12 amazing superfood properties of Cacao

12 amazing superfood properties of Cacao

Medicinal and Therapeutic Properties of Cacao

This article is about some surprising medicinal benefits of real Cacao – the stuff that chocolate is made of.

It may come as a surprise, but Cacao is actually pretty healthy.  (It’s my favourite ‘superfood’. 🙂

 

If you are interested in the history of Cacao and how we have come to love chocolate so much, take a look at this article about the cultural history of chocolate.

 

CACAO BEANS

PARTS USED: Dried seeds and seed shells.
HARVEST: Cacao pods take about 5-6 months to mature. The harvest occurs twice a year, from September to February and May/June, even though there is always ripe and unripe fruit on the same tree.
CONSTITUENTS: Fat, Amino Acids, Alkaloids (Theobromine, Caffeine), Riboflavin, Niacin, Thiamine, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Vitamins A, C, D and E, polyphenols.
ACTIONS: Diuretic, stimulant, aphrodisiac, anti-depressant, nutritive anti-inflammatory, antioxidant

Crushed Cocoa Beans

Crushed Cacao Beans

Image by janiceweirgermia from Pixabay

Diuretic

In Central America, a tea made from crushed Cacao seed shells called ‘nibs’ is used as an effective diuretic. A strong flow of urine is a sign of health and vigour, and any substance that produces this effect is praised as an aphrodisiac, enhancing male potency.

Anti HIV-properties

A pigment extracted from the husks has anti-HIV properties. In vitro studies have demonstrated that polymerized flavonoids present in the husks reduce the damaging effects of HIV. Apparently, they prevent the virus from entering the cells (Unten et al. 1991). But once inside the cell, the virus replicates normally.

Anti-inflammatory

Cacao is incredibly rich in polyphenols, antioxidant flavonoids that have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect.

Animal studies also suggest that Theobromine and Theophylline can ease inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract, such as asthma, by dilating the lungs and thus helping to relax the air passages.

But unfortunately, most of them are lost due to the standard methods used to process Cacao Beans.

Cardio-Vascular support

Apparently, eating chocolate can be good for your heart health! In 2015, a study found that habitual chocolate consumption can reduce the risk of cardiovascular health issues, providing it is of high quality with a high cacao content. (2)

Cacao can relax and widen the arteries, thus reducing blood pressure and improving blood circulation. Combined with its ability to reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol, it can help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Skincare from within

The Cacao phenols are also good for the skin. They improve blood circulation to the peripheral cells and improve the smoothness of the skin by helping to hydrate it from within. Long-term use is also said to protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun.

Mood enhancing

The higher the Cacao content, the better it is for your well-being. Have you ever wondered why you are craving chocolate when doing demanding mental work? It’s your body telling you what it needs: High Cocoa chocolate (min. 65%) has nutritional and stimulating properties that make it a good ‘pick-me-up’.

The flavonols in Cacao improve mood, alleviate symptoms of depression and reduce stress. One study of pregnant women even showed this stress-reducing effect to be conferred to the babies. It is also popular as comfort food to soothe PMS symptoms. Another study showed that older men can benefit from the regular consumption of high Cacao content chocolate, reporting improved health and well-being.

Cognition

Even better, high Cacao content chocolate improves cognitive functions by increasing the blood flow to the brain. The beneficial flavanols can also cross the blood-brain barrier and directly benefit the neurons. For those suffering from cognitive impairments or neuronal conditions such as Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, high Cacao content chocolate is brain food.

The findings are promising, suggesting that more research is warranted.

Blood-sugar regulation

High Cacao chocolate can even have a positive effect on Type 2 Diabetes symptoms. The unexpected findings showed that flavanols can slow the carbohydrate metabolism and uptake in the gut, while stimulating insulin secretion, lowering inflammation and aiding the transfer of sugar from the blood to the muscles.

 

Weight loss

Interestingly, high cocoa content chocolate actually has a positive effect on the body mass index (BMI). Chocolate eaters (min 81% cocoa) lose weight faster than people who do not eat chocolate.

 

Anti-Cancer

Several animal studies indicate that a flavanol-rich Cacao diet lowers the risk of cancer – especially breast, pancreatic, liver and colon cancer and leukaemia. However, more research is needed.

 

Immune system stimulation

Another counterintuitive finding is that Cacao contains antibacterial, anti-enzymatic and immune-stimulating compounds that can have a beneficial effect on oral health.

 

NOTE

It must be stressed, that all of these benefits only apply to high cocoa content chocolate that is very low in sugar, or without sugar. The common candy bar has NO health benefits. On the contrary, chocolate candy can be harmful.

 

(In case you are confused about flavonoids, flavanols and flavanols, they are actually different compounds. Take a look at this article to help clear up the confusion.)

References:

(1) Unten, S., H. Ushijima, H. Shimizu, H. Tsuchie, T. Kitamura, N. Moritome, and H. Sakagami. 1991. Effect of cacao husk extract on human immunodeficiency virus infection. Letters Appl. Microbiol. 14:251-254.

(2) (Kwok CS, Boekholdt SM, Lentjes MA, Loke YK, Luben RN, Yeong JK, Wareham NJ, Myint PK, Khaw KT. Habitual chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women. Heart. 2015 Aug;101(16):1279-87. doi: 10.1136/heartjnl-2014-307050. Epub 2015 Jun 15. Erratum in: Heart. 2018 Mar;104(6):532. PMID: 26076934; PMCID: PMC6284792.)

 

 

History of the Cocoa Tree- Theobroma cacao

History of the Cocoa Tree- Theobroma cacao

Plant Profile: Cocoa (Theobroma cacao)

Surely, everybody loves chocolate. Yet, little is known about its origin or its fascinating history. This article is a short introduction to one of my favourite plants: Cocoa – Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods.

Description

If you saw a Cacao tree, you’d never think that this is the stuff that chocolate is made of. As tropical trees go, Cacao is of modest size and height. It only grows to about 10 m to 20 m high. That’s because it is a shade-tolerant ‘understorey tree’. On plantations, where most of them are grown, they are kept much smaller to facilitate easy harvesting.

Cacao trees take about five years to mature and produce fruit, and they can live for over 200 years. But, for commercial purposes, they are considered productive for only about twenty-five years.

The Theobroma genus comprises about 20 species, of which T. cacao is the most widely cultivated one.

 

Its appearance is very distinctive:

Botanical name: Theobroma cacao
Family: Sterculiaceae

Synonyms:

Coco, Cocoa, Chocolate, Cacahuatl, Tlapalcacauatl, Cacauaxochitle (T. augustifolium)

Origin:

Northern parts of South America and Central America

Distribution:

Humid tropics, most notably Central and South America, West Africa and Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines

Cocoa leaves

Forest & Kim Starr CC BY 3.0 US , via Wikimedia Commons

Leaves

The mature leaves are dark green, large and glossy, very much in contrast to young leaves that are reddish and seem to droop from the end of the branches. They are pretending to be old and not worth munching on. As they mature, they turn dark green and robust.

