What are medicinal plants?
Those plants that have healing properties are termed as medicinal plants or herbs. The plant kingdom is divided into several groups, but the botanical classification is beyond the scope of this section. However, medicinal plants can be simply classified as trees, shrubs, woody perennials, annuals and biennials, and climbers. In this page, only the flowering plants are mentioned, with little or no references to fungi, ferns, mosses and algae.
Medical herbalism is the practice of healing with medicinal plants. Modern western treatment is different from medical herbalism, but at some point these two merge. For example, the use of friar's balsam or benzoin tincture for treating colds, the use of aloe vera gel for treating sunburn and bruises and the use of cascara or senna to relieve constipation. The tendency in modern medicine is to use synthetic drugs, that eventually were modelled on compounds obtained mainly from plants. Therefore, whether the plants are used as a whole, or extracts or their synthetics, their discovery originated from the long term practice of medical herbalism by Man.
History of Herbalism
Since the dawn of civilisation, Man utilised plants for their medicinal and edible value. By trial and error, Man distinguished between the beneficial and poisonous plants. Man also observed that in large quantities medicinal and edible plants may be poisonous, and learned about the usefulness of plants by observing animals. Sick animals utilise certain plants that they usually ignore. Today, this method is used by scientists to isolate active compounds from medicinal plants.
Herbalism is thought to have started some 60,000 years ago, where pollen grains of several medicinal plants such as marshmallow (Althaea), yarrow (Achillea), ephedra and muscari were documented at burial sites at Shanidar in Iraq. This confirms the use of medicinal plants by the Neanderthal Man.
The earliest written historical information dates back to 2500 B.C. when Sumarian ideograms described the use of medicinal plants such as the poppy as the "the plant of joy" 1728 to 1686 B.C. in the Code of Hammurabi, the King of Babylon. Plants mentioned include mint, henbane, senna and licorice. It is impossible to determine at what point in time mankind first discovered the medicinal use of specific plants.
With time, more documents were written or drawn and by the sixteenth century B.C. the earliest written records of practices were produced by the Egyptians, who were greatly esteemed in the ancient Mediterranean world. Medicinal plants such as fennel, castor oil, opium, thyme, linseed, aloe and myrrh, were mentioned. Some of the early uses of medicinal plants are still valid today. The first documented healer by name was Imhotep. He was so famous that after his death his stature was elevated to that of a god.
During the Greek Era, knowledge on the use of medicinal plants expanded in such a way that conquered adopted skills and knowledge of various cultures to their own. Also, there was an exchange of information between professionals especially between the three great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and India. In fact, the uses of several medicinal plants is common in the Mesopotamian, Indian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman documents. Some plants include:
Castor oil that was used as a powerful laxative, one teaspoon to two tablespoons taken in the evening.
Fennel seeds that were used for their carminative, stomachic and other digestive problems, taken steeped with water, or as two drops of seed oil.
Saffron was used as a carminative or to increase the blood flow.
By 400 years B.C., Hippocrates, the father of medicine, tried to weed out the superstitions bound to health and the use of medicinal herbs. As a result, the Hippocratic writings that are anonymous, deal with several medical subjects, taken from a more logical point of view. He also tackled medicinal plants in a more scientific way than ever before.
The Romans were famous for their organised administration. They were attentive to learn and put into practice what they learned. The two most important medical figures of Rome whose contributions remained the uncontested "standard" for botany and medicine were Dioscorides and Galen. By around 50 A.D., Dioscorides described plants in a methodic way including their name, synomyms and picture, habitats, botanical description, drug actions, medicinal uses, harmful side effects, quantity and dosage, instructions on the collection, preparation and storage, adulterants and mode of detection and their veterinary uses. He classified plants on their medicinal action. He compiled works of previous herbalists and botanists in his herbal "De Materia Medica".
Around 130 A.D., Galen traveled with the Roman army, like Dioscorides, and gathered information on several medicinal plants. He was the last and most important physician after Hippocrates.
The Greek and Roman works were translated to the Syrian and Persian languages and the Arabs reintroduced these works in Europe, when they invaded Spain. The Arabs also introduced Chinese and Ayurveda works.
Many plants with medicinal virtues are termed officinalis. The Latin name denotes that the plant is medicinally useful. This term dates back to the early Christian period, when monasteries were utilised as centres for the gathering and writing of information and usage of medicinal herbs.
After the first millenium after Christ, several botanists and herbalists wrote on the usage of medicinal plants. Authors include Hildegarde, Albertus Magnus, Valerius Cordus, Theophrastus, Pier Andrea Mattioli, William Turner Carolus Clusius, Nicholas Culpeper and Friedrich Hoffmann extending from 1098 to 1791. Later the isolation of chemical substances from plants was commenced by Caventou and Pelletier who isolated alkaloids such as caffeine, while Geiger and Hess isolated atropine and other alkaloids dating up to 1850. Later scientists from the mid-nineteenth century to date, isolated most of the chemical constituents that we know of. Some of them are still in use in their natural form, while others are produced more efficiently by chemical synthesis, in industry.
The origins of modern medicine are mainly attributed to the knowledge and long usage of medicinal plants by Man. In this section, we shall look at the importance of traditional medical herbalism in the Maltese Islands and the worldwide development of traditional remedies into modern pharmaceutical products. Therefore, we shall look at three aspects; tradition, research and industry.
Few studies have been carried out on the traditional use of medicinal plants by the Maltese. The three main medical problems related to the Maltese are diabetes, hypertension and heart problems. The Maltese were always keen in trying to cure these three conditions. Cichory and fenugreek for controlling diabetes; snapdragon, onion and garlic for hypertension, while squill and oleander for heart problems. Despite this, a large number of medicinal plants have been used for the treatment of stomach and intestinal problems, considering the fact that most believed that most health problems were related to the gastrointestinal system. The uses of medicinal plants in folk and modern medicine shall be considered individually for the plants in the following sections.
Medicinal plants used to be either administered crudely or processed. The processing of medicinal plants is a science in itself. We shall look at some examples. The most common forms of processed medicinal plants include infusions, macerations, extracts, decoctions, tinctures, herbal oils and poultices.
Infusions are prepared by steeping medicinal plants in hot water for about 5 to 15 minutes, in a closed container. This is usually used for herbal teas. Examples of infusions are chamomile and peppermint teas, both used for their stomachic and antiseptic properties. This is effective for the administration of active ingredients present in essential oils that would otherwise be destroyed by boiling. 1 part of plant material is usually mixed with 30 parts of hot water. These are usually taken internally.
Macerations are prepared by steeping the plant in water, alcohol, or white wine at room temperature. The plant is usually left there for about 2 to 12 hours. This is used for fenugreek and marshmallow. 1 part of plant material is mixed with 20 parts liquid. These are usually administered both internally and externally.
Extracts are similar to macerations but the liquid or solvent is then removed by evaporation. Dry extracts should contain not more than 5 % of solvents. Extracts are prepared for example from blue pimpernel for rheumatic pain and from oats as a nerve tonic. These can be used both internally and externally.
A decoction is prepared by boiling 1 part of plant material in 30 parts of water to extract the constituents. This usually takes 15 to 20 minutes. Examples include the carrot decoction for the treatment of jaundice and liquorice decoction for colic pain. These are usually administered orally.
Tinctures are prepared by steeping 1 part of plant material in 5 parts of 60 % alcohol, usually, for about 3 - 7 days. Tinctures are prepared with chamomile for treating diarrhoea in children and tree of heaven for asthma. These are usually used internally.
Ointments are solid preparations that are fatty in nature. In fact, 1 part of dried plant material is usually simmered in 8 parts of petroleum jelly, for up to 2 hours. Herbal ointments include myrtle for skin erruptions and greater celandine for the treatment of heamorrhoids. These are used externally only.
Herbal oils are usually prepared by steeping the plant material in a fixed oil, such as almond or olive oil. The extraction usually takes several weeks. Examples include garlic for the treatment of sciatica and cotton for the treatment of gouty joints.
In poultices, the medicinal plant herb is prepared as a hot and moist paste that is spread over a towel and applied hot. These include marshmallow poultice for inflammation and squirting cucumber poultice for ear infections. These are usually used externally.
