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Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Page

4. Medicinal plants of the Labiatae family

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.

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