Although deciduous, Cacao never sheds all its leaves at once. Young and mature leaves grow side-by-side on the same tree. The greyish-brown bark is rough and covered with patches of different coloured lichen and fungi.

 

Cocoa Tree Flowers

Flowers

But what is most surprising about the Cacao tree are its flowers that sprout in clusters directly from the tree trunk and older branches.

Botanically, this is known as a ‘cauliflorous‘ flower formation. The tiny creamy-pinkish flowers are short-lived and last only for a day, and they are fertile only from sunrise and sunset. If they are not pollinated within that time, they will wither and die.

Cacao is ‘self-incompatible’, meaning it cannot pollinate itself. Nor does the wind help with the task. The pollen is too heavy and sticky for the wind to carry. The task falls to various species of tiny insects.

 

cocoa pod
Cocoa pod and seeds

Fruit

From those tiny dangling flowers grow the most weird-looking pods, oblong and tapered at both ends, somewhat resembling a kind of squash.

The pods come in all colours and sizes and can be ribbed with thick skin, or smooth and thin-skinned, depending on the variety. Some pods only grow to about 4 inches long, but some types develop pods that can reach a whopping 12 inches. The immature fruits are green, turning yellow, orange, red or purple as they mature, a process that can take up to five or six months.

Each pod contains between 20 and 60 smooth, white seeds. As long as the pod stays intact, the seeds remain viable, but once opened and the pulp is removed, they dry out and lose their ability to germinate.

Cacao pods are a favourite monkey food. They may be unfamiliar with chocolate, but they are crazy about the delicious sweet and sour fruit pulp that envelopes the seeds.

 

Distribution

Cacao is grown in the tropics, but it is very fussy about its growing conditions. The greatest number of wild varieties are found in the lowland rainforest of northern South America, where Cacao is native. A true lowland rainforest species (never found above 100 ft above sea level), it likes to grow near water, e.g. on river banks or seasonally inundated ground.
Cacao likes it hot and steamy: its distribution range is tightly limited to about 15 degrees of latitude on either side of the equator.

 

Habitat and Ecology

Cacao is a tree of the tropics and very fussy about its growing conditions. Most wild varieties are found in the lowland rainforest of northern South America, where Cacao is native. A true lowland rainforest species (never found above 100 ft above sea level), it likes to grow near water, e.g. on river banks or seasonally inundated ground.

Cacao likes it hot and steamy: its distribution range is tightly limited to about 15 degrees of latitude on either side of the equator.

Cacao needs the shade of taller trees to protect young saplings and their sensitive immature leaves from direct sunlight. High humidity is a necessary prerequisite for healthy growth. But when trees are cut to create plantations, local weather patterns change. It gets drier, which negatively impacts yields and dries out the soil. Climate change also makes the trees more vulnerable to fungi and diseases.

Cacao plays an integral role in rainforest ecology. In natural conditions, it develops a taproot that helps to stabilize the river banks where it prefers to grow. The fruit pulp is a delicacy for many rainforest animals, but monkeys and birds are particularly keen on it.

Aztec preparation of xocolatl

The History of Cocoa

The native people of Central and South America revered the Cacao tree. They had cultivated Cacao trees for several hundred years before the Conquistadores’ invasion.

The Aztecs cultivated several species of cacao, none of which are grown commercially today. They used different species for distinct purposes: The types with the largest seeds were used as currency (money does grow on trees ;-). But it was the species with the smallest seeds, ‘Tlacacahuatl’, which was used to make a sacred beverage called Xocoatl.

 

Cocoa as privilege

Drinking Xocoatl was the privilege of nobles and priests, who consumed it in vast quantities. Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor, devoured fifty golden goblets daily. This beverage was very different to what we now know and love as drinking chocolate. The Aztec version was savoury, not sweet, and there were many ways to prepare it depending on the occasion.

For general use, roasted Cacao seeds were ground and mixed with Atole (coarse, roasted corn flour) and whisked into a rich foaming brew. Chillies, Vanilla, Cinnamon and salt were added to taste.

 

Ceremonial use of Cocoa

The ceremonial beverage, Xocoatl, was considered as sacred as other psychotropic ritual plants, such as Ololuiqui (Turbina corymbosa) or sacred mushrooms (Psilocybe sp.). The Spanish chronicler SahagĂșn reports that Cacao, ‘
especially that made with the green, young fruits, has the power to intoxicate, to make one dizzy and to make one drunk
’ He warned against drinking too much of it but says, consumed in moderation, it fortifies the body and spirit.

 

Cocoa as an Aphrodisiac

Xocoatl was a powerful aphrodisiac and stimulating tonic. Moctezuma regularly fortified himself with it before entering the royal harem. The Mixtec, contemporaries of the Aztec, who inhabited the Oaxacan plateau, used Xocoatl in their marriage ceremonies. Chocolate has not lost its aphrodisiac appeal, even now. Chocolate probably ranks as the most popular choice for a romantic gift, next to flowers.

 

Neurochemical research

Neurochemical research has been able to shed some light on this ancient reputation. Scientists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego found three compounds in dark chocolate that closely resemble a naturally occurring neurotransmitter known as ‘Anandamide’.
Anandamide, (from Sanskrit Ananda = bliss), links to THC receptor sites in the brain. They produce a similar but less pronounced sense of well-being as Tetrahydrocannabinol, found in Cannabis. The scientists also found compounds (N-acylethanolamines) that block the breakdown of Anandamide [Piomelli, 1996].

 

Anandamide is the primary neurotransmitter present in the uterus during the early stages of pregnancy. It seems like its role is to convey a sense of bliss and contentment to welcome the embryonic spirit into the womb. Chocolate is also rich in Phenylethylamine, the signature compound associated with the euphoric state of being in love.

 

Mistaken identity and its consequences

When Cortés and his men arrived at the shores of the new world, Moctezuma mistook them for ambassadors of the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. He welcomed them with many fine gifts, including gold, jewellery and precious stones.

Appropriate to the occasion of welcoming divine guests, he also honoured them with a cup of the sacred Xocoatl brew, served in golden goblets. But the Spaniards were more interested in the gold and silver than in the cocoa brew, which they deemed ‘more suitable for hogs than men’. It took many years, but eventually, cocoa grew on them.

chocolateria Arrufat
Libertinus, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

From Xocolatl to chocolate

Much experimentation and modification of the original recipe eventually produced something suitable for the Hispanic palate. And it soon became a hit.

