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Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Page

6. Medicinal plants of the Leguminosae family

The Leguminosae or pea family consists of large number of plants, both native and naturalised, that have been cultivated for fodder, food and ornamental purposes. Amongst these plants, those with medicinal virtues include the carob tree (Ceratonia siliquia), the pea (Pisum sativum), white and red clovers (Trifolium repens and pratense), false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia), Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum).

The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) is typical of Maltese fields. In many fields one could find a carob tree which presumably had several functions. First of all, it served as a shelter to the farmer especially in the hot summer days and the fruit was used as a fodder crop. It is a native of the Mediterranean region, but has been cultivated extensively. It flowers between October and November, after which brown elongated and flat fruit set. The pulp of the fruit is rich in proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins. It has wide culinary uses such as a sweat meat and an alternative to chocolate flavouring. It is also ground to produce a diabetic flour and the beans ground to produce "coffee". The gum of the carob tree has antidiarrhoeal properties. The even-sized seeds were the original "carats" used by jewelers.

The wild pea (Pisum sativum) is a native to Southern Europe, but it has been cultivated elsewhere for fodder and for its edible seeds since prehistoric times. The plant flowers from March till May and is found everywhere as it escapes cultivation. Nowadays, one can find several cultivated varieties of this plant. Traditionally, it has been used to treat skin problems such as acne and wrinkles. The pea contains terpenoids and trigonelline (a nitrogenous compound) that have anticancer properties, and flavonoids with antimicrobial activities.

A group of closely related species in the Leguminosea family are the clovers. Two important species are the white and red clovers (Trifolium repens and T. pratense). White clover grows extensively in the Maltese Islands, especially on field boundaries and wastelands. This is found mainly in the Mediterranean region, West Asia, South Africa and Westwards to America. It flowers between March and May and is an important source for honey bees. The leaves produce a glycoside that makes the plant toxic when eaten in large quantities. The flowerheads contain mucilage, tannins, sugars and organic acids. These constitute the medicinal properties of the white clover, such as astringent, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. A tea is also produced from the fresh flowers. Red clover is native to Europe, but is widely cultivated elsewhere as a fodder or ploughed in to enrich the soil. The plant flowers in April and May. The chemical constituents of red clover are similar to the white type but there are also phenolic glycosides. As a result the plant has astringent, antispasmodic and expectorant properties. It is also used for digestive and respiratory problems. Externally, red clover is used for skin problems, such as burns, rashes, ulcers and sores. Another important aspect, is its use in salads and soups.

False acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a deciduous ornamental tree with white fragrant flowers that are in bloom between March and May. It is a native of North America but has been introduced in Europe in the 17th Century and has naturalised elsewhere. In fact, in Malta it is found in public gardens. The name Robinia implies the name of the French botanist who obtained seeds from America and grew the plant in the Jardin de Plantes in Paris. The dried flowers have mild laxative properties. In fact, these contain glycosides that have also antispasmodic properties on the muscles and nerves. The bark contains toxic albumins that induce vomiting and have a laxative effect. This plant should never be consumed for culinary or medicinal purposes as it is extremely toxic.

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is similar to the trifoliated clovers, but the flowers are violet blue. It is distributed in Europe, America and South West Asia. It is extensively cultivated elsewhere, where it naturalises readily. It is used as animal fodder especially for horses and cows, but it is also used as an appetite stimulant for convalescent patients, as it contains several vitamins, particularly vitamin A, B complex, E and K. It also increases weight. Another constituent in alfalfa is gamma linoleic acid, a compound that is beneficial in the treatment of some types of cancer.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) another Leguminosae plant, is native to the Mediterranean region. In Malta, this plant is found in fields and gardens and blooms in April and May. As the name implies foenum-graecum means Greek hay. The plant has an aromatic smell but the seeds contain the active principles. They contain proteins and mucilage, a fixed oil, saponins and alkaloids. The seeds have several medicinal properties including tonic, stomachic, carminative and hypoglycaemic effects. In fact, the plant has been used locally, to treat diabetes. The seeds were used as a tonic herbal tea, to stimulate digestion and ease coughing. Externally, the seeds are used to treat infections and inflammations. It is used as a coffee substitute and a spice especially in the Middle East and India.

In this section we have looked at plants that have both agricultural and medicinal virtues. Some of these plants have been used since early civilisation indicating how Man recognised the edible and medicinal properties of particular plants.

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