Rosemary – Rosemarinus officinalis

Rosemary – Rosemarinus officinalis

Rosemary, which has long been known as Rosmarinus officinalis, has recently been assigned to the Genus ‘Salvia’. That means, it is botanically grouped with the sages. However, the old name is still acceptable, but it is good to be aware of the name change, to avoid confusion.

Most of us know this woody, aromatic bush as a culinary herb, but in fact, Rosemary is so much more than that. It has some quite remarkable properties that are well worth remembering!

As a kitchen herb, Rosemary is an old stand-by: Rosemary potatoes, Rosemary chicken, Rosemary salt, Rosemary lamb, or Rosemary fish are all familiar menu items.  The needle-like leaves have a highly aromatic, somewhat medicinal scent. The flavour is distinctive, somewhat bitter, and resinous, which perfectly complements fatty foods. It ‘cuts through’ the grease. This is why it is used to flavor greasy meat and fish dishes and to aid digestion. Rosemary acts as a token apology to the liver.

Although it is an herb of the mint family (Lamiaceae), its thin, spiky leaves lend it the appearance of some kind of dwarf conifer. Rosemary is at home in the semi-arid climate zone of the Mediterranean coastal region. It commonly grows in the garrigue, the shrubland that covers the lower hills. Its scientific name – ‘rosmarinus’ means ‘Dew of the Sea’. It indicates that this herb likes to be ‘kissed’ by the salty mist coming in from the sea. Others have suggested that the name perhaps alludes to the light blue flowers. A bush that is profusely covered in flowers has the appearance of sea foam on the crest of a wave. Thus, Rosemary has also been linked to the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, who was born from the foam of the sea.

In the Mediterranean, it is one of the earliest flowers to appear in the New Year. Its pale blue flowers blush the wild coastal hillsides, spreading an aromatic scent that awakens the sleepy bees. Rich in nectar, Rosemary is one of their first sources of nourishment. The highly aromatic Rosemary honey is sold at local markets as a highly prized regional specialty.

Rosemary’s intense fragrance and aromatic flavor are due to essential oils, which are obtained not from the flowers, but from the needle-like leaves. As a key ingredient of the ever-useful herb blend known as  ‘Herbes de Provençe’ it is a quintessential item on the herb shelf.

Rosemary bush

Medicinal uses of Rosemary

This essential oil is also responsible for its medicinal properties. Rosemary oil stimulates blood circulation, particularly to the head. It has a beneficial effect on memory. In herbal lore, this property is associated with the remembrance of loved ones, and friends, and those who have recently passed away.

Rosemary’s bitter principle aids digestion. It ‘warms’ the stomach and stimulates the liver and gallbladder. It helps the body to break down fats and improve digestion.

It also shows anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Externally, a Rosemary infusion can be used to cleanse badly healing wounds.

Cooking with Rosemary

Rosemary goes great with roasts – whether you are roasting a goose, lamb chops, or a pan full of root vegetables, a sprig of rosemary transforms the dish and adds a complex, slightly bitter and highly aromatic flavor.

Purification

Rosemary has also long been used as incense, particularly in combination with Juniper berries. This tradition has continued into modern times. It is still sometimes used to fumigate and purify the air in a patient’s room. It is also popular as a cleansing aromatic that is used in sauna infusions, or to scent bath oils and soaps.

Restorative

Rosemary’ is a tonic and restorative. Its stimulating action on the blood circulation and coronary function and can restore vitality and strength to convalescents or feeble children. In the past it was also used as an aphrodisiac that had the reputation to restore a dwindling manhood. Recent research has shown that Rosemary contains

Cosmetics

Rosemary can be added to home-made shampoos or hair rinses. It will stimulate the follicles and promote hair growth. In the ‘still room,’ its essence would have been added to skin tonics, lotions, and oils.

Rosemary Hair Rinse

The simplest way to let your hair benefit from the tonic power of Rosemary is to simply make a strong infusion of 1 tablespoon of dried rosemary leaves to 500 ml of water – infuse with boiling water and steep until it has cooled down, strain and massage into the scalp. Leave it for a few minutes, then rinse it out. It is best when prepared fresh, but it will keep for a few days in the fridge.