Success in research has been achieved by the application and translation of traditional knowledge to scientific "terms". In fact, compounds derived from traditional remedies are either classified as:
Through research, traditional uses of medicinal plants have been proved or disproved. Scientists have also investigated for the chemical constituents that provoke the effect. For example, the analgesic in the white willow is salicin, while the sedative constituents of opium poppy are mainly morphine and papaverine. In the first case, scientists have produced aspirin as the synthetic derivative of salicin, while in the latter case, morphine is still used as such for the treatment of unbearable pain. Scientific evalutation implies both chemical analysis of the constituent or extract and the pharmacological effects under laboratory conditions and later in human trials.
Once a constituent or extract is proved to be effective against a particular condition, then the commercial production of the constituent is commenced.
Although some of the preparations mentioned have a traditional implication, they are still prepared today by the pharmaceutical industry. The principles of extraction are similar for both industrial and traditional preparations. The difference lies in the standardisation of the medicinal product. Due to strict quality control measures in industry, all pharmaceutical products, whether extracts or pure substances, examination of the final product is essential. The product should have a consistent content of the active compounds, that should fall within certain limits imposed by pharmaceutical authorities.
The Compositae family, also known as the Daisy family, contains the highest number of medicinal plants as compared to other families. Medicinal plants belonging to this family include the chamomile, the field and pot marigolds, daisy, wormwood, chicory, thistles, ragwort and artichoke.
A group of plants with renowned medicinal virtues is the chamomiles. The wild chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla, has yellow flower heads with white petals, that have a pleasant aromatic smell. In the Maltese Islands, it is considered as a weed although stocks of this plant have decreased throughout the years. Due to its medicinal uses, it has been cultivated by the home-grower for personal use. This is abundantly found in the Mediterranean region, and West and Central Asia. It flowers between March and May. Traditionally, it has been used locally as a stomachic, to increase appetite, for nausea, ulcers, as an antispasmodic, antiseptic, laxative and to induce sleep. Externally, it was used to reduce itching and relieve burns, eye inflammation and varicose veins. The plant contains an essential oil that turns slightly blue on distillation. The flowerheads are used in medicine for their anti-inflammatory, sedative, antiseptic, carminative and antispasmodic properties.
The true chamomile, Anthemis nobilis, is similar but the inside of the flowerhead is solid unlike the wild chamomile. This does not grow in the Maltese islands but it has been cultivated for the same medicinal purposes as for the wild chamomile. This is the famous herbal remedy termed Chamomile tea.
Another group of plants are the marigolds, with the Latin name Calendula. The translation for the Latin name is "little clock", which refers to the flowering habit of the plant on the first day of the month. The colour of the central disc of the flower varies in colour, from yellow, to orange to brown. The petals are either yellow or orange. There are several species in this group, but the main differences are basically in the appearance. They grow in the Mediterranean and flower all year round. In folk medicine, the marigolds were used for several ailments, some of which include jaundice, intestinal spasms, colds and flu, chilblains and heart problems. These plants contain several constituents amongst which there are the essential oil, glycosides and saponins and also pigments. They have a wide range of medicinal virtues, mainly anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antispasmodic properties. As a result it has been used in several ointments, toothpastes and tinctures to combat bedsores, varicose veins, gum inflammation and rashes. The pigments are used in the pharmaceutical industry as natural colorants in medicines.
The annual daisy, hence the name Bellis annua, has white petalled flowers with a yellow floral disc. The underside of the petals have a pinkish tinge. As the name, Bellis, implies, this plant is attractive not only to humans but also to pollinating insects such as the bees. It is commonly found in shallow-soiled wastelands around the Maltese Islands. This plant flowers between December and April. An infusion of the daisy was used as a stomachic and for coughs. As for other medicinal Compositae plants, the flowerhead stores the active constituents. In fact, we find an essential oil, tannins, mucilage and a bitter principle. Tannins have astringent properties and so this plant is used in inflammatory conditions of the digestive system and diarrhoea. The mucilage is used as an expectorant in chesty coughs. Externally it is used to treat skin conditions of an infected or inflamed nature.
The wormwood, also known as Artemisia absinthium, is an aromatic and perennial herb with yellow flowers that have no petals, as with most members of the Compositae family. It is found in most of Europe and West Asia. Locally, it flowers between June and September. It was used for digestive ailments ranging from stomach complaints to tapeworm infestation. Otherwise, it was used as an insect repellent, in asthma, swollen and bruised areas and toothache. Unlike other members of the family, the medicinal constituents are found in the flowering stems. These include an essential oil, absinthin (a bitter principle) tannins and organic acids. The herb is mainly used for gastrointestinal conditions such as stomachic, carminative and anthelminthic. It has also antiseptic properties.
Another group of interesting local medicinal herbs is chicory, Cichorium intybus and Cichorium spinosa. These are related species bearing flowers with blue petals. As the name implies, the spinosa species has spiny upper branches while these are absent in the latter. These two species are abundantly found in the Mediterranean region and flower between May and September. Traditionally, chicory has been used for diabetes, to relieve haemorrhoids and as a stomachic, while the spiny chicory has been used to stimulate urination and for the treatment of diabetes. The medicinal constituents are mainly found in the roots, that have a bitter taste and also pungent. The bitter taste is attributed to specific constituents namely lactucin and intybin. They also contain tannins. Chicory species are used as aperitifs, tonics, in cases of high blood glucose levels and cases of constipation. The decoction prepared from chicory is used in liver disease and inflammation of the kidneys and urinary tract.
One of the thistles with medicinal virtues, is the milk thistle, known as Silybum marianum. This plant is distinguished by its large spiny leaves and erect, spiny and violet flower heads. It is found in the Mediterranean and Asian regions but has been introduced elsewhere. It grows in waste lands and roadsides and flowers between April and June. It was believed that this plant increased the flow of milk in nursing mothers but no scientific proof has been found for this. Others used it as a tonic, diuretic and in lowering high temperatures. What has been proven are its effects on the liver and gall bladder. The constituents are mainly stored in the dried fruit and these include bitter principles, an essential oil and flavones. These constituents stimulate the flow of bile and recovery from liver damage caused by toxicants.
The silver ragwort or Senecio bicolor is a typical Mediterranean medicinal plant that flowers between March and July. It is abundantly found on shallow soil wastelands near the sea and cliffs. The plant has greyish-white leaves and yellow flowers. Although it is somewhat poisonous, it has been used with great care in the reducing anxiety and as an antispasmodic.
Finally we have the wild artichoke, Cynara cardunculus, is closely related to the globe artichoke which is its cultivated counterpart. It is readily distinguished from the latter from its spiny appearance. The leaves are segmented into yellow spines and the flowerheads are lilac in colour. It is abundantly found in the Mediterranean region and grows on rocky and waste places. Traditionally, the leaves were used as a tonic, to reduce temperature, rheumatic pain and as a diuretic. In fact, the medicinal constituents of this plant are found in the leaves. These include cynarin, as the bitter principle, mucilage, tannins, vitamin A and organic acids. It is used as a digestive tonic and as an aperitif or liqueur and in the treatment of high blood glucose level.
A very important medicinal plant family is the Labiatae family, also known as the mint family. Plants in this family, are herbs or shrubs often with an aromatic smell. They are common in the Maltese Islands and other Mediterranean countries for the fact that some of them produce a high amount of essential oil that enables them to survive the hot summer season. Some examples from this family include horehound, lavander, balm, micromeria, the mints, thyme and rosemary.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a hairy plant with a strong and disagreeable smell and taste. This plant is attractive to bees although its smell and taste repels farm animals from eating it. It is distributed throughout Europe, including the Mediterranean region. It flowers between April and November, and is found in rocky waste places. It has been used to treat eye and ear conditions, as a sedative and for the treatment of rheumatic pain. Its medicinal constituents are found in the flowering parts. Constituents include the essential oil, tannins and organic acid.
The lavander is a term given to a group of plants that have similar shape and properties. Lavandula officinalis has been cultivated in the Maltese Islands for decorative purposes. For centuries, it has been cultivated for its medicinal properties especially its essential oil. It is a native of the West Mediterranean region, but has naturalised elsewhere. It is a well-known traditional medicinal herb used since the Roman times to perfume their washing water. The plant contains several medicinal constituents mainly the essential oil, and also tannins. The oil is widely used in aromatherapy for its sedative and calming properties. Besides it is used also in the perfumery industry and in medicinals to mask unpleasant odours.