Credit for it must be given to an order of Spanish nuns who lived in the province of Chiapas in southern Mexico. They learned to roast the cocoa beans, like the Aztecs, but instead of adding chilli and salt, they mixed them with cane sugar, vanilla and cinnamon.
The nuns loved their chocolate drink so much that they refused to abstain from it, even during mass.

Aware of Cacao’s aphrodisiac reputation, the Bishop was alarmed and tried to suppress the new custom. But, the nuns protested, insisting that the chocolate drink helped them overcome ‘the weakness of the stomach’ and even aided their efforts to pray. The Bishop gave in, and the nuns were granted permission to continue their unorthodox ways. And this is how the reformed Xocolatl conquered the world.

 

Cocoa conquers the Old World

When Cortés returned to Spain, among the many wondrous things he brought back was a sack of Cacao beans along with the recipe for the novel beverage. As in the New World, chocolate was, at first, reserved for the nobility. No ordinary mortal could afford its astronomical price. But it became an immediate hit at all the Royal Courts of Europe.

Cunningly, the Spaniards managed to keep the recipe a secret for almost a century. They had begun to plant Cacao plantations in their New World colonies soon after conquering the Aztec Empire, securing their absolute control of the cocoa trade. But ultimately, the secret of the cocoa bean got out, and their monopoly was broken. Other colonial powers established plantations far from the Theobroma’s original homeland – first in Indonesia and the Philippines, and later in West Africa and South America.

Today, Cacao is one of the most significant cash crops for small scale farmers in developing countries. It is worth about $9.5 billion in world trade. Worldwide, more than 4 million tons of Cacao beans are produced annually, more than half of which are grown in West Africa.

 

Hot Chocolate – a drink of the Avant-Garde

By the middle of the 17th century, ‘chocolate houses’ began to appear, rivalling ‘coffee houses’, as meeting places of the Avant-Garde. By the end of the 17th century, hot chocolate had become so popular that the government thought it worthwhile to impose a tax on it!

When the Dutch Cacao producer, Van Houten, invented a new processing method in 1828, drinking chocolate became even more popular. Unprocessed Cacao beans contain up to 53% of fat, making them hard to digest. Van Houten used a hydraulic press to squeeze out the fat content of Cocoa powder, reducing it to 10–13%. The new, lighter chocolate powder proved even more popular. Better still, the cacao butter was not wasted, but was used to improve the consistency of solid chocolate bars.

 

From Cocoa to Chocolate

Solid chocolates also became ever more popular. They were transformed by an innovation introduced by a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, who came up with the simple, but brilliant idea of adding condensed milk to the cocoa butter blend. This creates the familiar creamy texture of milk chocolate. Today, milk chocolate has become the most popular type of chocolate product, and the Swiss are the world leaders in this category. And, they are also world leaders in consumption, with an annual equivalent of 5.5 kg of cocoa beans per capita.

During much of the 19th century, chocolate enjoyed the status of a magical panacea. It was believed to cure just about any ailment. This notion seems a little exaggerated, but Cacao does have some interesting medicinal properties. We will explore these in next week’s post.

Further resources:

International Cocoa organization icco

International Fairtrade / Cocoa

And if you are looking for some delicious AND ethical chocolate, check out my friend Jennifer’s Sombra Buena chocolate.

 

 

Frankincense (Boswellia sp.)

Frankincense (Boswellia sp.)

Featured image by Mauro Raffaelli, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Plant Profile: Frankincense

Frankincense is well-known as ‘that stuff that is burnt in church’. But what exactly is it, and where does it come from?

In common parlance, ‘Frankincense’ is often used as a generic term for all kinds of incense, but botanically, it refers to oleoresin sourced from  Boswellia trees.

Description:

The Boswellia genus has its greatest distribution in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. It comprises small shrubs or trees that are rich in fragrant oleoresins and well-adapted to arid and inhospitable terrain.

Four species are classified as Frankincense trees:

  • Boswellia sacra (syn. Boswellia carteri, southern Arabia)
  • Boswellia serrata (Indian Frankincense, syn. Boswellia thurifera)
  • Boswellia papyrifera ( Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan)
  • Boswellia frereana (Horn of Africa)

The Biblical Frankincense is derived from Boswellia sacra, a small, shrubby desert tree with pinnate leaflets and thorny branches found in Oman. It lives on rocky slopes and ravines.

In India, Boswellia serrata is the most common variety. It is a more stately tree that usually has divided trunks.

Small, 5-petaled whitish-yellow flowers appear in axillary racemes. The trees frequently seem to be growing directly from the rocks and boulders to which they cling with adaptive, disk-like swellings at the bottom of the trunk. But these adaptations only develop in response to the environment, if necessary.

Excessive harvesting reduces the number of flowers and the size and viability of the seeds. Cattle and camels browse on the leaves and branches, especially in times of drought.

Name:

The name ‘Frankincense’ probably came from the old French expression, ‘franc encens’ meaning ‘valuable incense’. Frankincense is also known as ‘Olibanum’, which derives from the Arab word ‘al Luban’, meaning ‘milk’, an allusion to the milky sap that turns into Frankincense when it dries.

Boswellia serrata - Indian Frankincense

Dinesh Valke from Thane, India, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

History

Familiar by name, yet obscure. The source of Frankincense has been shrouded in mystery since long before the birth of Christ. The origins of its use are uncertain, but it is well-documented that Frankincense was widely used in the Egyptian Temples to honour Ra and Horus. On her epic journey, Queen Sheba brought along numerous Frankincense trees as a special gift for King Solomon. Unfortunately, those trees were doomed. Frankincense trees only thrive in arid conditions and are limited to a specific geographic range. But, it’s the thought that counts. The gift was a significant sign of honour and respect.

Incense fuelled the economy of the Arab world, much as oil does today. Towns positioned at strategic locations along spice or incense routes prospered considerably from this trade. In the Ancient World, Frankincense was more valuable than gold. The obscurity of its origin gave rise to wild tales. Frankincense trees were said to be guarded by dragon-like creatures, ready to strike out at any intruder. Keen to protect their fortunes, traders had invented such terrifying stories to deter enterprising and adventurous young men from going off in search of the trees.

But, scare tactics aside, the long journey across the desert was indeed as dangerous as it was lucrative.

Tree Stewardship

Oman, Somalia and Ethiopia are the most important suppliers of Frankincense today. As in the days of Solomon, the most common use of Frankincense is to honour the Gods. While the average annual quantities used have decreased since Solomon’s times, science has found new applications. Harvesting is still done using the traditional method of bleeding wild trees. Although uncultivated, individual trees ‘belong’  to particular families who live nearby (by unspoken agreement). These families look after the trees and claim the right to harvest them.