Rosemary Shampoo

Unscented shampoo bases are readily available at many stores these days. Get one you like and add a few drops of Rosemary Essential Oil to it.

Recommended for brown or dark hair as it will naturally darken the hair over time.

Apple Tree

Apple Tree

Description:

The Apple Tree is one of the most anciently cultivated fruits of Eurasia. It is believed to have developed in central Asia, where the greatest genetic variation occurs in the wild. In cultivation, trees are usually trained and do not reach more than approx 5m in height to facilitate easy harvesting. When grown under natural conditions they can reach up to 12m.

The tree belongs to the Rose family. It has typical, highly conspicuous 5-petaled flowers growing in cymes and simple, ovate, alternate leaves, dark green on top and lightly downy underneath. The leaf margins are serrate.

A mature apple tree looks like a grandmother tree: small in stature, writhing limbs and with grey, crinkly bark. It does not exactly impress with its habitus, yet we learn to love it from an early age. Children not only love its wonderful fruits but also the inviting limbs that make it ideal for climbing and just about every child will sooner or later become intimately acquainted with it. In spring it is particularly noticeable and fetching. Before any leaves are beginning to show it is clad in a glorious dress of pinkish-white flowers and buzzing with delirious bees. Once the flowers have faded we pass it by without paying much attention, but come September, when it is laden with shining, red or golden apples, it is impossible to resist. Even crab apples, whose fruit are much smaller (and tarter), look tempting.

It is estimated that there may be as many as 20000 cultivated varieties, each with their own distinct flavour, shape, smell, crunchiness, and succulence, though nobody knows the exact number. Sadly, most of them are endangered heirloom species, confined to just a few gardens. The average supermarket only carries about 5 standard varieties.

Ecology:

Apple trees are an important source of food: they provide nectar for bees, and their apples are a welcome source of nutrition for many species of wildlife.

Distribution:

Apple trees are so widespread that it is almost impossible to pin down their origin. Charred remains of prehistoric crab apples found at archaeological sites throughout Europe are a testimony to the fact that wild apples had spread throughout much of  Eurasia by Neolithic times. The first cultivated varieties probably reached northern parts of Europe with the Romans. Today apples are grown in all temperate regions of the globe.

History & Mythology

The apple tree is perhaps the most mythical of all trees – is it not supposed to have been the demise of all mankind, way back at the beginning of time? Well, so the story goes, but it is actually highly unlikely that the forbidden fruit, which gave us knowledge of good and evil, would have been an apple since apples were unknown in Egypt and Palestine at the time when the earliest biblical accounts were written down. In these accounts, the story merely refers to ‘a fruit’. However, long before Christianity was ever conceived of, the apple tree was already a widely adored symbol of immortality. Its fruit was regarded as the sacred heart of the Goddess of Eternal Life. In Celtic tradition the paradise on the western horizon, where the souls of the Blessed go, was known as Avalon, the Isle of Apples, which was guarded by Morgan, Queen of the Dead.

While the Neolithic Lake-villagers of north-central Switzerland are known to have feasted on Crab apples, cultivated varieties reached central and northern Europe with the Romans. They too, associated eternity with the apple. Alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the two poles that encompass existence, were represented by an egg, symbolic of the source of life (alpha), and an apple, the symbol of the immortality of the soul and its resurrection (omega). Thus, each of their feasts would start with an egg and finish with an apple. Wild boars (pigs and boars are sacred totems of the Great Goddess,) were roasted with an apple in their snout to represent eternal life and rebirth.

