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Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Page

9. Medicinal plants of the Cruciferae family

The Cruciferae or cress family is characterised by plant that have flowers with cross-like petals. This family groups a large group of medicinal plants that include Wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri), Bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta), Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), Black mustard (Brassica nigra), Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale), White mustard (Sinapis alba), Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), Watercress (Nasturtium officinale).

Wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri) is a perrenial herb that has yellow flowers that are in bloom between February and April. It is especially found on rocky places. It is native of Eastern Mediterranean, but has been cultivated and naturalised in other Mediterranean countries. It is a strong stimulant and hence used with great care. It produces small amounts of mustard oil that is released from the plant as a result of damage.

Bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta) is a herb that is found throughout Europe. It is usually found in shaded valleys and cultivated places throughout the island. Its white flowers are in bloom between January and April. Its leaves have a culinary use due to their hot and peppery taste. Medicinally, it was used for the treatment of vitamin C deficiency and skin problems and as a diuretic.

Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is widely distributed throughout the world. In Malta, it is found in cultivated and waste places. The flowers of this plant are white and appear between November and June. It has been used for the treatment of several ailments including urinary antiseptic properties, for the treatment of diarrhoea, treatment of varicose veins and bleeding. The plant has antihypertensive properties.

Although the Brassica group of plants are important crops in the Maltese Islands, some of them have a medicinal value, such as the black mustard (Brassica nigra). Other vegetable crops include cabbages and cauliflower. The black mustard is found in most of Europe especially the South and the Mediterranean region. It is found on cultivated ground and has yellow flowers that bloom in March and April. It has dark-brown to black seeds that are strongly flavoured and pungent, especially on crushing. The pungent characteristic is attributed to the breakdown products of certain mustard constituents by enzymes present in the seeds themselves. They have been used of the treatment of bronchitis, chilblains and rheumatism. Mustard preparations may be irritating to the skin.

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is a herb native to South-East Europe that has bunches of small, white flowers appearing between May and August. Unlike other plants in the mustard family, the roots are used for medicinal and culinary purposes. Traditionally, the roots were used as a laxative, metabolic stimulant and antiseptic. The roots contain mustard glycosides present in an essential oil, and vitamin C, mainly. In fact, these medicinal properties of the mustard glycosides, like antiseptic to the lungs and urinary tract. Other properties include the stimulation of digestion, rheumatism and promotion of the circulation. Large doses may irritate the skin or stomach, depending on the application of the horseradish.

Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) is commonly found in cultivated places and along field borders, and is native to Europe. It produces mustard-yellow flowers usually blooming between February and May. The medicinal properties of this plant are directed towards the respiratory system. It has been combined with watercress and horseradish in the treatment of throat infections, hoarseness and lung problems. On its own or in combination with other mustard-like plants, it expels catarrh and hence being a suitable remedy in coughs and asthma.

White mustard (Sinapis alba) is very similar to the black mustard, with minor differences taking place in their flowers. It is a native of the Mediterranean region and is found locally in waste places. This is a very important plant for its oil, as a fodder and for mustard production. It flowers between February and April. The active constituents are found in the ripe seeds of the plant. They contain a fixed oil, mucilage and a constituent known as sinalbin that yields mustard oil with the action of some enzymes in the seeds themselves. Whole seeds are laxative and antiseptic while ground seeds are effective in the treatment of rheumatic pain.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a semiaquatic herb that is native to Western and Central Europe. It is found in flowing water and has white flowers that bloom between January and June. The flowering stem collected before flowering contains the active constituents. In fact, it contains a compound that decomposes to yield a pungent oil and several vitamins and minerals. As a result, it has stomachic, diuretic, appetizing and irritant effects. It is used in digestive and respiratory disorders. Watercress has also culinary uses.

Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) is found throughout Europe and locally it inhabits in fields and waste places. The flowers have a variable colour ranging from white to yellow, lilac and violet. They are in bloom between December and May. The seeds are somewhat poisonous, leading to effects on the digestive system. It contains several minerals, amino acids, carbohydrates and a constituent raphanin that has anti-microbial activity.

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