In the ancient world, all Frankincense trees were considered the property of the King. It fell on him to negotiate the harvesting rights with the merchants, for a percentage of the profits, of course. Studies show that families who take a ‘guardian’ role towards the trees are more likely to use sustainable practices. Unlike the roaming harvesters, who don’t care much about the welfare of a particular tree, any desert dweller will naturally want to protect the source of their livelihood.

Harvesting

Harvesting Frankincense is a time-consuming process. Several deep incisions are cut into the tree trunk, and a small piece of bark is removed. (According to modern research, more than five incisions causes considerable stress to the trees.) This wounding causes the tree to ‘bleed’, and a milky white substance protrudes that seals and heals the wound to prevent infection. After three months, the resin has hardened enough to scrape off the tree trunk. This ‘bleeding’ process is repeated three times to obtain the highest quality Frankincense. Only the resin collected from the final bleeding is rated as ‘superior quality. Once solidified, the resin is sorted into tears and grains of different colours and sizes. The quality is determined by the degree of opacity. Resin destined for distillation is shipped off while still slightly sticky inside. This indicates a high concentration of volatile oil.

Medicinal uses:

Most Frankincense is used for religious purposes. But it also has a long history as an ingredient of medicines and cosmetic preparations. Early writers such as Pliny, Dioscorides and Avicenna have recorded such uses of Frankincense as were common in their time. But in time, the therapeutic properties had been all but forgotten – until some years ago, when new studies found Frankincense effective for a wide range of hard-to-treat diseases.

The ethnomedicinal applications of Frankincense are very diverse, ranging from dental disease to skin conditions, respiratory complaints and digestive troubles. In the Ancient World, every part of the tree was used: root, bark, bud, flower, fruit and resin and essential oil.

Astringent

The powdered bark was used to make an astringent paste for swellings (oedema). Mastitis was treated by boiling the dried or fresh gum in the patient’s own milk to form a thick paste for topical application.

The bark’s astringent properties are used in ointments for treating sores and chapped skin. Emperor Nero is said to have used a pomade made from a mixture of resin and wax to disguise the tell-tale bags beneath his eyes that appeared after a night of excess.

Vulnerary

The charred, powdered bark was kept as a first aid application for wounds. Mixed with water, it made an instant dressing for injuries and burns. If available, the fresh bark was also used for this purpose. The lotion provides an excellent antiseptic wash to clean dirty or infected wounds.

The bark was also used for setting broken bones. Two pieces of the wood were used as splints, with strips of Frankincense bark wrapped around them to hold in place a bandage that had been soaked in soft resin. The drying resin helped to provide firm support for the mending bone.

Child Birth

Frankincense also played a role in women’s medicine. Chewing the bark alleviates morning sickness. A potion made from snakeskin and resin dissolved in wine was said to ease difficult or prolonged labour. Frankincense was burnt for 40 days during and post-partum, to protect mother and child. Squatting over the smouldering resin was said to restore muscle tone and support healing of any laceration, and speed recovery from the strains of labour.

Eyes

Its antiseptic properties have also been used to treat ophthalmic diseases. In Ethiopia, the soot of the resin is believed to be beneficial for the eyes. Sore or tired eyes are fumigated with the smoke.

Teeth and gums

The resin was chewed as a ‘therapeutic chewing gum’ to stimulate the gums and treat dental infections such as gingivitis.

Stomach problems

A bark decoction makes a stimulating and cleansing tea. The inner root of young trees was chewed as a remedy for stomach problems. Buds and fruit were used as a cleansing tonic for the digestive system.  A decoction of Frankincense resin, cinnamon and cardamom, settles an upset stomach. 

Other uses

Even the incense was used therapeutically. The smoke acts as an expectorant and clears phlegm from the head and chest. It purifies the air and relaxes the patient while soothing their pain, especially severe headaches.

Frankincense smoke is a powerful insect deterrent, a  property that helps prevent serious diseases like malaria or dengue fever.

Frankincense is said to improve memory and dispel lethargy. An old recipe for an epilepsy treatment recommends boiling it in with hare’s lungs in white wine.

Modern uses

Modern research has focused on Olibanum’s anti-inflammatory properties, particularly to treat rheumatoid arthritis and soft tissue rheumatism. Frankincense extract is also effective for gastrointestinal diseases such as colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Censer

OTHER USES

Perfume

The clean, fresh, balsamic fragrance of Frankincense has perfumed our world since ancient times. Originally, the term ‘to perfume’ derived from the Latin ‘per fume’ meaning ‘to pass something through the smoke’.  Clothes were fumigated, not only to give them a pleasant scent but also to kill any pathogens. Perfuming is essentially a cleansing practice.

Today, the perfume industry uses Frankincense essential oil as a fixative to scent soaps, detergents and countless cosmetic articles.

The ancient Egyptians were pioneers in cosmetics and perfumery. Among other things, they invented the eyeliner known as Kajal (Khol). Khol was made from charred powdered resin mixed with waxes, oils and other substances. It was believed to protect and improve vision. Modern versions are still available, but no longer contain Frankincense.

Fresh, soft Frankincense resin can be used to seal minor cracks in pottery and other utensils. The gum hardens upon drying.  In combination with other resins, it has been used to caulk ships.

In Ancient Egypt, Frankincense and Myrrh were essential items in the funerary rites used to embalm the mummies in preparation for the afterlife.

Plant Profile: Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Plant Profile: Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Image by NickyPe from Pixabay
Opium Poppy Papaver somniferum
Synonyms Opium Poppy, Mawseed, Herb of Joy, Mohn, Klapper-Rosen, Mago, Magesamen, Weismagen, wilder Magen, Magensaph, Rosule

Description:

Opium Poppies are nothing if not showy. Their sturdy stems and large leaves make a stark contrast to their large but oddly flimsy flowers. The delicate petals give the impression of a butterfly that is just about to take off. At the base of the flower sits a prominent, many-rayed stigma surrounded by a mass of stamens. After the flower has been fertilized, the petals drop off, leaving the seed capsule exposed as it swells and ripens like a pregnant belly.

Individual plants grow to between 70 cm, and 130 cm tall. The erect stems and large wavy leaves have a tough, rubbery texture. The leaves are indented and clasp the stem. All green parts of the plant are covered by a greyish-blue waxy substance that is easily rubbed off. Botanists describe this feature as glaucous.

When any green part is cut or wounded, a milky latex oozes out and turns brown as it dries. This substance is known as raw opium.

The seed capsule of Papaver somniferum is almost spherical and has a star-shaped, flattened lid. As it dries, the top shrinks and lifts. Tiny holes are formed underneath the rim, allowing the tiny, white or bluish-black seeds can disperse.

Origin and Distribution

It is difficult to establish with any certainty just where Papaver somniferum originated or who its genetic parents might have been. But, most researchers now agree that the Mediterranean region of Asia Minor is its most likely ‘original home’.

