Sutherlandia frutescens

Cancer bush


Balloon pea, kankerbos (Afrikaans), phetola (Tswana), insiswa (Zulu), umnwele (Xhosa) and Lessertia frutescens


Derivation of name and historical aspects

The common name ‘cancer bush’ refers to its reputation as a potential treatment for cancer. Although there is no scientific proof of this, cancer bush has been proven to boost the immune system and help the body to fight disease and mental and physical stress. The species name frutescens means ‘bushy’ in Latin.

First records about its use came from Dutch colonists in the Cape, who came to know about it through interaction with the local San, Khoi and Nama – the original inhabitants of the Cape. These communities used decoctions made from Sutherlandia to wash wounds and to bring down fevers.

Plant parts used

The leaves are mainly used for traditional remedies. However, the stems, flowers, pods and the roots can also be used to make infusions and decoctions.

Traditional healers prepare the decoctions according to the type of ailment shown by the patient. Their preparation ranges from using the leaves, flowers, stems and roots for different ailments.

Medicinal Uses / Ethnopharmacological uses

A decoction of cancer bush can be used to wash wounds and the eyes. It can also be used to reduce fevers. Infusions from the leaves and stems are used to treat cancers, fever, diabetes, kidney and liver problems, rheumatism, and stomach ailments.

The plant is also used for a diversity of symptoms and conditions, such as depression and stress. A cancer bush tonic may help to purify the blood and heal wounds. It can also be used to treat skin conditions, inflammation, influenza, hemorrhoids, tuberculosis, urinary tract infections, back pain, gonorrhea and to enhance the appetite.

Sutherlandia should not be seen as a miracle cure for cancer. Even though, in vitro studies indicate anticancer activity, due to canavanine and cycloartane-type triterpenoids, with proven cancer chemopreventive activity. Extracts have antidiabetic effects, explained partly by pinitol.

Its real benefits are as a tonic that will assist the body to cope with the illness. It is also known to decrease anxiety and irritability and to elevate the mood.

Health benefits

Cancer bush has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiseptic properties. It may boost the immune system.


Cancer bush is native to the dry parts of Southern Africa. It is a fairly widespread and drought-resistant plant that grows in the Western, Eastern, and Northern Cape provinces, as well as some areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. In the Western Cape, it is also found up the west coast as far north as Namibia and into Botswana.

Specifically, Sutherlandia is found in the Fynbos Biome – home to the largest variety of plant species. It is mostly harvested in the wild, but it is also grown in community gardens and on commercial small-scale farms.


Cancer bush is fairly common in its native regions. Sunbirds pollinate the attractive butterfly-like red flowers. The lightweight, papery, inflated pods enable the seed to be dispersed easily by wind. Cattle and goats browse the foliage.


This plant is not threatened so there is no current need for conservation programmes.

Botanical Description

Cancer bush is a medium-sized shrub with fine, aromatic grey-green leaves and red butterfly-shaped flowers. It grows up to 1.5 metres tall and can spread out to 1.5 metres wide. Its seed pods are large, papery and balloon-like; sometimes transparent or with a green or red tint. The plant has an incredibly bitter taste.

S. frutescens is a fast-growing, hardy shrub that requires little water and is tolerant of most soil types. However, it does not live for many years. It is easy to grow from seed and enjoys well-drained soil in full sunlight. It is quite susceptible to frost and does not grow well in cold climates. Cancer bush is known to restore nitrogen in the soil.

Preparation and Dosage

Traditional healers collect fresh plant materials, dry them and stamp or mash them into powder between two stones The tea-like preparation is then usually infused in hot water, left to cool, and given to the sick person.

A scientific study recommends a daily dose of cancer bush leaf powder to be 9 mg per kg of body weight. Currently, S. frutescens is available in various dosage forms, such as capsules and tablets that contain raw plant material in powdered form. It can also be found in gels for topical applications, creams, liquid extracts and ointments. Commercial cancer bush tablets can be used for the treatment of muscle-wasting effects in patients with HIV/AIDS and cancer, due to its appetite-restoring properties.

Active Ingredients

L-canavanine, triterpenoids, saponins, flavonoids, γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and pinitol

Pharmacological Effects

The therapeutic properties of cancer bush are based on its ability to help the human body to mobilize its own resources to combat diseases and fight mental and emotional stress. In vitro and in vivo studies carried out on the leaf and whole plant extracts have provided evidence of its antiproliferative, antiviral, antistress, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic, antibacterial, antioxidant, and antithrombotic properties, which have validated the traditional claims.


According to the Red List of South African Plants, S. frutescens is assessed as Least Concern.


This plant is not threatened.

Medicinal Plants of Southern Africa by Ben-Erik van Wyk, Bosch van Oudtshoorn, Nigel Gericke. Second edition 2017. Briza Publications


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