The apple is a fruit of Venus/Aphrodite and it bears her signature, the five-pointed star. Among gypsies, it is traditional to cut the apple horizontally to reveal this mystical insignia of the Goddess. Greek mythology involves the apple in a more tragic and fateful story, the story of Paris, who was assigned the impossible task to settle a dispute between three Goddesses and decide who was the fairest of them all. How was he ever to make such a choice? The youth was doomed and he knew it. But decide he must, there was no way around it. The chosen one was to receive a golden apple, inscribed with the words ‘to the most deserving’. In the end, it was Aphrodite who won him over by bribing him. She promised him the love of Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman alive on earth at the time. Alas. his choice turned out to be short-sighted and not very wise, as that beautiful young woman was already married to another. Nevertheless, Paris ran away with her, which inadvertently started the chain of events that eventually lead to the Trojan War.

In China, by contrast, the pictogram for ‘apple’ also means ‘peace’. Thus to present someone with an apple is a gesture of goodwill and peace.

In western tradition, apples became associated with erotic love and sin – thanks to the misinterpretation of the church fathers. For centuries it was thus used metaphorically in ecclesiastic art. However, as Christianity became ever more fanatical, focusing on the evils of the flesh and condemning women as witches, the apple came to symbolize temptation and evil; a symbol of sinful, carnal love and even the devil himself. Which is how they became known as ‘malus’, (=bad), and the tree was reinterpreted as a ‘witches’ tree.’

Apple trees are also the most common host species of Mistletoe, one of the most sacred plants of the Druids. However, they favoured Oak as a host-plant for Mistletoe, which is far rarer.

Once upon a time, when Halloween was more than a spooky fun day for kids, it marked the pagan New Year,  a time when the life-force retreats into the womb of the earth, where it would regenerate and restore its powers, ready to be reborn the following spring. Apples are the sacred fruit of the season symbolic of eternal life and resurrection. Apple bopping games and other customs are remnants of such ancient pagan traditions, which allude to the eternal life of the soul.

apple harvest

During the time of the apple harvest farmers traditionally engaged in the custom of ‘wassailing’, a kind of tree blessing that was meant to invoke their innate fertility, chase off evil spirits that might make off with their fruits and to give thanks for the harvest – an occasion that was celebrated with good quantities of cider, apple cake as well as with fireworks or gunfire.

Apples have also sometimes been used as a form of divination. Young hopefuls believed they could tell their prospects in their pursuit of love and happiness. The procedure required the person to cut the apple horizontally. The fortunes were revealed by interpreting the numbers of seeds and whether, or how many of them were cut or damaged in the process.

Cider, hot spiced apple wine, and baked apples or apple crumble all featured strongly among seasonal favourites at this time of year. But not all apple traditions are as old as ‘ye old heathen times’. The most famous ‘apple hero’ of all times was born in the American legendary figure of Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed is said to have spent his life planting apple trees across the land, pursuing his vision of a country filled with these glorious trees. He is also said to have talked to animals and never carried arms, even when walking alone in unknown territory. He was accepted by the Indians and respected by settlers, mediating various conflicts between these two sides. He certainly lived an eccentric life, but in the end, his dream was fulfilled.

Apples are very healthy fruits and the English adage ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ still carries a lot of merits. But more about that below.

 

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Flowers, Fruit, Peel

Harvest: Flowers in spring, when they are fully open and free of dew,

fruit in September/October, when they are ripe.

Traditionally, farmers will harvest apples in the last quarter of the moon to extend their shelf-life.

This old farmer’s wisdom makes sense, since water levels within organisms are highest at the full moon and lowest at the new moon, thus making it less likely that the fruit will rot.

Uses:

Apples are a wonderful ‘health food’, easy to digest and capable of correcting over-acidity of the stomach. They are particularly rich in pectin, a soluble fibre that forms a jelly-like substance, as any jam-maker will know: purified Pectin is used to help ‘set’ marmalades and jams. Not so well known is the fact that it helps to regulate digestion, forms a protective coating in the intestines and soothes inflamed tissues. Thus, apples can be used to treat both diarrhea and constipation. Apples are also said to balance blood sugar levels, as they can prevent dangerous spikes and lows. They are regarded as cooling and anti-inflammatory, which can be wonderfully refreshing and thirst quenching during convalescence, or when suffering from feverish conditions, coughs and colds. Apple tea, usually prepared by infusing minced fruit or peels (organic, please!) in hot water, is not only a delicious drink but also increases the elimination of uric acid and is helpful as a supportive remedy in the treatment of arthritic and rheumatic conditions as well as in rheumatoid kidney and liver disease. An apple diet is recommended for gout, constipation, hemorrhoids, bladder and kidney disease. Eaten at bedtime it improves the quality of sleep and helps to control night sweat.

