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Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Page

10. Medicinal plants of the Liliaceae family

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.


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Last Update: 26th September 2005

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