warming gathering pace, efforts to tap into the`ushar’s ecological potential have become more pressing.
All the photos of the`ushar plant in this blogpost were taken in central Khartoum. Wandering out on a Friday morning eerily still and heavy with summer heat, I noticed for the first time the delicate forms of the`ushar’s flowers, glowing like tiny carved candles, against their dusty stems.
“Some amulets acquire their special attributes from their inscriptions, from the nature of their material, their colour or their shape. Others, like the`ushar fruit are used for their symbolic value. Its seeds are noted for dispersing widely and growing apparently without need for water; it is not difficult to see why they are used as an amulet to promote fertility.” (Sudan, Traditional Sudanese Medicine, Al-Safi, p 128)
The`ushar plant has deep associations throughout Africa with magical, protective and indeed malevolent forces, sought both as poison and antidote. Rooted in African folklore and the subject of numerous aphorisms, it is hung in doorways to protect homes from both snakes and witchcraft, invoked in incantations and its sap, root and leaves added to healing and other concoctions. (jstore.org).
Despite its sometimes dark cultural resonances, affording only scant shade and being widely dismissed as a pest, the plant has proven to be a cornucopia of blessings for men and animals alike.
For more on Sudanese amulets, see Unfolding Blessings
Milk and Thorns
The`Ushar in Two Proverbs and The`Ushar in Sudanese Medicine
The`Ushar in Two Proverbs
The`ushar has grown thorns.
The punchy proverb above captures the speaker’s surprized realization – the`ushar bush is thornless – that “a person’s life has suddenly undergone a dramatic transformation; from rags to riches, from weakness to strength.” (Muna Zaki)
My thanks to Muna Zaki for her kind guidance on the proverbs quoted in this blogpost.
The`ushar (Calotropis procera) is known variously outside Sudan as Sodom’s or Dead Sea Apple, milkweed, and arbre à soie (floss/silk tree). Thriving in the harshest of terrains, its thick, sap-filled leaves and globe-like fruits punctuate Sudan’s desert wastelands, encircle her sandy villages and infiltrate the smallest untended corners of her sprawling cities. It is said that even goats will eschew its bitter leaves when green unless they are starving, though the Sudanese prize its dried leaves as much needed fodder in times of drought.
The`ushar’s hollow fruit dissolves when plucked – in a taunting parody of the biblical apple – “into smoke” and, as Milton reminds us, “bitter ashes”. And like Sudan, the plant embodies electric contradictions and dogged survival against all the odds. In some parts of Africa, its delicate floss is spun into fishing thread and candle wicks. Its leaves were being used to dampen clay in pottery making in the Nuba Mountains in the 1930s and in Jebal Marra, they are still placed under doormats to repel termites. Its silky floss is burnt as tinder; its root and branches as charcoal. Writing in the 1909, colonial medical officer, R.G. Anderson noted that “a variety of sugar was obtained from the flower centre (Kersi al-Nabi) which is highly valued.” Colonial observers note too that its sap was used to poison lances used in elephant hunting in the Upper Nile in 1940s.
Inevitably, perhaps, its poisonous properties – its root is highly toxic – have famously been used to nefarious ends. It is tantalizingly implicated in murder and infanticide. Colonial accounts tell of suspected homicides using `ushar and poisoning, whether accidental or by design, by too much `ushar being added in the preparation of marisa beer. They describe how the prepared corn, spread on a bed of `ushar leaves, is allowed to ferment and its sap occasionally added to the beer itself to strengthen it. According to Al-Safi, the intoxicating effects were used in the commission of “robberies and hunting monkeys”.
On a darker note that barely hints at the immeasurable cruelty of the slave trade, quoting Burckhardt on health conditions in Shendi and Berber in 1819, Al-Safi notes that pregnant slaves, having “endured great hardships on the way to the markets there, many having died before reaching them, were subject to forced abortions brought about using `ushar latex.
What is yours is yours, even if he is as ‘ushar milk, squeeze it into your eyes.
Recognizing the sometimes onerous responsibilities of family and kinship, the proverb reflects the Sudanese profound sense of familial duty, stressing we must never deny our connection to those of our kinship group, even if one of them has, like the proverbial black sheep, darkened the family’s reputation.
The`Ushar’s milky sap, akin to the foxglove’s digitalis compounds in its effects on the heart, has long been held in Sudan to cause blindness; “The white sap is looked upon as a strong poison, and if splashed into the eye, the Sudanese consider blindness is sure to result”, reported R.G. Anderson in 1909. Expert in Sudanese Traditional Medicine, Dr. Ahmed Al-Safi however notes “the milk juice has caused more or less severe inflammatory eye reactions, but these do not result in blindness.”
(Sudan – Traditional Sudanese Medicine, p 272).
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More Uses of The`Ushar in Sudanese Medicine
Above,`ushar seeds (photo, Wikipedia). When the fruit is pressed, it “explodes with a puff, like a bladder or puff-ball, leaving in the hands only the threads of the thin rind and a few fibres … in the centre a “small slender pod” contains a small quantity of vegetable silk, “which the Arabs collect and twist into matches for their guns” (Wikipedia).
The`ushar is remarkable both in the claims made for its efficaciousness and the sheer range of its applications. It is enjoying renewed interest in both traditional and conventional medicine. Sudanow reports incredibly diverse medical uses, including in the treatment of diabetes, arthritis and rheumatism –
“After doctors failed to cure him, he remembered that when he was just a small kid in his home area the locals had used to roast calotropis procera leaves and topically apply them to treat arthritis and rheumatism pains, in particular during the rainy season. He said he gave it a try and was completely cured.”
“Kabbashi said in case of arthritis the patient has just to put one or two of calotropis procera leaves between his shoe and his socks for 24 hours and then replace them with others. The treatment spans for forty days.”
The sap is applied to skin infections, wounds and bruises. It is claimed to be effective as an emetic, diuretic and a laxative. Heated leaves applied to the stomach can relieve stomach pain and both the flowers and twigs are used in the treatment of asthma. This remarkable plant is also used to treat ringworm in animals, as an insecticide and its fibres and silk as stuffing for pillows and cushions.