Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

Medicinal, Aromatic and Cosmetic (MAC) Plants of Meru, Kenya

Alfreda K. Ibui MA, National Museums of Kenya, P. O. Box 40658, Nairobi, Kenya


Since ancient times, Meru people in Kenya have largely depended on their local plants for medicines, food, fuels, material and environmental uses including hedges, shades, and land markers. Meru bee plants are used in beehive smoking and bee attractors, while other plants for social use include masticatories and those used in games and in smoking. Traditional cosmetic and aromatic plants are used for Meru socio-cultural puroposes. In the ethnobotanical study conducted in Meru (Kenya) in 2002 and 2003 was found that Meru people know and use over 635 different species of plants for the various needs listed above. Of the total number of 635, not less than 411 were medicinal plants, while a few were cosmetic and aromatic plants. The study has documented the indigenous plant classification, local use and management practices, and related illnesses.

Medicinal plants in health

Various trees, shrubs, herbs, climbers and creepers/climbers, grass, succulents, bulbs and rhizomes are mainly used to prepare traditional medicines. The specific parts of the plant that make the medicines include bark, roots (tuber), leaves and buds. The preparation of herbal medicine varies for 'external' and' internal' illnesses.

A large number of perceived diseases have been reported to be mainly treated through the application of specific traditional herbal medicine. These include: head, tooth and gum aches, sore eyes, growths on the face, common colds, and dandruffs, brain fatigue, tonsillitis, mumps, mouth sores and aching ears. Also, neck stiffness, asthma, coughs, chest pains, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and whooping cough belong to this category of diseases. Stomach ailments treated by herbal medicine include acidity, ulcers, worms, heartburn, diarrhoea, constipation, amoeba, poisons, anthrax, nausea and cholera. Backaches, joint aches, swollen legs, sprains and rheumatism are also among the diseases treated by traditional plant-based medicines. Special herbal remedies are reported for malaria and other kinds of fevers, rashes, boils, measles, itching, scurvy, skin growths, dry skin and ringworms. Similarly, venereal diseases, fresh cuts, wounds from poisoned arrows, burns, anaemia, diabetes and high blood pressure are mostly treated by traditional herbal medicines.

Antenatal herbal treatment include birth control; abortifecients and menstrual overflow while post-natal treatments include problems related to afterbirths and excessive bleeding.

Medicinal plants in culture

Plants in Meru have been part of the local people’s culture for as long as they have known them. There are particular trees that are believed to give long life - the Mugumo tree; those that give healing by just singing praises to them (Mutuntu) and those that bring prosperity and health to couples and families (Kirao).

Cultural diversity is also manifest in Meru people views on herbal medicines. The differential perceptions are influenced by a variety of factors. These include socio-demographic e.g. ethnicity, religion; psyco-social e.g. knowledge, attitudes and beliefs; and enabling factors e.g. socio-economic status and profession of respondents.

Cosmetic and aromatic plants in health and culture

Although fewer people tend to use plant-based products nowadays due to the already available cosmetic and aromatic products found at modern chemists, there is recently a reorientation towards the use of cosmetic plants. Some parts of Kenya still use wild plants for their cosmetic products, but the Meru people only knows these specific plants from the past. The main reported uses then include traditional perfumes for circumcised girls and women. Among young children, particular roots of cosmetic plants are crushed and the powder mixed with saliva and applied on the body of a child, also to cure colds and coughs. An example of such a plant is the Ndago plant.