From this strategically advantageous position, they spread east into Asia, south into North Africa and north into Central Europe. Today, poppies are even found as far north as Britain. Poppies are popular as ornamentals, and breeders have developed dozens of varieties of different colours and flower arrangements.

The Papaver genus comprises about 100 species that occur throughout the temperate regions of the world. Poppies like to grow in association with corn. In early summer, the related Scarlet Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can often be seen in cornfields and verges. This species is much smaller, has scarlet-red petals and small, elongated seed capsules. Although the Scarlet Poppy has historically also been used medicinally, its action is much milder than that of Papaver somniferum.

Opium Poppies are not native to the New World. But when they appeared on their shores, Eastern tribes adopted their medicinal uses, which they learned from the Europeans.

Image by Peter Kraayvanger from Cultural History

The delicate Poppy flowers are beautiful to behold. Their papery petals gently waft in the summer's breeze - alas, it is a short-lived beauty. Here one day, gone the next. The fleeting splendour only lasts a few days before the petals fall, revealing a bulging seed pod.

The seed pods hold a myriad of tiny poppy seeds, a familiar item of the kitchen larder. We use them as toppings of bread rolls and bagels, or as cake fillings. Less commonly available is the delicately nutty seed oil, highly esteemed in gourmet cuisines.

But poppy has a secret power, and it flows within its fleshy stems, leaves and unripe seed capsules: its milky latex.

When it oxidizes and dries, the latex turns brown and becomes what the Ancients knew as 'opion'. This substance has been used for thousands of years. In the days of blood and gore, opion was a god-sent pain-reliever. Even today, the most effective pain relievers are still predominantly based on it.

Thanks to its potent analgesic and hypnotic properties, Opium relieves not only physical but also emotional pain. But woe to those who are seduced by it. Taken too regularly, it entraps the body and chains the mind to addiction, causing delusion, apathy, and even death.

Yet, in the words of Paracelsus:

"What is there that is not poison? All things are poison, and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.”

Our age-old relationship with poppies proves the point. Throughout history, it has brought great relief but also suffering and death.

 

Historical record

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have used poppies since pre-historic times. Archaeobotanists have found charred remains of poppies and opium at Neolithic settlements, burial sites and even in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. The latter were even decorated with paintings of Opium Poppy, Mandrake and Blue Water Lily - all considered magical plants connected to the underworld gods.

The earliest written record was found in Sumer and dates back to about 2000 B.C. It refers to poppies as 'Hul Gil' - the Herb of Joy. From Sumer, the knowledge and use of poppies spread throughout the Middle East to Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt, Persia and Greece.

They are mentioned in the famous Egyptian Eber's Papyrus (1500 B.C.), which recommends them as a remedy to calm incessantly crying babies. Remarkably, this use has persisted until the beginning of the 20th century in parts of North Africa and Europe. It certainly kept children quiet, but it also reduced their natural curiosity, thus dimming their wits.

From Hippocrates to Avicenna, Dioscorides and Galen - all the ancient medical texts mention opium as an effective painkiller and sedative.

Dioscorides offers a detailed description of how to obtain the latex:

"Those who wish to obtain the sap (of the Poppy) must go after the dew has dried, and draw their knife around the star in such a manner as not to penetrate the inside of the capsule, and also make straight incisions down the sides. Then with your finger wipe the extruding tear into a shell. When you return to it not long after, you will find the sap thickened, and the next day you will find it much the same. Pound the sap in your mortar and roll the mass into pills."

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Image by
Andy Faeth from Mythology

Poppies were considered sacred to Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, and they guarded the entrance to his drowsy realm. Hypnos is often depicted holding the seed capsules in his hands and adorning his head. He brought prophetic dreams and soothed emotional pain with forgetfulness.

At the temple of Aesclepius on the Greek island of Cos, poppies were used in a kind of sleep therapy. Aesclepius is a god of healing, but the only medicine he prescribed was a potent brew of opium and other herbs, while the therapeutic recommendations were revealed directly to the patients via visionary dreams.

The Romans identified Hypnos with their god of sleep, 'Somnus', who lent his name to poppies scientific nomenclature. 'Somniferus' comes from the Latin 'somnus ferre', - bringer of sleep.

Poppies had a strong association with the gods of the Underworld. In Greek mythology, they were sacred to Thanatos or Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and ruler of the realm of the dead. Excessive doses of opium can bring eternal sleep.

But they were also sacred to Demeter, the Earth-Goddess, who taught humankind the art of agriculture and particularly the cultivation of grains such as wheat and barley. Demeter was, of course, inconsolable when Hades abducted her daughter Persephone. Only poppies managed to soothe her pain. Poppies love mingling among the cornfields, and their bulging seed pods, containing an abundance of tiny seeds, serve as a perfect symbol of fertility.

Some scholars believe that opium was a chief ingredient of the secret ritual drink served at the Elysian Mystery rites. Unfortunately, the recipe ranks among the best-kept secrets of the ancient world, so we will never know for sure.

Mythology tells us that poppies sprang from Aphrodite's tears as she mourned the loss of her lover, Adonis. In ancient times, her birthplace, the island of Cyprus, was a major centre of poppy cultivation and trade.

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Folk Magic

Poppy's association with the goddess of love is also reflected in its relaxing aphrodisiac properties. Opium was very popular in folkloristic love magic. During the Middle Ages, it was the ingredient of choice for love charms, philtres and potions. Poppies were also tasked with predicting the fortunes of lovers. To learn the identity of a future spouse or divine the outcome of a love affair, the inquirer would write his question on a piece of parchment and place it inside a poppy seed capsule. The seed pod was then placed under the pillow until a prophetic dream would reveal all.

Naturally, love associates with fertility. The belly-like seed pod full of seeds makes an apt symbol not just of fertility, but also of prosperity. On New Year's Eve, giving gifts of poppy sweetbread served as tokens of prosperity blessings, while the seed capsules were used as a fertility charm.

Invisibility was also considered one of the poppy's magic powers. For this purpose, it was included in a magic potion. This use is probably linked to the myth of Persephone. It is believed that Hades' wore a cap of invisibility that resembled a poppy seed pod when he abducted Persephone.

Yet, poppy seeds are also said to be anti-demonic. If one found such nasty creatures hard on one's heels, all one had to do to get rid of them was to toss some poppy seeds in their direction. Apparently, demons and vampires are compelled to count everything. A handful of scattered poppy seeds would keep them busy long enough to allow you to escape.

