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Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Page

12. Medicinal plants of the Ranunculaceae and Papaveraceae families

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.

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