Balm, also known as Melissa officinalis, is a hairy herb with a strong scent of lemon. It is native of Eastern Mediterranean but has naturalised elsewhere around the Mediterranean region. Its Latin name, Melissa, comes from the Greek meaning honeybee. It flowers from May till July, and is found in valleys and shady places. In popular medicine, this plant is known for its use as a sedative, carminative and in the treatment of insomnia. In most cases, the medicinal virtues are attributed to the essential oil, extracted by steam distillation from the leaves. It has been used also as an antispasmodic and stomachic. Besides these, it has culinary and cosmetic uses.
Micromeria (Micromeria microphylla) is a rather dwarf herb that is sometimes overlooked. Despite this is more pronounced during its flowering season that is between January and July. It usually grows in rocky areas especially in cracks. This plant is limited to Malta, Sicily and South Italy and to some Greek Islands. As a result it has not been exploited a lot for its medicinal uses, although it has been used extensively in the treatment of kidney stones, as the Maltese name implies. The plant contains an unscented essential oil, unlike other members of the Labiatae family. The oil has antiseptic properties. In the treatment of kidney stones, it has been used in the form of a decoction.
The mints constitute a large group of plants that have similar characteristics with pink to lilac flowers. Different species grow in different habitats from marshy to shady and waste places. Their scent varies from pungent to sweet. These properties are owned by the distinct mint species.
The pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) grows in wastelands and flowers between May and August. It contains a greenish-yellow oil that has insect-repelling properties. In fact, in Maltese folk medicines, the plant used to be hung or placed on windowsills in order to repel the incoming mosquitoes. The herb has been used in wardrobes to repel insects. The active constituent in the essential oil of the plant is pulegone, a strong insect repellent. This constituent has also abortifacient properties, but death from ingestion of large quantities of oil have also been reported.
Another important mint is water mint (Mentha aquatica) that is found in marshy places and grows in throughout Europe and Africa. It flowers between June and November. It is worth noting that other mint species, such as the peppermint (Mentha piperita), is derived from the water mint, featuring as one of its parents. The flowering stems and leaves yield an essential oil that is devoid of menthol, an important ingredient in several cold preparations. It contains also tannins and bitter compounds. The main activities of the water mint are directed towards the digestive system; mainly as antispasmodic, antidiarrhoeal, carminative and to treat digestive and gall bladder disorders. However, large doses of this plant may lead to vomiting.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is a hairy herb, with an unknown origin. In Malta, it is cultivated as a pot herb, as is the case with several countries for centuries. It contains an essential oil sometimes causes allergies in spearmint preparations. Medicinally, it is used for the treatment of haemorrhoids and for rheumatism. The oil has antimicrobial and insecticidal properties. Besides it has culinary uses, and is used as an aroma and flavour in several pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical preparations. Peppermint is a hybrid between water mint and spearmint. Like spearmint it has pharmaceutical and culinary uses, but it is neither grows in the wild nor cultivated in the Maltese Islands.
As the name implies the Mediterranean thyme (Thymus capitatus) is native of the Mediterranean region. In Malta, it is found in rocky arid places and flowers between May and August. This plant has been very popular with the Maltese, as this has been used in cribs at Christmas, as it looks like a miniature tree. Consequently, the wild stocks of this plant have decreased throughout the decades, leading to a legal ban on the cutting of these plants for such purposes. It is used as a medicinal and culinary herb owning to its strong agreeable odour, mainly attributed to its essential oil. Other constituents include tannins, bitter compounds, saponins and organic acids. Thyme has several medicinal properties that include its antiseptic properties, expectorant, antispasmodic and anthelminthic properties.
Finally we can find rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), an evergreen shrub with slender leaves and bluish flowers. It is in bloom all the year round and is found in arid rocky places. It is native to the Mediterranean region, and grows close to the sea, as the name ros marinus implies. It is widely cultivated for medicinal, perfumery, culinary and ornamental purposes. Medicinal constituents include the strong aromatic essential oil, tannins, saponins and organic acids. The oil is obtained by steam distillation. In aromatherapy, the oil is used for its soothing effects. The plant has sedative, diuretic, tonic, antispasmodic and antiseptic properties.
The Umbelliferae or carrot family consists of plants with a characteristic umbrella-arranged fruit. These plants usually produce an essential oil, an asset to survive during the hot summer days. In fact the oil has a cooling effect on the plant. Some examples from this family include bullwort (Ammi majus), wild celery (Apium graveolens), wild carrot (Daucus carota), sea holly (Eryngium maritima), fennel (Foeniculum vulgaris), anise (Pimpinella anisum), wild parsley (Petroselinium crispum), hemlock (Conium maculatum) and alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum).
The bullwort (Ammi majus) is a medicinal plant typical of the Mediterranean region, Europe and Western Asia. In the Maltese Islands, this plant is found in waste and rocky places. The plant blooms between May and October. The seeds contain the active constituents as these have diuretic, tonic, carminative, stomachic and anti-asthmatic properties. It is an important herb used in the treatment of angina. The constituent that has been found to cause sensitization in the presence of sunrays, xanthotoxin, has anticancer properties.
Wild celery (Apium graveolens) is another umbelliferous plant. This plant is found everywhere around the world, either in the wild or cultivated for culinary purposes. In the wild, it is found alongside water courses and flowers between April and September. The main medicinal constituents of celery are the essential oil, fatty acids and flavonoids. In Maltese herbal medicine, it was used as an antirheumatic, diuretic and urinary antiseptic. Scientific evidence of the effects of celery extracts, proved it to be an effective sedative and antispasmodic, to reduce blood clotting and as an antihypertensive. Some of the properties are attributed to a group of compounds called phthalides. Besides, the plant has also culinary uses. It is used as a natural source of food flavouring. The stem is usually used in foods.
The wild carrot (Daucus carota) is very similar to the cultivated one. In fact, they are considered as subspecies. The taproot of wild carrot is white while that of cultivated type is orange-red or yellow. It is found throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa but has naturalised in most areas of the world. In Malta it is found in cultivated, rocky places and wastelands. It has a very short flowering period, between May and June. The medicinal constituents are found in the taproot. In most cases, this plant part is either grated or the juice is strained off. It contains several vitamins, particularly vitamins A, B complex and C, an alkaloid and several sugars. It has been proven that it improves eye-sight, effective as an anthelminthic, diuretic and stomachic. The introduction of carrot in diets, is said to alleviate pain in cancer patients.
The sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) as the name implies resides close to the sea. In fact, it is found on most sea shores of the European continent, including the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It prefers sandy sea shores, locally. The roots were used locally to induce urination and to remove kidney stones. The flowering period is between June and October. This is very different from the other umbelliferous plants, as it has spiny leaves and unusual clusters of tiny flowers. An aqueous extract of the roots has antispasmodic properties. The plant has several medicinal virtues such as a tissue regenerator and in the treatment of cough and inflammation of the urinary tract. Its leaves, shoots and roots are used in dishes, as the plant contains several amino acids, carbohydrates and fibre.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a very popular herb in the Maltese Islands and represents the typical umbelliferous plant. It is native to the Mediterranean region and West Asia, but has naturalised northwards. The plant grows especially on arid rocky ground and along field borders and flowers between May and October. It is widely used in the pharmaceutical and food industries. The chief constituents present in the plant's fruit are the essential oil, proteins, a fixed oil, sugars and mucilage. The medicinal properties of fennel are attributed to these constituents. In fact, it has positive effects on the digestive system, it is used as a diuretic and to stimulate milk flow in nursing mothers. Moreso, the oil has been used in traditional medicine to treat eye and throat infections and in carminative preparations.
Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is another plant that has been cultivated for centuries, as early as the Ancient Egyptians. The plant is native to the Eastern Mediterranean but has been cultivated and naturalised elsewhere. In fact, in Malta, this plant was cultivated for its aromatic fruit. The fruit bear several constituents such as the essential oil, flavonoids, coumarins, a fixed oil, proteins and sugars. Despite the presence of several constituents, the medicinal properties are mainly attributed to the essential oil. It has antiseptic, expectorant, carminative and diuretic properties. It has been used in paediatric and adult preparations. The plant is also used in the food and perfumery industries.
