BETWEEN THE LEAVES

My journey with healing plants

Johannesburg-based Jean-Francois Sobiecki strives to bridge the science and culture of global traditional medicine practices

REPORT: PATRICIA McCRACKEN. PHOTOS BY ANTHONY LEONSINS

My journey with healing plants

Johannesburg-based Jean-Francois Sobiecki strives to bridge the science and culture of global traditional medicine practices

REPORT: PATRICIA McCRACKEN. PHOTOS BY ANTHONY LEONSINS

As young children, Jean-Francois Sobiecki and his sister Pascale used to install themselves under a large tree in their Johannesburg garden to make magical plant mixtures from what they found growing there.

“I had a passion from a young age to be a herbalist,” he says. “These were the beginnings of the phytoalchemist in me.”

Jean-Francois now practises as a healer, medicinal plant teacher and garden design consultant. In his recent book, African Psychoactive Plants: Journeys in Phytoalchemy, he compiled several of his research papers on southern African psychoactive plants and how they are used together with fascinating accounts of his own experiences as an apprentice and healer.

HEALING FORCE

“A life path transformation with ayahuasca” prompted Sobiecki’s global journey through the wonders of ethnobotany. He went on to explore shamanism in the Amazon and then traditional Chinese medicine in London.
Back in South Africa, Sobiecki spent 15 years apprenticed to Northern Sotho isangoma with Letty Mamonyai Maponya, “a strong and powerful healer who took her work seriously.”

They had met while Sobiecki was interviewing African healers as part of his field work to explore uses of African psychoactive plants.

“I was blessed to have a teacher like her, whom I connected with so well,” Sobiecki says. “Our ancestors ‘gelled’.”

Bags of plant medicines for sale at the Faraday muthi market in Johannesburg.

Plant adventures

On the academic side of his studies, Sobiecki connected with Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk at the University of Johannesburg and combed through academic journals looking for any mentions of plant medicines that had an action on the nervous system – to stimulate, sedate, improve memory, facilitate divination, cause visions or induce dreaming.
“I spent months doing this work and it was an amazing adventure,” he recalls. “I felt like a kid in an alchemical candy store.”

Ultimately, Sobiecki compiled an inventory, included in his book, of more than 300 species of southern African plants with reported psychoactive uses.

“A large number of traditional plants from southern Africa have a range of actions from subtle visionary or dream-inducing actions to psychedelic and have important uses in tribal societies,” he says. “I hope you enjoy my journey researching these plants and what benefits they can offer us in terms of healing our consciousness, overall health and wellbeing and the health of our integrated planet.”

Jean-Francois Sobiecki harvests roots of ubuvimbha (Withania somnifera) for their stress-relieving properties.

HIGHLIGHTING RISKS

Traditional medicinal uses of plants can point to possible applications today, Sobiecki notes, such as treating common conditions such as addiction, depression, schizophrenia, dementia and epilepsy.
But there are also risks if traditional medicines are exploited rather than used with care and understanding, Sobiecki believes.

“Shamanic plant tourism in Latin America has seen a rapid growth in recent years due to the increasing interest of westerners seeing spiritual healing alternatives,” he says. “The same may occur in the African context with the revitalisation of African psychoactive plant research.

“Inherent dangers in this possible trend can include the naivety of the western tourist about the role and danger of sorcery in traditional medicine systems, untrained individuals holding psychedelic plant ceremonies, charlatan traditional healers and bogus internet ethnobotanical suppliers advertising and selling incorrect or wrongly identified plants or products with little knowledge of their effects or contraindications.”

Jean-Francois Sobiecki holds the flower of the coral tree or umsintsi (Erythrina lysistemon), which is used to treat sores and wounds.

BRINGING LIGHT

He believes that providing accurate information and education on the use of southern African psychoactive plants and their related ritual practices is important to offset these risks.

His own vision for the future includes developing a platform for learning about global medicinal plants and healing through his Khanyisa Healing Garden Project.

 

Order a signed copy of African Psychoactive Plants from phytoalchemist@gmail.com for R455, including courier fees.

Left: Dream root or ubulawu (Silene bellidioides) is made into an infusion for clearer dreams.

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