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Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Page

3. Medicinal plants of the Compositae family

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.

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