From traditional herbal medicine to potent pharmaceutical drug and addiction

 

Opium was widely used in the ancient world, but it was Andromachos, the personal physician of Emperor Nero, who popularized it. One day, Nero challenged Andromachos to create a true panacea, a remedy that would ease all pain and diseases. The physician came up with a potent potion consisting of about sixty different plants and substances, including opium, which he called 'Theriak'. Later, Galen refined the brew and renamed it Galene. It became so popular throughout Europe that it rose to the status of a miracle cure. But the potion was expensive, and some ingredients were difficult to obtain, which led to adulteration.

During the Middle Ages, medicine became 'heroic' - in other words, unsympathetic, and patients were expected to simply bear their pain. The use of opium as a painkiller declined. But eventually, Paracelsus revived it by creating a stripped-down version of the original Theriak recipe, which proved extremely effective and soon surpassed even the success of the original. He compounded his concoction into pill form and called it 'Laudanum Paracelsi'.

 

 

Laudanum

He had managed to make his painkiller even more effective by the simple addition of lemon juice. The acid subtly changes opium's chemistry and enhances its anodyne action. For a long time, Laudanum was a celebrated panacea, believed to be effective for every ailment except leprosy.

The somewhat hyperbolic reputation meant that it was often in short supply. But it also pricked scientific curiosity and inspired numerous experiments. It even gave rise to the groundbreaking invention of the hypodermic needle. In 1656, Sir Christopher Wren first employed a syringe to prove the theory of blood circulation. He injected a dog's hind leg with a solution of opium, and sure enough, the drug rapidly took effect over the dog's entire body.

In 1680, the English Doctor Thomas Sydenham revised Paracelsus' potion once again. His aim was to purify the raw drug and rid it of impurities that seemed to cause 'sickness' when taken in large quantities. He added sherry wine, saffron, cinnamon and cloves to Paracelsus' Laudanum and renamed it 'Sydenham's Laudanum'. It was no more effective than the original, but it kicked off a new wave of enthusiasm for opium-based products. Soon every chemist seemed to market their own blend. Venice Treacle, Mithridate, London Laudanum and Dr Bate's Pacific Pills all became popular household names. But the available raw opium could barely keep up with the demand.

Laudanum was as popular as aspirin is today. Physicians routinely prescribed twice-weekly preventative dosing. Alas, sometimes too much of a good thing proves, well..., too much.

 

 

Overprescription and Addiction

It was at this time that overprescription led to the first cases of serious opium addiction. The problem was compounded by the fact that Laudanum was even overprescribed for children. But the problem with an addictive substance such as opium is that frequent dosing increases the body's resistance, and larger amounts are required to get the same results.

In 1700, Dr John Jones published a book called 'The Mysteries of Opium Revealed'. In the course of about 400 pages, he extolled the properties of opium. Describing its uses and effects, he also reported on its pleasant side effects and symptoms of addiction. Although his work was clearly biased and likely to have been influenced by his own intimate relationship with the subject, it did contain a grain of genius. Jones was the first to intuit that opium actually imitated substances that are already present in the body. But it took another 275 years before scientists discovered these substances, which subsequently became known as endorphins.

 

 

Morphine

Debate and experimentation continued. In 1799, Friedrich SertĂŒrner, a young German pharmacist's apprentice, observed that the effects of opium seemed to vary considerably from batch to batch. He became convinced that this must be due to the varying presence of an active constituent in the raw opium. After only four years of experimentation, he managed to isolate such a substance. In allusion to the Greek god of sleep, he called 'morphine'. But he wrongly believed that this purified compound was free of the unpleasant characteristics of opium. He had assumed that morphine was safer because only a tiny amount of it was necessary to induce far stronger effects than those of raw opium. But neither he nor anyone else at the time realized that it was also far more addictive. Soon, several pharmaceutical companies started to churn out morphine by the boatload. At the same time, Wren's earlier invention for injecting opium was perfected and morphed into what we now know as the hypodermic syringe. The improvement was celebrated as a great success, since the administration of morphine via a syringe tripled its efficacy.

The story of opium epitomizes the risk of relying on science to solve all our problems. Sometimes the solution to one problem engenders new ones that we only fully grasp much later.

(The history of poppy also has a very interesting, dark and thought-provoking political aspect, which, however, is beyond the scope of this article. Those interested in this plant and its impact on world history should read up on the opium wars - the consequences of which still linger.

The Cultural History of Grapes

The Cultural History of Grapes

Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)

Grapes are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world. But they have far more uses than ordinarily meet the palate. There are at least 8000 cultivated varieties of grapes, most of which are grown in the Northern Hemisphere.

Name: Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)
Family: Vitaceae
Synonyms: Grapevine, Vigne, Weintrauben, Rebstock

 

Description:

Grapes are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world. From New Zealand to California, Chile, South Africa and of course, their traditional turf around the Mediterranean Basin, grapes are cultivated in Mediterranean climate zones around the world. Grapevines are surprisingly hardy. They can live on next to nothing. They thrive on poor soils, so long as they are well-draining and don’t mind the heat. The only thing they won’t survive is a cold, wet climate.

When left untended, grapevines can reach a height of about 15 m. As climbers, they will scramble up anything that will give them support. In cultivation, they are often trained on wires and cut back after each season so that only the strongest one or two shoots remain.

The gnarly stem forms finely grained, dense wood. The leaves are palmate (hand-shaped) with deeply indented lobes, with very jaggy serrated margins, depending on the variety. In May or June, they begin to flower, forming bunches of tiny, white, 5-petaled flowers with a very delicate and sweet aroma. Alas, this phase does not last long. Soon, bunches of sweet, juicy berries start to develop.

Depending on the variety, their size and colour vary. The smooth-skinned, yellowish-green to reddish, or purple-black berries usually contain 2 seeds each (except for seedless varieties). Vines can be propagated by seed or cutting. Most European stocks are grafted onto American rootstocks due to a devastating blight that nearly destroyed all European vine stocks.

There are also many wild grape species, which also tend to be a meandering bunch. They can sprawl over an extensive area if left undisturbed. Their berries also grow in bunches, but they are much sparser and consist of much smaller berries, which are usually quite tart. Like their cultivated counterparts, the flowers are small and rather inconspicuous.

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Distribution:

The geographical origins of the vine is still a matter of debate. Various wild varieties can be found in different parts of the world, far beyond the Mediterranean. When the Vikings first arrived in the Americas, they called it ‘Vinland’ for the many wild grape varieties they found there. The type now under cultivation in Europe seems to have originated in Georgia. Under the influence of Greek and Roman expansion, it steadily spread west and north from there. Today grape production is prolific in all warm, temperate regions of the world, from Central and Southern Europe, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, US, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, to New Zealand.

Problems and Pathogens:

Viticulture is a profitable business, which, however, claims a vast amount of land. Wine lovers may appreciate the variety of tastes and textures this diversity produces, but environmentally it is a disaster. Relying almost entirely on just one single cash crop is highly risky. Furthermore, monocultures heavily depend on fertilizers, and pesticides that are highly damaging to the environment.