The petals can be infused as a tisane to treat feverish conditions, especially those affecting the upper respiratory tract. Apple blossom tea also soothes and calms the nerves.

Apple cider vinegar is also excellent, and not just in salad dressings. It is very rich in calcium and can help to improve calcium deficiency related problems such as loss of concentration and memory, weak muscle tone, poor circulation, badly healing wounds, general itchiness, aching joints and lack of appetite. Apple cider vinegar cleanses the system by supporting the eliminative function of the kidneys. Thus, it is a supportive measure for arthritis, gout, rheumatism and various skin conditions. It is also said to be beneficial in cases of sinusitis, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic exhaustion, and night sweats. To make use of this healthful elixir, dilute one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in 6-8 oz of water. This may be sweetened with honey.

Recipes

There are dozens of delicious recipes that turn apples into countless sweat or savoury dishes or drinks. But even plain, straight from the tree – apples are simply delicious.

Baked Apples:

A simple way to enjoy a quick apple treat is to bake them whole. Take out the core and fill it with muesli. Sprinkle a little Cinnamon on top and dribble some honey on top. Place on a baking sheet and bake until the apple is soft enough to spoon. Serve with plain yogurt.

Grated Apple

A wonderful side salad: grate an apple and a couple of carrots. Add freshly squeezed lemon juice over it and add some currents to the mix. Simply divine.

Spiced Crab Apples

  • 3lb good crab apples
  • 2lb sugar
  • 1-pint vinegar
  • 1 root ginger, grated or bruised
  • Pared rind of half a lemon (organic)
  • 2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 1 tablespoon pimento (allspice) berries, whole

Wash the crab apples well. Place the vinegar and sugar into a saucepan. Heat the liquid while stirring continuously, taking care not to burn the sugar. Add the fruit. Put the spices into a muslin bag and tie well; add to the fruit. Cover the saucepan and cook on low heat until just tender. Remove the fruit with a siphoning spoon and pack into sterilized jars, leaving a little space at the top. Remove the muslin bag from the vinegar and strain the liquid. Return the liquid to the heat and continue to simmer, uncovered, until it has the consistency of syrup. Pour over the fruit in the jars while still hot so it covers them by ½ inch. Seal tightly and store in a cool, dark place for 6 weeks before use.

Ginger and Apple Chutney

  • 2 dozen large tart apples such as Bramleys or Boscopp
  • 1lb sultanas or raisins
  • 2 lb brown sugar
  • 3oz mustard seed
  • 1 fresh chili, seeded
  • 1 level dessertspoon turmeric pdr.
  • 1½ oz ground ginger
  • 1lb Spanish onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
  • 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with a little salt
  • 1½ pints vinegar

Peel, core and slice the apples and slice the chili. Put all ingredients into a saucepan and simmer on low heat for 11/2- 2 hours until cooked to a pulp. Allow setting overnight.

Other uses: Applewood is valued for its strength and fine grain. It is a dense and heavy wood and makes superior smoke wood. Bees love the nectar-rich apple blossom.

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Description:

Annatto, or Achiote, as it is commonly called in Latin American countries, is a tropical shrub that can grow up to about 20 meters high. The pinkish-white flowers develop into a bright red, heart-shaped and exceedingly bristly fruit, which is inedible. When ripe the fruit capsule breaks open and reveals an abundance of seeds embedded in an orange-red pulp. Achiote produces a prolific amount of fruits: a single tree can yield up to 270kg.

Distribution:

Annatto is widespread throughout tropical regions of Central and South America, where it is native. It has also become naturalized in other tropical regions, such as the Philippines.