Like most other edible and medicinal herbs, several cultivated varieties have emerged from the wild parsley. The wild type is native to the Mediterranean region. The plant prefers humid places and usually resides long streams and rocky places. In fact, the Greek meaning of parsley or Petroselinum is rock celery. It contains a high amount of essential oil, to which the main medicinal properties are attributed. It has strong diuretic, carminative and stomachic properties. The oil, in strong doses, can be toxic.
One of the most poisonous herbs is the spotted hemlock or Conium maculatum. This is very similar to the other umbelliferous plants but the stem of this plant is spotted as the Latin term maculatum implies. The plant has a disagreeable smell usually resembling the smell of mice. It is distributed throughout Europe, except for the extreme north. The plant resides in damp places and along water courses, and blooms between April and June. Unlike other umbelliferous plants, the essential oil is not much regarded. The medicinal and toxic properties of the plant are attributed to an alkaloid, coniine. It was reknowned since Greek times as a death sentence. Infact, the great philosopher Socrates was put to death after drinking hemlock juice. The pure alkaloid is used in fair doses to alleviate severe pain.
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is a common medicinal plant in the Mediterranean region, although it has naturalised northwards towards the Great Britain. It usually flowers from February till April, after which typical black fruit set. It is found in shaded places in fields, under rubble walls and carob trees. The flower buds and seeds are usually used in dishes, while all parts of the plant are used as an appetite stimulant, mild diuretic, as a source of vitamin C and as an antispasmodic.
The Leguminosae or pea family consists of large number of plants, both native and naturalised, that have been cultivated for fodder, food and ornamental purposes. Amongst these plants, those with medicinal virtues include the carob tree (Ceratonia siliquia), the pea (Pisum sativum), white and red clovers (Trifolium repens and pratense), false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia), Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum).
The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) is typical of Maltese fields. In many fields one could find a carob tree which presumably had several functions. First of all, it served as a shelter to the farmer especially in the hot summer days and the fruit was used as a fodder crop. It is a native of the Mediterranean region, but has been cultivated extensively. It flowers between October and November, after which brown elongated and flat fruit set. The pulp of the fruit is rich in proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins. It has wide culinary uses such as a sweat meat and an alternative to chocolate flavouring. It is also ground to produce a diabetic flour and the beans ground to produce "coffee". The gum of the carob tree has antidiarrhoeal properties. The even-sized seeds were the original "carats" used by jewelers.
The wild pea (Pisum sativum) is a native to Southern Europe, but it has been cultivated elsewhere for fodder and for its edible seeds since prehistoric times. The plant flowers from March till May and is found everywhere as it escapes cultivation. Nowadays, one can find several cultivated varieties of this plant. Traditionally, it has been used to treat skin problems such as acne and wrinkles. The pea contains terpenoids and trigonelline (a nitrogenous compound) that have anticancer properties, and flavonoids with antimicrobial activities.
A group of closely related species in the Leguminosea family are the clovers. Two important species are the white and red clovers (Trifolium repens and T. pratense). White clover grows extensively in the Maltese Islands, especially on field boundaries and wastelands. This is found mainly in the Mediterranean region, West Asia, South Africa and Westwards to America. It flowers between March and May and is an important source for honey bees. The leaves produce a glycoside that makes the plant toxic when eaten in large quantities. The flowerheads contain mucilage, tannins, sugars and organic acids. These constitute the medicinal properties of the white clover, such as astringent, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. A tea is also produced from the fresh flowers. Red clover is native to Europe, but is widely cultivated elsewhere as a fodder or ploughed in to enrich the soil. The plant flowers in April and May. The chemical constituents of red clover are similar to the white type but there are also phenolic glycosides. As a result the plant has astringent, antispasmodic and expectorant properties. It is also used for digestive and respiratory problems. Externally, red clover is used for skin problems, such as burns, rashes, ulcers and sores. Another important aspect, is its use in salads and soups.
False acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a deciduous ornamental tree with white fragrant flowers that are in bloom between March and May. It is a native of North America but has been introduced in Europe in the 17th Century and has naturalised elsewhere. In fact, in Malta it is found in public gardens. The name Robinia implies the name of the French botanist who obtained seeds from America and grew the plant in the Jardin de Plantes in Paris. The dried flowers have mild laxative properties. In fact, these contain glycosides that have also antispasmodic properties on the muscles and nerves. The bark contains toxic albumins that induce vomiting and have a laxative effect. This plant should never be consumed for culinary or medicinal purposes as it is extremely toxic.
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is similar to the trifoliated clovers, but the flowers are violet blue. It is distributed in Europe, America and South West Asia. It is extensively cultivated elsewhere, where it naturalises readily. It is used as animal fodder especially for horses and cows, but it is also used as an appetite stimulant for convalescent patients, as it contains several vitamins, particularly vitamin A, B complex, E and K. It also increases weight. Another constituent in alfalfa is gamma linoleic acid, a compound that is beneficial in the treatment of some types of cancer.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) another Leguminosae plant, is native to the Mediterranean region. In Malta, this plant is found in fields and gardens and blooms in April and May. As the name implies foenum-graecum means Greek hay. The plant has an aromatic smell but the seeds contain the active principles. They contain proteins and mucilage, a fixed oil, saponins and alkaloids. The seeds have several medicinal properties including tonic, stomachic, carminative and hypoglycaemic effects. In fact, the plant has been used locally, to treat diabetes. The seeds were used as a tonic herbal tea, to stimulate digestion and ease coughing. Externally, the seeds are used to treat infections and inflammations. It is used as a coffee substitute and a spice especially in the Middle East and India.
In this section we have looked at plants that have both agricultural and medicinal virtues. Some of these plants have been used since early civilisation indicating how Man recognised the edible and medicinal properties of particular plants.
A large of species in Rosaceae or rose family, have a medicinal value. Most of these are trees or shrubs with variable characteristics. This family is popular for its edible and juice fruit shrubs and trees. Some examples of this family include bramble (Rubus ulmifolius), rose (Rosa gallica), wood strawberry (Fragaria moschata), quince (Cydonia oblongata), round pear (Pyrus amydaliformis), loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), peach, almond and apricot (Prunus persica, amygdalus and armeniaca).
Bramble (Rubus ulmifolius) is a thorny shrub with pale pink flowers and with a variety of reddish and blackish fruit, depending on the stage of development of the fruit. It is a native of the Mediterranean, Central Europe and West Asia, but now it has naturalised in many countries. In Malta, it is found in valleys and sheltered places. The shrub flowers between April and October after which fruit set in. The main traditional uses of this plant are in the treatment of diabetes and diarrhoea and to control bleeding. The active constituents reside in the leaves. These include tannins, organic acids, sugars and vitamin C. Medicinally, they have astringent, antiseptic, diuretic and tonic properties, hence making this plant suitable for colds, throat infections and skin problems. The fruit contain high quantities of vitamin C, organic acids, sugars and pectins. The fruit are processed to prepare jams, wine and syrup.
The wild rose (Rosa gallica) and related roses are thorny shrubs with flowers that vary in colour according to the species or variety. The wild rose has deep pink flowers are in bloom between April and June, and bright red fruit. It is mainly distributed in the Mediterranean, Central Europe and West Asia. Locally, the shrub is found in valleys. In Maltese folk medicine, it has been used as an astringent, gargle, on inflamed eyes and on withlows. This rose has been used medicinally for centuries. It is also known as the Apothecary's Rose. This is the official rose used in rose-water, that revives tired eyes and skin. The tea produced from the leaves has laxative properties and is sometimes applied to wounds. An essential oil is also produced from the rose, but this is mainly produced from other types.
