Fekadu Fullas RPh, PhD
Rhamnus prinoides, known by the local Amharic name “gesho” and the English common name buckthorn, is widely used in brewing the local alcoholic beverages tella (beer) and tej (mead; honey-wine). A related species Rhamnus staddo (Amh. name tsedo or ‘tedo) is also used to a lesser extent in brewing these beverages, especially with the rootbark being used for seasoning tej. R. staddo is used in traditional medicine to treat tapeworm infestation. Gesho is often confused with hops, which is the common name for the plant Humulus lupus. Hops is used in modern beer industry to impart flavor and intense aroma to beer. It has a bitter taste, which balances the sweetness of malt in beer. According to ethnobotanist James Duke, hops has been used for centuries to treat anxiety, insomnia and restlessness. Its sedative action is thought to be due to the constituent methyl-butenol. In addition to its flavoring properties, gesho is used in folk medicine to treat various ailments. This article gives an overview of “gesho” culled from available literature sources.
R. prinoides belongs to a large genus Rhamnus, which consists of about 150 species, spread over tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions of the world. The derivation of the botanical name Rhamnus prinoides is rather interesting. “Rhamnus” is derived from the Greek plant name “rhammnos”, or from the Celtic word “ram” which means bush or a tuft of branches. The specific epithet “prinoides” was obtained from an old genus name of a different plant “Prinos” which has leathery leaves, so “prinoides” meant “looking like “Prinos.”
R. prinoides is included in the long list of plants collected in Ethiopia by James Bruce in the 18th century. Gesho grows in most parts of Ethiopia at altitudes between 1500 and 2500 m above sea level. It is also widely cultivated. It grows to a height of about 6 meters. It is found in the wild, mostly along streams. It flowers and fruits all year round, with the maximum being around the end of the dry season of February and March. The plant also grows in some East and South African countries. Known by the names kosisityet by the Kiksingis, mshimbamba by the Chagga and ol-kokola (ol-konyel) by the Masai tribes, the roots of the plant are used to treat gonorrhea and to alleviate rheumatism in the legs. According to 1977 report, about 40% gesho cultivation in Ethiopia is practiced by small farmers. It is usually found where coffee grows. The fresh and leafy branches are sold in markets. The leaves and branches are used in the preparation of tella and tej.
The brewing of the popular household drinks tella and tej follows an elaborate set of steps. Gesho is an important ingredient in both brews. Preparing both drinks is considered as an art by Ethiopian women, requiring the right timing and incorporation of gesho and allowing the mixes to ferment over several days.
Many chemical compounds have been isolated from gesho, such as geshoidin, chrysophenol, emodin, musizin and rhamnocitrin, while anthracene derivatives have been obtained from the fruits. Geshoidin is the constituent that imparts bitterness to tella.
In Ethiopia, gesho is used as a laxative, purgative, diuretic (to pull water out of the body), to prevent syphilis and to stimulate bile flow. In children, it is used to manage pain symptoms associated with tonsillitis, or for pain after removing the tonsils. In South Africa, the Zulu use the root to “cleanse” the blood, and the leaves to treat simple strains. The Sotho use it to treat pneumonia.
R. prinoides (gesho) is a useful ingredient for making the Ethiopian local alcoholic beverages tella and tej. It provides a typical flavor and bitterness to these beverages. It is also used in Ethiopia, and elsewhere in Africa for a number of health conditions, but there is no available scientific evidence to support the alleged health benefits.
Jansen PCM. Spices, Condiments and Medicinal Plants in Ethiopia, their Taxonomy and Agricultural Significance. Wageningen: PUDOC: 1981.
Abegaz BM, Kebede T. Novel phenolic metabolites from African marketed plants-Rhamnus prinoides. In: Extended Abstracts of the Sixth NAPRECA Symposium in Natural Products. Kampala, Uganda: Sept 10-15, 1995.
Duke JA. The Green Pharmacy, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press: 1997.
Fullas F. Spice Plants in Ethiopia: Their Culinary and Medicinal Applications. Sioux City, 2003.