Various pathogens can threaten grapevines: powdery mildew rots the stalks, shrivels the leaves, splits the grapes and finally kills the vine. Red spider mites suck the sap from the leaf veins, phylloxera vastatrix strikes the roots, and the cochylis moth grub attacks the flowers.

wine press

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE

The story of viticulture is so old that nobody really knows where and when it all started. The Bible mentions that Noah planted a vineyard, but even he was probably not the first. Wine is mentioned in almost every classical text, with records dating back some 6000 years.
It appears as though the Greeks were the first to popularize fermented grape juice, with the Romans soon following suit. As major trading powers, they spread the art of viticulture all around the Mediterranean Basin. By 600 BC, wine was a sought-after export commodity, especially popular with the Gauls who, in time, became expert growers themselves.
However, in the latter half of the 18th century, tragedy struck. By then, grapes had moved to the Americas along with the colonists. The drama unfolded when a North American grower sent some specimen of his rootstocks back to the old world for further study. Unfortunately, the sample he sent was infested with a devastating blight (phylloxera vastatrix) that threatened to wipe out vineyards across Southern Europe. It was a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.
Luckily, the cure also came from North America – and just in time. A frantic search for a blight-resistant yielded results, and another sample was sent to Europe. Growers started quickly grafted their ancient varieties onto American rootstocks, which saved them. Although the industry took some time to recover, European wine-growers rank again at the top of the international charts.

The wines of Ancient Greece seemed to have been quite a different kind of brew than what we are used to today. Historical records describe a much thicker and heavier beverage that had to be diluted at a ratio of 1:3 for consumption. Typically, it was infused with other substances such as resins, aromatic herbs and even psychotropic plants. It is not surprising then that the Greeks associated wine with Dionysus, the wild, shamanic god of ecstasy. His rites were frenzied and orgiastic. A menacing mob of Maenads, (his priestesses) pursued the god (or his representative) in a feverish hunt and tore him apart. Eventually, an animal (a fawn or fox) replaced the human sacrifice. In time, Dionysus was tamed and re-cast as a chubby, cheerful, but domesticated deity of wheat and wine. The animal sacrifice was replaced with a ritual sharing of ceremonial bread and unadulterated wine during the annual celebration of the Elysian Mystery play.

The Romans equated Dionysus with Bacchus, their god of wine and intoxication, whom they worshipped in much the same manner. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is the Lord of wine, and Isis fell pregnant with Horus after eating his grapes.

The Hellenized Syrian satirist Lucian recounts a ‘tall satirical tale’ in his ‘True History’. A strange vineyard once grew on the far banks of a river that ran with wine instead of water. The grapevines grew woody stems, but their upper parts sprouted beautiful maidens whose hair was a tangle of leaves and bunches of grapes growing from their fingertips. Their enchanting song lured passers-by. But woe to those who succumbed to their embrace: instantly drunk and unable to escape, the hapless took root and soon sprouted shoots and leaves themselves.

Aphrodisiac associations:

Wine is a divine gift of the gods. In moderate amounts, it lifts the spirit, exhilarates and inspires. It opens the mind and holds the key to the heart and soul. Innumerable works of art have been inspired, and countless adventures started by a spark of its passionate fire. But in excessive quantities, it stupefies and causes delusion. It is a fine line between ecstasy and frenzied oblivion.

 

Ever tried making homemade wines?

MEDICINAL USES

Both red and white wine was traditionally used as a solvent to extract other substances when making medicinal wines and cordials. But various parts of the plant itself were also used as medicine.

PARTS USED:

Leaves: fresh young leaves
Flowers: dried or fresh flowers
Berries: fresh or dried fruit
Seeds: oil pressed from the seeds

HARVEST TIMES:

The flowers appear in May/June. The leaves should be picked in spring when they are tender, and the grapes ripen from September onwards (in the Northern Hemisphere).

LEAVES

Constituents:
In the summer, the leaves contain a mixture of sugar and glucose, tartaric acid, potassium bi-tartrate, quercetin, quercitrin, tannin, Amidon, malic acid, gum, inosite, a crystallizable fermentable sugar and oxalate of calcium. In the autumn, they contain more
quercetin and less quercitrin.
Actions:
Anti-inflammatory, astringent, styptic
Indications:
An infusion of 1 TSP of fresh, finely cut leaves per cup of water helps with conditions such as rheumatism, gout, nausea and spitting of blood. A preparation known as ‘Papinorum Extract’ made from the leaves is used in Homeopathy to treat epilepsy and inflammatory conditions of the hip. Dried and powdered, leaves were fed to cattle as a treatment for dysentery. A decoction was used to prevent a threatened miscarriage. The astringent properties help to arrest internal and external bleeding, cholera, dropsy, diarrhoea and nausea. The decoction can also be used to treat mouth ulcers and as a douche for vaginal discharge. Grape leaves are used as a treatment for varicose veins and fragile capillaries. For this purpose, leaves are harvested as soon as they turn red and are used either fresh or dried.

FLOWERS

Actions:
Nerve tonic
Indications:
1tsp of dried flowers per cup of boiling water is said to strengthen neuronal dendrons. It also supports the bone marrow to build red blood cells. The infusion can be used internally or applied externally as a rub to aid neuronal function (even for numbness of the lower limbs)

BERRIES

Constituents:
Malic, tartaric, ascetic ascorbic and racemic acids, alanine, alpha-linolenic acid, alpha-tocopherol, arginine. Oxalic acid in unripe fruits, Ca, P, Fe, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid
Actions:
Fortifying blood tonic, nourishing, stimulates kidney and liver function and thus aids elimination and inner cleansing, gentle laxative
Indications:
A grape-fast is a popular method to rid the body of accumulated metabolic waste products and other toxins. 2 kg of grapes should be eaten throughout the day for two weeks, with little or no other food. It is recommended to do a full day fast one day before embarking on this regime. This is an excellent way to stimulate and tone the kidneys and thus to lose weight by releasing water from the tissues. It reduces fat, regulates bowel function, purifies the blood and cleanses the skin. A grape-fast can alleviate rheumatic pain and heartburn, regulate metabolic processes, water retention, oedema and circulatory complaints. Grapes are restorative and nourishing food that aid recovery from anaemia and debilitating conditions. Dehydrated grapes (raisins) have demulcent, nutritious and slightly laxative properties. Grape sugar (fructose) is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. It almost instantly restores energy levels in case of exhaustion and debility.
 Contraindications:
A grape fast is not recommended for dyspeptic, excitable, hot-blooded individuals, as it may cause palpitations.

SAP:

Grapevine sap, a watery substance that naturally occurs when pruning the vines, was used as a lotion to treat weak eyes and corneal floaters. It has also been used as a skin lotion. Internally, it acts as a diuretic.