Another Rosaceae herb is the wood strawberry (Fragaria moschata) that grows mainly in Central Europe but has naturalised where cultivated. In Malta, this herb has naturalised especially on irrigated soils. It flowers between March and August. It produces the most aromatic fruit of all the strawberry species. The leaves have astringent properties hence used, traditionally, in cases of haemorrhoids, diarrhoea, gum disease and a diuretic. The leaves contain waxes, terpenoids and flavonoids that are responsible for the insecticidal, vermicidal and usefulness in the treatment of haemorrhoids. It also contains a phenolic acid (ellagic acid) that has anti-cancer and anti-oxidant activities and inhibits the AIDS virus.
Quince (Cydonia oblongata) resembles the apple, but the fruit are paler and larger. The seeds of this are poisonous. It is native to Central Asia but has been cultivated and naturalised elsewhere. It is eventually found in valleys and old gardens, locally. It usually flowers between March and May. In ancient times, it was well reknowned for its fruit and was used extensively for medicinal purposes. In fact locally, the fruit was used in the treatment of diarrhoea or dysentry, while its mucilaginous juice was used in the treatment of skin burns and chapped lips. The fruit are nutritious containing vitamin C and sugars, but the pulp also contains an essential oil, pectins, tannins and organic acids. An extract of the dried fruit is widely used in the treatment of digestive problems, in herbalism. Due to the presence of mucilage, tannins, and fatty acids, the seeds have expectorant, astringent and emollient properties. The whole seeds are used for internal problems while the crushed seeds are used externally. The seeds should be removed before the fruit are used in culinary recipes. This is because, these contain a glycoside that leads to poisoning.
The round pear (Pyrus amydaliformis/Pyrus communis var. amydaliformis) is a small tree that sometimes has spiny branches. It is a native of the Mediterranean region and in Malta it is found in rocky valleys. Its flowering season is between February and April. The fruit juice contains high amounts of fructose and sorbitol, which contribute to the laxative properties of the plant. If large quantities of the fruit are eaten, toxicity may result due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides. From the bark, one could extract a constituent, phloretin, which has antibacterial properties.
Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is a native of Central China but has naturalised in the Mediterranean region and is extensively cultivated for its fruit. Despite this, there isn't a local market for it. It flowers between October and December. The leaves and fruit have astringent properties, hence used in folk medicine, in the treatment of diarrhoea and throat infections. It contains terpenoids that have strong anti-inflammatory effects.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a typical Rosaceae shrub with spiny stems, white flowers and red berries. It is distributed throughout Europe, the Mediterranean region and West Asia. Locally it is very frequent and found at valley bottoms. It blooms between March and May and the fruiting persists almost throughout the summer. The whole shrub is used medicinally. The fruits contain several vitamins, including C and the B complex, tannins, glycosides, flavonoids and terpenoids. The aerial parts have strong effects on the heart and blood vessel system. In fact, extracts were proved scientifically to reduce the blood pressure and to reduce the load on a troubled heart. Hawthorn should be consumed under medical supervision only.
The Prunus genus includes several stone fruits such as the peach, almond, apricot, plum and blackthorn. Most of these are cultivated for their fruit, as all have a local market. However, most have naturalised in valleys and gardens.
The peach (Prunus persica) is extensively cultivated in the Maltese Islands. It flowers between March and April, hence yielding fruit in the summer season. Traditionally, the leaves have been used as a laxative in children, and the leaves as a sedative and laxative. The peach contains several vitamins and minerals particularly vitamin A, B complex and iron.
The almond (Prunus amygdalus) is another stone fruit that is commonly found bordering fields in the Maltese Islands. It flowers mainly between December and February. Like some other Rosaceae members, the seeds of bitter almonds are poisonous due to the same glycoside found in other species. Bitter almonds produces up to 50 % fixed oil, known as almond oil. In the pharmaceutical field, the almond oil is used to prepare mediations in the form of emulsions. Traditionally, the oil is used on burns and in cases of cradle cap in babies and ear wax. The oil is also used in the food, liqueur and cosmetic industries.
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is a native of the Mediterranean and Central European regions. It flowers between February and April, and produces bluish-black fruit. Stones of blackthorn have been found at Neolithic temple sites, indicating the use of this shrub since early civilisation. The medicinal constituents are found in the flowers and fruit. The flowers have diuretic and laxative properties, that are attributed to the flavonoids, sugars and tannins present. The fruits contain tannins, organic acids, sugars and vitamin C. These are used in urinary and digestive disorders due to their astringent properties.
The Rutaceae or rue family is a small family that consists of cultivated fruit trees and medicinal herbs. Plants in this family include the wall and garden rues (Ruta chalepensis and graveolens), orange (Citrus aurantium), lemon (Citrus limon), tangerine (Citrus paradisi) and grapefruit (Citrus paradisi).
The rues are two related species that have different medicinal uses. Both species are native to the Mediterranean region. They thrive on arid places that are usually rocky, and are in bloom between March and April. In Maltese folk medicine, the rues were used for the treatment of rheumatic pain and arthritis, that are two characteristic diseases of the Maltese. The fresh aerial parts were immersed in cooking oil and heated gently for about 20 minutes. The mixture was placed in an air-tight container and then the oil applied on the aching areas. This was used twice daily. The garden rue has been used internally as a sedative, antispasmodic, stomachic and anthelminthic. Caution should be practised when these are used internally as they are toxic in high doses. A volatile oil obtained from the rues has abortifacient properties. Today, an alkaloid called rutin is extracted in high quantities from these rues on an industrial scale.
A citrus tree with great medicinal value is the bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium). The orange-flavoured water and Neroli oil is prepared from the fresh flowers of the bitter orange tree. It was used as a stomachic and sedative. It was also used in cases of vitamin C deficiency (scurvy). The bitter orange water has been used for culinary purposes, especially in confectionary items. The oil has important uses in aromatherapy and the perfumery industry. Although other citrus species have similar uses, the long-term use of the orange-flavoured water and Neroli oil have made the orange tree an important medicinal plant.
A family with several poisonous, but medicinally-important herbs is the Solanaceae or potato family. A species in this family that is widely cultivated and is a cash-crop for the Maltese farmer is the potato (Solanum tuberosum). Other cultivated edible crops are the tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum) and the aubergine (Solanum melongena). The potato is only edible when ripe, as green potatoes were found to be poisonous. Also although these three crops come from this poisonous family, through cultivation and experimentation, the genetic material that codes for the toxic compounds has been phased out, resulting in safer and non-toxic cultivars. Mediterranean natives in this family include the white henbane (Hyoscyamus albus), the Mediterranean withania (Withania somnifera) and garden thorn apple (Datura metel). Other important species include glaucous tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) and black nightshade (Solanum nigrum).
The white henbane (Hyoscyamus albus) is a native of the Mediterranean region that locally grows in arid waste places. Its yellow flowers, with white or purple anthers, bloom all the year round. The most important constituents with medicinal virtues are the alkaloids. These are obtained through a long process of extraction, although they can be recovered easily by preparing a crude extract. Although, these alkaloids are toxic, they have various pharmacological properties, so much so that some of them are included in modern medicine. These reduce the spasms in the intestine and in muscles and are effective against motion sickness. An overdose with these alkaloids may lead to death. An essential oil from the plant has antirheumatic properties.
The Mediterranean withania (Withania somnifera) is a shrub with yellow-green flowers that bloom between May and September. Although, it is native to the Mediterranean, it has been cultivated and naturalised in Maltese gardens. It has been used extensively in the treatment of inflammation and rheumatism, wounds and stomach conditions. This plant contains phytosterols, termed withanolides that have anti-cancer properties.
The garden thorn apple (Datura metel) has an unknown origin but it has been growing in the Mediterranean region for quite a long time. It has characteristic white, yellow or purple flowers, that appear between May and December. In folk medicine it has been used as a sedative, antispasmodic, insomnia and asthma. It is another poisonous plant that produces toxic alkaloids, too. In spite of this, the alkaloids are the constituents that give the plant, its medicinal virtues. Scientifically, it has been proved to be effective in asthma as it decreases the glandular secretions and dilates the airways. It has also prevents intestinal spasms and motion sickness.
