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Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Page

5. Medicinal plants of the Umbelliferae family

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.

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