 

wine press

 

GENERAL USES

  • Basketry: The annual shoots are pruned in the winter. They are very flexible and have been used for basketry and broom-making.
  • Cosmetics: A lotion made from the flowers has been used for freckles, while the oil (seeds) is used for making soap.
  • Dyes: The berries yield a purplish colour, which is not durable. The fresh or dried leaves dye yellow.
  • Fuel: The old grapevine stocks are popular as firewood, especially for grilling due to the aromatic smoke. The twigs make good kindling.
  • Grapeseed Oil: Grapeseed oil is pressed from the seeds. It is used for culinary and cosmetic purposes. For culinary use, the oil must be refined to make it fit for consumption. Unrefined grapeseed oil is slightly sticky. As a massage oil, it is best to blend it with other oils.
  • Culinary uses: Grapes are wonderfully refreshing, nourishing and cleansing fruits that can be enjoyed straight from the vine. Their sweet and tasty juice makes a refreshing beverage and can also be used to make jelly. Evaporated to produce a concentrate, it makes a good sweetener. But above all, grape juice is fermented to make wine and champagne. Wines come in a staggering variety: reds, rose or white wines, champagne or sparkling wine, are made from hundreds of different grape varieties. A dessert wine is produced by adding alcohol to the ferment to prematurely stop the fermentation process.
  • The young tendrils can be eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable. The flowers are also edible and can be prepared as fritters.
  • The sap tastes sweet and can be used as a drink, but harvesting large quantities weakens the vines. Roasted seeds can be used as a coffee substitute.
  • Pickled leaves are used as a wrapping for finger-food appetizers (dolmas) that are especially popular in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines.
  • A crystalline salt, cream of tartar, also known as potassium bitartrate, is derived from the residue of pressed grapes. Sediments collected from wine barrels are used for making baking powder.

 

Photographs by Kat Morgenstern

Plant Profile: Moringa

Plant Profile: Moringa

Plant Profile: Moringa (Moringa oleifera Lam.)

Moringa is a tropical tree that is not very well known outside its native habitat, despite offering multiple gifts for the benefit of mankind.

 

Habitat:

Moringa has spread from its native habitat in the sub-Himalayan region of India to tropical and subtropical areas around the world. It is now cultivated on many continents. It is highly adaptive and tolerant to even the most inhospitably arid soil conditions. Prolonged cold spells with temperatures falling to below 20 °C are the only conditions it can not tolerate. Its preferred conditions are temperatures between 25°-30 °C and well-draining soil.

 

Description:

Moringa is a fast-growing subtropical tree native to the Himalayan foothills. In as little as 10 months, it can grow to an astonishing height of three meters – from seed! However, it rarely grows to more than 10 meters in total – a tree of medium stature.

Its feathery leaves and bean-like seed pods give it the appearance of a legume species. But that is not the case. Moringa is the only genus of the Moraginacae family, which comprises 13 species. The pods, which are slightly thickened at one end, are known as ‘drum sticks’. Each pod contains 15-20 winged seeds.

The tree branches freely and produces dark, green feathery tri-pinnate leaves with elliptical leaflets. The flowers grow in bunches of small white or cream-coloured flowers and have a subtle fragrance.

Moringa BlossomImage by Yaayaa Diallo from Pixabay

Moringa Blossom

 

History

Moringa is one of the most important and universally useful plants of the tropics.

The entire plant is edible – leaves, seeds, pods, flowers and even the roots – although some experts warn against eating them. (The British called this tree ‘Horseradish root tree’, an allusion to root’s distinct flavour).

Moringa is remarkably rich in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, C and E, calcium, potassium, iron and, perhaps most importantly, protein. It is recommended as a nutritional supplement for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and the elderly and infirm. It is one of the few sources of high-quality vegetable protein that contains all essential amino acids.

In India, the young, green and immature pods (the ‘drumsticks’) are a popular ingredient of curries. The seeds yield a high-quality oil used in cooking which is rich in oleic acid. It is very stable, comparable to olive oil in terms of resistance to rancidity and nutritional value. The leaves are the most perishable. Ideally, they should be consumed within a couple of days of harvest. To extend their shelf-life on the market, they need to be bagged and cooled. Alternatively, their nutritional value can be better preserved by drying and powdering them. The powder can then be added as a nutritional supplement to soups, beverages, curries and other foods. But the most miraculous powers are contained within its seeds: Moringa seeds act as ‘flocculants’. They can purify water by causing contaminants to ‘flock together’ and precipitate, i.e. sink to the bottom of the vessel, thus effectively purifying the water. Pharmacologists at Gadja Mada University in Indonesia showed that “one crushed Moringa seed can clear 90% of the total coliform bacteria in a litre of river water within 20 minutes. While an animal study showed that even 2,000 seeds per litre of water had no toxic effects on mice.”

This is powerful and important indeed, especially given the poor water quality in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Given that access to clean drinking water is still a problem in many tropical regions, Moringa offers hope. Promoting the planting of Moringa trees could significantly improve water quality, as well as help to boost nutrition in some of the poorest regions of the world.

 

Moringa sticks

Moringa Drum Sticks Image by S V from Pixabay

Medicinal uses:

Medicinally, Moringa is primarily used to address problems arising from malnutrition. It has a tonic effect on the gastric system and can cure diarrhoea. Thanks to its high vitamin A content, it is a great immune system booster. Vitamin A also helps alleviate visual problems, such as night blindness and xerophthalmia.

Despite its impressive nutritional profile, Moringa can not cure severe malnutrition. The body can no longer process iron, protein or fat once severe physiological abnormalities have been triggered (e.g. infections, impaired liver and intestinal function, imbalance of electrolytes and related problems). However, Moringa is the best available ally to prevent such severe cases and correct mild and moderate ones.

Moringa can also reduce blood sugar levels and thus help control diabetes and high blood pressure. Furthermore, it is said to be helpful in the treatment of respiratory problems, tuberculosis and malaria.

The raw seed pods act on the liver and are used as an anthelminthic (deworming) agent.

The seed oil contains antibiotic and anti-inflammatory compounds. It is used in the treatment of bacterial and fungal skin conditions. Topically, it can be applied to aching joints.

Recent research suggests that Moringa may be effective against certain kinds of cancer, particularly skin cancer. Traditional healers have long used Moringa for this purpose, but further studies are needed to evaluate and verify these traditional uses. They also claim that it to be an excellent nutrient to prevent cancer.

It is easy to add Moringa to the diet, and almost anybody could benefit from it. But above all, it should be used to improve the conditions of those who live in extreme poverty. Moringa should be planted in every available patch of public land to make it accessible to all.

 

Lead image by Iskandar Ab. Rashid from Pixabay

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