Although glaucous tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) is a native of South America it has been cultivated and widely naturalised in the Mediterranean region. It has tubulular yellow flowers that appear between April and October. This is similar to the tobacco plant. It has a different group of alkaloids that the other plants mentioned. One of the most important alkaloids is nicotine. In fact the plant is liable to produce lung disease rather than curing it. Nicotine increases the blood pressure and pulse rate and decreases apetite. It contains also flavonoids with anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
The black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is a poisonous plant with very attractive black berries, that have caused unintentional poisoning especially amongst children. Locally, it is found in waste places and road margins and flowers all the year round. Although poisonous, the Maltese used it in the treatment of haemorrhoids and wounds. The toxic alkaloid is solanine that induces coma at very low doses. Other alkaloids, like solanidine and solasodine although toxic have been used to reduce pain and today the industry is using them for the production of steroids for contraception and as anti-inflammatory agents.
The Cruciferae or cress family is characterised by plant that have flowers with cross-like petals. This family groups a large group of medicinal plants that include Wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri), Bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta), Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), Black mustard (Brassica nigra), Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale), White mustard (Sinapis alba), Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), Watercress (Nasturtium officinale).
Wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri) is a perrenial herb that has yellow flowers that are in bloom between February and April. It is especially found on rocky places. It is native of Eastern Mediterranean, but has been cultivated and naturalised in other Mediterranean countries. It is a strong stimulant and hence used with great care. It produces small amounts of mustard oil that is released from the plant as a result of damage.
Bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta) is a herb that is found throughout Europe. It is usually found in shaded valleys and cultivated places throughout the island. Its white flowers are in bloom between January and April. Its leaves have a culinary use due to their hot and peppery taste. Medicinally, it was used for the treatment of vitamin C deficiency and skin problems and as a diuretic.
Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is widely distributed throughout the world. In Malta, it is found in cultivated and waste places. The flowers of this plant are white and appear between November and June. It has been used for the treatment of several ailments including urinary antiseptic properties, for the treatment of diarrhoea, treatment of varicose veins and bleeding. The plant has antihypertensive properties.
Although the Brassica group of plants are important crops in the Maltese Islands, some of them have a medicinal value, such as the black mustard (Brassica nigra). Other vegetable crops include cabbages and cauliflower. The black mustard is found in most of Europe especially the South and the Mediterranean region. It is found on cultivated ground and has yellow flowers that bloom in March and April. It has dark-brown to black seeds that are strongly flavoured and pungent, especially on crushing. The pungent characteristic is attributed to the breakdown products of certain mustard constituents by enzymes present in the seeds themselves. They have been used of the treatment of bronchitis, chilblains and rheumatism. Mustard preparations may be irritating to the skin.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is a herb native to South-East Europe that has bunches of small, white flowers appearing between May and August. Unlike other plants in the mustard family, the roots are used for medicinal and culinary purposes. Traditionally, the roots were used as a laxative, metabolic stimulant and antiseptic. The roots contain mustard glycosides present in an essential oil, and vitamin C, mainly. In fact, these medicinal properties of the mustard glycosides, like antiseptic to the lungs and urinary tract. Other properties include the stimulation of digestion, rheumatism and promotion of the circulation. Large doses may irritate the skin or stomach, depending on the application of the horseradish.
Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) is commonly found in cultivated places and along field borders, and is native to Europe. It produces mustard-yellow flowers usually blooming between February and May. The medicinal properties of this plant are directed towards the respiratory system. It has been combined with watercress and horseradish in the treatment of throat infections, hoarseness and lung problems. On its own or in combination with other mustard-like plants, it expels catarrh and hence being a suitable remedy in coughs and asthma.
White mustard (Sinapis alba) is very similar to the black mustard, with minor differences taking place in their flowers. It is a native of the Mediterranean region and is found locally in waste places. This is a very important plant for its oil, as a fodder and for mustard production. It flowers between February and April. The active constituents are found in the ripe seeds of the plant. They contain a fixed oil, mucilage and a constituent known as sinalbin that yields mustard oil with the action of some enzymes in the seeds themselves. Whole seeds are laxative and antiseptic while ground seeds are effective in the treatment of rheumatic pain.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a semiaquatic herb that is native to Western and Central Europe. It is found in flowing water and has white flowers that bloom between January and June. The flowering stem collected before flowering contains the active constituents. In fact, it contains a compound that decomposes to yield a pungent oil and several vitamins and minerals. As a result, it has stomachic, diuretic, appetizing and irritant effects. It is used in digestive and respiratory disorders. Watercress has also culinary uses.
Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) is found throughout Europe and locally it inhabits in fields and waste places. The flowers have a variable colour ranging from white to yellow, lilac and violet. They are in bloom between December and May. The seeds are somewhat poisonous, leading to effects on the digestive system. It contains several minerals, amino acids, carbohydrates and a constituent raphanin that has anti-microbial activity.
The Liliaceae or lily family is composed of large number of plant with medicinal virtues. Most of these are herbs and rarely shrubs. Examples from this plant family include Asphodel (Asphodelus aestivus), Wild asparagus (Asparagus aphyllus), Seaside squill (Drimia maritima), Mediterranean smilax (Smilax aspera), Greater butcher's broom (Ruscus hypophyllum), Butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus), Tassel hyacinth (Muscari comosum), Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), Bluebell (Hyacinthus orientalis), Aloe (Aloe vera), Garlic (Allium sativum), Garden onion (Allium cepa), Mediterranean meadow saffron (Colchium cupani), Meadow saffron (Colchium autunnale)
Asphodel (Asphodelus aestivus) is a native of the Mediterranean region that grows in arid places and field borders. It usually bears white large flowers that bloom between December and May. In folk medicine, they have been used to reduce pigmentation of the skin and to stop wound bleeding.
Wild asparagus (Asparagus aphyllus) is also a native of the Mediterranean region and the Atlantic Islands. It inhabits rocky sheltered places and flowers between March and May. Traditionally, its underground rooting system was used as a diuretic, antispasmidic and sedative. Scientific evaluation of the plant concluded that it reduces high blood pressure and heart beat.
Seaside squill (Drimia maritima) grows on arid and rocky places. It is distributed in the Mediterranean, Atlantic Islands and South Africa. It flowers between August and September, but the most important organ in this plant is the underground bulb. It yields a high quantity of glycosides that have various medicinal effects such as expectorant, diuretic and hair toning properties. This should not be mixed up with the sister plant, red squill (Uriginea indica), which is less effective medicinally, but is used as to kill rodent pests. The seaside squill is poisonous if ingested or applied to the skin in high doses. Internally, it causes nausea and vomiting, while externally it induces dermatitis.
Mediterranean smilax (Smilax aspera) is not only found in the Mediterranean region but in Asia, Atlantic Islands and Ethiopia. This plant flowers between September and November and yields bright red berries, thereafter. It was used to reduce the blood sugar level, high blood pressure, as a diuretic and a treatment for heamorrhoids. It contains saponins that do not have a direct activity but should be converted to active compounds. These saponins are used as starting material for the production of certain steroids, in industry.
Two closely related species are Butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and greater butcher's broom (Ruscus hypophyllum). The former is cultivated while the latter is a native of the Mediterranean region and grows in the wild. The emerging shoots are similar to asparagus, and are edible. They are usually used in vascular disorders such as chilblains, varicose veins and haemorrhoids. In fact, these effects are attributed to a group of compounds termed steroid saponins. Additionally, these reduce the blood cholesterol levels.
Tassel hyacinth (Muscari comosum) is a native of the Mediterranean region up to central Europe. It is found on cultivated fields and waste places, and flowers in spring. This is very similar to onion, in fact, the bulbs are boiled to remove the bitterness and are pickled in vinegar. In most countries, it is called "small onion". Medicinally it has stimulant and diuretic effects.
Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) is actually a native of West Asia, but has been long cultivated and naturalised in the Maltese Islands. It is mainly found in old gardens. The large white flowers bloom in April and May. The medicinal constituents are found in the bulb and flowers. The bulb contains a high amount of mucilage ideal for skin conditions such as burns, boils and acne. The petals of the flowers, when soaked in oil yield an extract that is beneficial in eczema.
Bluebell (Hyacinthus orientalis) is a native of the Mediterranean region. It is commonly found in old gardens and is distinguished by its dark blue flowers that bloom in March and April. It contains an essential oil that has anti-microbial activity.
