Derivation of name and historical aspects: The species name rhinocerotis refers to the association with the rhinoceros (probably the black rhino). According to Smith 1966, the vernacular name is one of the oldest for a Cape plant. Skead in 1980 mentions both Valentyn who wrote in 1726 that it was named renosterbos because they commonly lodge in it, and also Kolbe who writing about the rhinoceros in 1731 stated, ‘he is not fond of feeding on grass, choosing rather shrubs, broom and thistles. But the delight of his tooth is a shrub, the rhinoceros bush’.
Plant parts used: Mainly, the young tips of the branches are used.
Medicinal uses and cultural aspects: Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) reported on the medicinal properties of renosterbos. Infusions of the young branches in alcohol are a traditional Cape remedy, thought to be beneficial in the treatment of stomach complaints including indigestion, dyspepsia, stomach cancer and a lack of appetite. The powdered twigs were used to treat children with diarrhoea. It was also formerly used to treat sheep suffering from krimpsiekte (a disease of cattle caused by poisoning with any of several plant species of the genus Cotyledon, which contain cotyledontoxin; symptoms include abdominal pain and convulsions that can be fatal).
The preparations are also said to induce sweating and the plant has been used in the treatment of influenza and fevers. It was most probably during the 1918 influenza epidemic that this plant gained its popularity within the Afrikaans community. Today, this plant still forms part of folk medicine within the Afrikaans community in the Cape Province.
Leaves are used in wound dressing and warmed leaves are applied topically to alleviate headaches and pains.
Renosterbos tea is an unpleasant medicine as the plant is bitter and strongly astringent as well as being resinous.
Observations: Often ignored, is the knowledge of the indigenous Cape healers, who today are better capable of communicating and passing on their herbal knowledge. According to these sources and previously unpublished, rhinos used to browse on this plant mainly prior to territorial contests. Rhinos are prone to kidney complications when stressed. Observations of animal use of this plant may indicate the plants activity.