History and Mythology

The Latin name ‘Bixa orellana’ does not give much of a clue regarding its properties. Some believe that the genus name is derived from the Portuguese ‘biche’, meaning ‘beak’, which may allude to the beak-shaped seedpods. Others believe it is a phonetic rendering of a Carib word for the colour red, which makes more sense. The species name is far more straightforward – it is given in honour of Francisco de Orellano, a Spanish conquistador of the 16th century, who accidentally ‘discovered’ the Amazon.

The tree has a wide range of surprising uses that are mostly of local significance. Although Annatto fruits are inedible, the fruit pulp yields a bright red dye, which has a long history of use, both as body paint and as a dye for textiles or food. The ancient Mayas and Aztecs regarded it as a symbolic substitute for blood and thus held it sacred. It was also used to make ink. Virtually all ancient Mayan scriptures were penned in annatto juice. Indigenous people still use the pulp for ‘cosmetic purposes’, as hair dye or lipstick, hence the English common name ‘Lipstick tree’. The pulp is also said to repel insects and to protect against sunburn due to the UV-filtering properties of the carotenoid pigment known as Bixin.

Annato seed pods

Rigues [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Its use as a food dye is just as ancient and persists even today. In fact, it is probably one of the most ubiquitous of all food dyes used by the food industry. It lends its reddish tint to cheeses, butter, and spreads, candy, and custards. It is also still used as a traditional food dye for meats. (The bright red colour of Chinese poultry, however, is due to treatment with a caramelised malt solution.) This use is most prevalent in the Philippines and in Central America and Mexico. The Aztecs were known to add Annatto to their sacred xocolatl brew and other foods.

To process the fruits, the seed pods are washed in order to separate the pulp from the seeds, which are used separately as a mild spice. A spice paste, known as ‘Achiote Recado,’ is a popular flavouring in Yucatecan cuisine (southern Mexico). Meats are marinated in the paste and wrapped in banana leaves. Fish, chicken and especially pork, or suckling pig can be treated this way.

Annatto is one of the most widely used food colouring substances of the food industry, which is somewhat problematic as many people appear to be highly allergic to. There are campaigns to get it banned, but the FDA considers it exempt from regulation. The way in which commercial annatto is processed as a dye involves hexane extraction, which just may possibly have something to do with these reported allergic reactions. Furthermore, the colouring agent, known as Bixin can now be produced by bio-engineering. Scientists have figured out the biochemical pathway and manipulated E.coli bacteria to produce Bixin. It might be interesting to conduct a comparative study of a) completely naturally processed annatto (see recado recipe below), bio-engineered bixin or commercially extracted annatto dye.

Annatto dye is also used in hair-oils, shoe polish, floor polish, nail-gloss, furniture, brass-lacquer, soap, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical ointments as well as for textiles, wool, leather, and calico.

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Seeds, leaves, bark, roots, shoots

Although commercially only the seed and seed paste are available, in tropical regions where Annatto is grown, other parts of the plant are also used for medicine. Particularly the leaves have a wide range of applications. The shoots and young leaves are used for feverish infections including gonorrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis. They are believed to protect the liver and reduce cholesterol. The leaves and seeds are also used to soothe irritable indigestion caused by excessively spicy food. An infusion of the flowers is said to be a useful expectorant for newborn babies. In some parts of the Amazon Annatto is used as a treatment for snakebites. Internally it is given as an anti-parasitic that can reduce pain associated with intestinal parasites. Externally the seed extract is applied as an insect repellent and to protect the skin against the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It is also used as a general skin tonic and to heal skin conditions.

The leaves have a marked effect on the urinary system. They increase the volume of urine in cases of renal insufficiency or cystitis. They are also said to reduce benign prostate hyperplasia and are thought to have anti-tumor activity. These are believed to be due to the high antioxidant activity of the carotenoid compounds Bixin and Norbixin, which are also the source of the red pigment Annatto is known for. These carotenoids have also been found to lower blood sugar levels and are used in the treatment of diabetes in traditional medicine systems of the tropics.