Aloe (Aloe vera) is a native of tropical and North Africa but is frequently found in the Mediterranean region, where it has naturalised. In Malta, it is usually found on rocky arid places. It produces a stalk with terminal yellow flowers between April and June. Two extracts are obtained from Aloe, a yellowish-green juice and a gel from the fleshy leaves. When the leaves are cut, the exuding juice contains constituents with a laxative effect. The skin of the leaves can be removed to obtain the gel. The gel is widely used in several preparations such as skin and hair products. It has moisturising and soothing effects especially in cases of sunburn, dermatitis, deep wounds where tissue regeneration is required. Additionally, Aloe vera gel contains compounds that protect the skin from the ultraviolet irradiation and fights against cancer. It is used also for dry and itchy scalps.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is a rather cultivated plant that originates from Central Asia. It flowers between May and June. The bulb of the plant is used medicinally, in the fresh, dried or processed state. It contains an essential oil and alliin that is broken down into allicin as the tissue is disrupted on cutting or pressing. These constituents make garlic strongly antiseptic, hypotensive and expectorant. Externally it can be applied to boils, insect bites and unbroken chilblains. From scientific proofs, garlic is registered in the form of capsules, as odourless garlic. These contain the daily requirements to prevent hypertension.
Garden onion (Allium cepa) is closely related to the onion, but only one bulb is present. This is reflected from the Latin name unio that means one large pearl. The fresh bulb is used for medicinal purposes. It has strong antiseptic properties related to the organic sulphur compounds present in the bulb. Other constituents include, vitamins and minerals, sugars and an essential oil, that degrades on distillation. It has similar medicinal properties to garlic, that is, antiseptic, hypotensive and expectorant, but it also used in the treatment of high blood sugar level. Externally it is used as garlic, for the treatment of boils and insect bites.
Mediterranean meadow saffron (Colchium cupani) is native of the Mediterranean region as the name implies. It grows in rocky arid places and produces white or pale pink flowers that appear in mid-autumn. It contains colchicine and its derivatives that have anti-cancer properties.
Meadow saffron (Colchium autunnale) is a perrenial herb with pink to lilac-purple flowers. It grows in damp places and roadsides, and flowers between August and October. It was traditionally used for the treatment of gout. In fact, the constituent responsible for this activity is colchicine. It is also used to treat certain types of skin cancer. Another constituent, demecolcine is used in the treatment of leukaemia.
The Caryophyllaceae or pink family group plants that usually have four to five petalled flowers that are usually white or pink in colour. Examples from this family include sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia), common chickweed (Stellaria media), sand spurrey (Spergularia rubra), nail wort (Paronychia argentea), smooth rupture-wort (Herniaria glabra), viscid sandwort (Alsine tenuifolia).
Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia) is an annual herb that is usually found in dry and sandy places. It is found throughout Europe especially in the Mediterranean region. It usually flowers between March and May.
Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is found as a cosmopolitan and inhabits gardens, disturbed land and even fields. It flowers between January and June?? Traditionally it was used as an ointment for the treatment of chilblains, and skin problems. Although, it is sometimes used for culinary purposes, its safety is debatable due to the high content of saponins.
Sand spurrey (Spergularia rubra) is another cosmopolitan plant. It grows in waste and unculivated places, that are usually sandy in nature, and flowers between February and June. In folk medicine, it was used in the treatment of kidney stones due to its strong diuretic properties.
Nail wort (Paronychia argentea) is native to the Central and West Mediterranean. It grows on dry and waste lands, and flowers between February and June.
Smooth rupturewort (Herniaria glabra) is native of central Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa and Asia. It is rarely found in open places, and flowers between April and August. Traditionally, it was used to treat urinary complaints and hernias, as the name implies. An infusion of this plant prevents the formation of kidney stones. It contains a triterpenoid saponin, rutin (flavonoid) and an essential oil. As a result, the plant has antiseptic, antispasmodic and diuretic properties.
Viscid sandwort (Alsine tenuifolia) is an annual herb, that flowers between March and June. It is spread all over the European continent including the Mediterranean, and grows on uncultivated land.
The Boraginaceae or borage family is made up of herbs or small shrubs with bristly stems and leaves. Examples in this family include borage (Borago officinalis), common comfrey (Symphytum officinale), purple alkanet (Anchusa asurea), yellow gromwell (Neatostema apulum), viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) and southern hound's tongue (Cynoglosum creticum).
Borage (Borago officinalis) is an annual herb that grows in waste places, fields and roadsides. It is a native of the Mediterranean and central Europe. The characteristic blue flowers with prominent black anthers, bloom between January and May. In Maltese folk medicine, borage flowers were used in the treatment of coughs, and for flu and bronchitis in the form of a poutlice. The leaves have diuretic properties. The flowering stems contain tannins, mucilage and minerals, that attribute to the diuretic, anti-inflammatory and diaphoretic properties. The seeds contain a fixed oil, called borage oil, that is rich in gamma-linolenic acid. This fatty acid is beneficial in some forms of cancer and premenstrual syndrome.
Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is an erect plant with purple-violet to white flowers. It is native to Europe and grows in damp shady places. The flowers bloom between December and May. In folk medicine, it was used as an astringent and to treat wounds and bruises. The roots and leaves contain the active compounds. These include an essential oil, mucilage, alkaloids and allantoin. It has anti-inflammatory, sedative, astringent and emollient properties. Due to its toxic alkaloids, long term administration of comfrey leads to liver damage.
Purple alkanet (Anchusa azurea) is a herb with bunches of blue flowers that are an important food source for bees, like borage. It grows in the Mediterranean region especially in fields and waste places. This plant was used in traditional medicine, for the treatment of cough, and diuretic especially in the presence of kidney stones. It contains alkaloids, mucilage and pigments. It is used for its expectorant properties in the treatment of chesty cough, bronchitis and throat infections. This plant has also culinary uses, especially in salads.
Yellow gromwell (Neatostema apulum) is a native of the Mediterranean region and dwells on rocky and arid places. It flowers at early spring. In Maltese folk medicine, this medicinal plant has been used in the treatment of cough, and as a diuretic.
Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) is a herb with a long spike of blue flowers that bloom in early spring. It is found in most of Europe and West Asia and grows dry open habitats, roadsides and valleys. This plant was used in traditional medicine as for purple alkanet and yellow gromwell. It contains the same alkaloids as yellow gromwell, hence the same medicinal properties. The roots have been used as a red fabric dye.
Southern hound's tongue (Cynoglosum creticum) is native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic Islands. It is usually found in dry places in valleys and flower between February and May. It was used for rheumatic pain and as a poultice in the treatment of burns. It contains alkaloids.
The Ranunculaceae or buttercup family is characterised by showy flowers that usually have 5 petals. Examples from this family include pheasant's eye (Adonis annuus), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), poppy anemone (Anemone coronaria), love in the mist (Nigella damascena), short-spurred larkspur (Delphinium staphysagria), larkspur (Delphinium ajacis), traveller's joy (Clematis vitalba), evergreen traveller's joy (Clematis cirrhosa).
Pheasant's eye (Adonis annua) is a poisonous plant with large, red flowers. It is a native of the Mediterranean region and West Asia, and is found in cultivated fields and wastelands. It flowers between January and May. Traditionally, it was used as a diuretic, tonic and in the treatment of heart failure. The flowering stems contain cardiac glycosides that stimulate the heart. The ingestion of high quantities of this plant leads to poisoning.
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is a perrenial flowering medicinal plant that is native to Europe and West Asia. It grows in fields and in moist valleys, and flowers between January and April. The Latin name, Ranunculus, means frog, most species of this genus, grow in marsh places. It was not very popular in Maltese folk medicine but others used it in the treatment of haemorrhoids. Despite its name, it is not related to greater celandine (Chelidonium majus). The fresh plant contains saponins, tannins, vitamin C and toxic compounds. The latter induce skin blistering when the stems are broken. Internally, it is also toxic if consumed fresh. Despite this, the plant is rendered non-toxic by drying.
Poppy anemone (Anemone coronaria) is a native of the Mediterranean region, growing in cultivated fields and waste places. The red, blue or white flowers are in bloom flowers between January and March. It was used for its anti-irritant and pain relieving effects.
Love in the mist (Nigella damascena) has feathery leaves and star-shaped blue flowers that bloom between March and May. It grows in valleys, cultivated fields and wastelands. It was used to mask the unpleasant taste of medicines and in the treatment of high temperatures, to regulate menstruation and against the tapeworm. The seeds contain an alkaloid, damascenine, that lower body temperature and reduces inflammation. Besides, it contributes to the pleasant odour of the seeds.
Larkspur (Delphinium ajacis) and short-spurred larkspur (Delphinium staphysagria) is a native of the Mediterranean region and the Canaries. The shape of the flower resembles the head of a dolphin, hence the Latin name, Delphinium. It grows in valleys, and cultivated places. Traditionally, they were used in the treatment of head-lice infestations. They contains alkaloids such as delphinine that is toxic and pigments such as delphinidin that gives the flowers a blue colour. These plants should not be used for self-medication due to their high toxicity.
Evergreen traveller's joy (Clematis cirrhosa) is a native of the Mediterranean region. It flowers in mid-autumn and grows in valleys, old walls and clinging to trees and shrubs. It was prepared in ointments in the treatment of pain. This plant contains acetyloleanolic acid.
The Papaveraceae or poppy family consists of a group of plant that contain a latex or water sap. There are four petals in a flower and these are cross shaped with two opposite petals above the other two. Plants with a medicinal value include greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), common poppy (Papaver rhoeas), sea poppy (Glaucium flavum), fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) and fumitory(Fumaria capria capreolata)
The greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is a native or Europe and North Asia. Locally, it grows on old walls and at public gardens. The bright yellow flowers bloom between April and June. Traditionally, it was used on warts and corns, skin problems usually caused by parasites, as a strong laxative and in the treatment of jaundice and kidney problems.The flowering stems contain alkaloids, such as chelidonine, saponins, a trace of essential oil and pigments. Although this plant is poisonous, its alkaloids have a great potential in the treatment of cancer.
The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is probably native of West and Central Mediterranean region. It grows in cultivated fields and wastelands, and blooms between February and May. In Maltese folk medicine, the flowers were given as a sedative to children in pain, although the petals do not contain morphine. It was used in conditions were nerve relaxation was essential as in the case of kidney stones, toothache, rheumatism, haemorrhoids and cough. The fruit, called the capsule, contains a latex that is rich in alkaloids with morphine being the most abundant followed by others such as codeine, papaverine and narcotine. In modern medicine, morphine is used as a pain killer in terminal cases while codeine is used in cough preparations.
The common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is considered as a weed of cultivation and is more abundant than the opium poppy. This plant has red flowers that bloom between March and May. It is probably native of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. This poppy was used for the treatment of insomnia, coughs and mental disturbances. Despite, these properties, it does not contain morphine or one of the alkaloids present in the opium poppy, but contains other alkaloids with a similar but milder effect. As a result the common poppy is less poisonous than the opium poppy.
The sea poppy (Glaucium flavum) is similar to other two but has yellow flowers and grows close to the sea in both rocky and sandy places. It is mainly in the coasts of south and west Europe, and West Asia. The plant has two flowering seasons, spring and autumn. It was not very popular with the Maltese, as this herb is poisonous. It contains several alkaloids such as protopine that has sedative and muscle relexant properties, and isoboldine that is used as a slimming aid.
Locally, we find several fumitory species, such as Fumaria officinalis and Fumaria capria capreolata. The Latin name Fumaria means smoke of the earth, as these have a unpleasant smoky smell. These are found throughout Europe and usually inhabit cultivated places. Traditionally, it was used to clear the blood, to regulate menstruation, stomach problems and tapeworm infestations. The flowering stems contain protopine also called fumarine that has smooth muscle relaxant, sedative and antibacterial properties. Besides, they contain also tannins and mucilage. All parts of the plant are poisonous, and so they should not be used for self-medication.
The Malvaceae or mallow family groups those plants that have five-petalled flowers and a nutlet-like fruit. Examples include common mallow (Malva sylvestris) hairless cotton (Gossypium herbaceum), hollyhock (Althaea rosea) and marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis).
Common mallow, also known as Malva sylvestris is a herb with pink to purple flowers that are in bloom between February and March. It is distributed throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia, and grows in fields and rocky places. It was used as an expectorant and in the treatment of genito-urinary tract inflammation. It contains several vitamins an essential oil, tannins and flavonoids. The flavonoids, hypolaetin and gossypin, attribute to the analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-ulcer properties.
Hairless cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) has been cultivated since the Phoenician times. It flowers between July and September. Although cotton wool was produced from the hairless cotton, it was also used for its medicinal virtues. The cotton, branches and roots were used to help the uterine muscles during labour, although in pregnancy great care was taken as it is abortifacient. An important constituent in the seed oil is gossypol that has male contraceptive properties, antifungal and antibacterial properties.
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) is one of those medicinal plants, whose origins are not known. It has pink to purple flowers, that are in bloom between April and June. It was used for throat infections, and inflammation of the intestines and skin. The expectorant and anti-inflammatory properties are attributed to phenolic compounds present in the flowers. A dye obtained from the flowers is used as a colorant in medicines and foodstuffs.
Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is related to hollyhock, but it is less abundantly found. It is distributed in Europe, West Asia and North Africa. The name marsh mallow is attributed to this plant as its roots were used to flavour the soft and sweet marshmallows. It contains a high percentage of mucilage both in the flowers (20 %) and in the roots (30 %). Other constituents include scopoletine that has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and phenylpropanoids that have additional anti-tumour and anti-viral properties.
Other families that contain a very small number of medicinal plants include the following.
The Cucurbitaceae or cucumber family contains a large number of edible crops such as the cucumbers, melons and pumpkins. Two important medicinal plants in this family include the squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) and the pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima).
The squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) is a typical Mediterranean succulent plant that flowers throughout the year except for the coldest period of the wintry months. It grows on wastelands, near the sea and on uncultivated soil. The name "squirting" is attributed to the plant due to its mode of expelling the seeds from the fruit. Its fruit juice was used in the past in the treatment of constipation, jaundice, otitis and headache. When consumed in large quantities the juice may be poisonous due to the presence of certain proteins. An important group of compounds present in this plant are the cucurbitacins. These have prominent anti-cancer properties.
Another family, called the Verbenaceae or verbena family contains three important medicinal plants; vervain (Verbena officinalis), chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and the cultivated lantana (Lantana camara)
Vervain (Verbena officinalis) grows in waste places and flowers between April and December. It was commonly used for the treatment of cough, varicose veins, wounds, diabetes and to lower high body temperatures. It contains mucilage, an essential oil and a glucoside called verbenalin. This glucoside produces weak intestinal spasms that are sufficient to justify its use as a laxative.
The Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) is native to the Mediterranean region and West Asia. It flowers between May and September. Traditionally, it was used to preserve chastity and to treat digestive ailments. It stimulates progesterone production.
An important and common medicinal plant of the Scrophularia or figwort family is the snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus). It is a native of West Mediterranean and grows on rocky grounds and old walls. It flowers from January till October. Traditionally it was used as an astringent, diuretic, and hearmorrhoids. It contains several constituents such as alkaloids, amino acids and glycosides.
A characteristic plant of the pokeweed or Phytolaccaceae family is pokeweed itself (Phytolacca americana). Due to its poisonous properties, it was used externally only, for the treatment of rheumatism, withlow and skin inflammation. These are probably attributed to the saponins and the oleanolic acid derivative present in the plant. It contains a pokeweed lectin stimulates the white blood cells.
A member of the Euphorbiaceae family castor bean (Ricinus communis) is renowned for its medicinal and industrial purposes. It is a native of the tropics but has naturalised in some waste places and valleys. IT flowers between March and October. Poisoning from seed ingestion has occurred in children. Traditionally, this plant was used as a laxative and to treat cradle-cap in babies. Castor oil is expressed from the seeds of the plant after they are peeled. Toxic albumins are present in the seed but these are removed by boiling with water. It is safe to use as a laxative and in baby skin products such as zinc and castor oil. It is used in industry as a lubricant to machinery and also in jet engines.
Designed and Coordination by Dr. Everaldo G. Attard. All rights reserved 2005.
Last Update: 16th February 2005
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