Recipes:

To obtain an orange-yellow food dye simply heat some cooking oil and stir in some annatto seeds. Remove the seeds from the oil before adding other foods for stir-frying. While the seeds would not spoil the taste, they would not add much flavour either. For flavouring, they are best when processed as a recado paste – see below:

Achiote Recado

‘Achiote recado’ is a typical spice paste of southern Mexico that is used to marinade meats, poultry, and fish. This recipe is based on a traditional recado recipe that utilizes the juice of bitter oranges (Seville oranges). As these are difficult to get this version is an improvisation.  A ready-made product is available at most Mexican stores. Making it from scratch takes time and effort, but, one can taste the difference

  • 2 tablespoons annatto seeds
  • ½ cup of water
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup ancho chile powder
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon toasted and ground dried Mexican oregano
  • 3 cloves garlic, whole, pan-roasted until brown and soft, then peeled
  • ½ medium-sized white onion, thickly sliced, pan-roasted until brown and soft
  • ¼ cup pineapple vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 1½ cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Makes about 2½ cups

In a small saucepan combine the annatto seeds and water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to steep for 2 more hours or until soft. Discard excess water, place in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Whizz until smooth. Use immediately or cover tightly. It will keep in the fridge for about 5 days.

To dye textiles

For best results use oxalic acid or tartaric acid to get golden yellow, with alum mordant, yellow, ochre with copper mordant, brown, with iron mordant, orange, with tin mordant. Best on cotton, linen, and other cellulose fiber. Fair light-fastness. Also known as Achiote, or Lipstick Tree. [Mexico] (SW: 4 oz)

Aloe (Aloe vera)

Aloe (Aloe vera)

Although originating in the hot and arid climes of northern Africa, to most of us Aloe Vera is no longer an exotic stranger. Not only do we see it advertised as a popular ingredient in a multitude of household products, ranging from washing-up liquid to latex gloves, and even razors, but many of us are familiar with the plant itself. Aloe Vera is a perennial succulent, undemanding and not particularly eye-catching. It vaguely resembles a small version of the century plant, so common in the North American Southwest. However, despite the superficial similarities, Aloe is an entirely different species of plant. Like the century plant, it belongs to the order of Asparagales but it does not share the same genus. Formerly broadly ascribed to the Lily family, taxonomists have now reassigned it to the genus of Asphodelaceae.

The fleshy, succulent leaves contain a clear, gooey gel. The leaf margins bear ‘sharp teeth’ that act quite effectively as a deterrent against casually browsing animals. Aloe loves hot and dry conditions and appears to wilt only if it receives excessive amounts of water, or if exposed to freezing temperatures. If grown in the right conditions, that is, mostly ignored, the plant will do fine. If it is really happy with its care and location, it may even send up a central shoot once a year, sporting short, tubular, yellowish flowers around the upper part of the spike.

There are about 400 species in the Aloe genus, but for medicinal purposes, Aloe Vera is the most useful. Mature plants of about 4-5 years are preferred as they provide the most potent healing compounds.

 

Ecology:

Aloe Vera is native to arid regions of north-eastern and southern parts of Africa and Madagascar. Thanks to its tremendous value as a healing plant, it has quickly spread to arid regions throughout the world. Today it is widely cultivated in similar environments pan-globally, including Mexico, USA, Japan, and China.

History

As is often the case with so-called ‘miracle plants’, their exaggerated reputation actually discredits them. Aloe Vera is a truly wonderful plant with no shortage of members to its fan club. It has a very ancient, well-established reputation as a medicinal plant, particularly useful for skin conditions, minor cuts, abrasions, and burns. The dried latex, which is not the same as the gel, but instead derives from the yellow juice contained in the pericyclic tubules of the inner leaf, is a well-known laxative.

Despite the fact that Aloe has been in documented use for at least 3500 years, controversial and contradictory information abounds. The earliest mention can be found in the famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1500 BC and which is widely regarded as one of the earliest precursors of what was to become the western Materia Medica. However, it is more than likely that it was commonly used for centuries before it was recorded. In fact, it seems more likely that Aloe was such a commonly used plant that earlier documents (of which few have survived) never even bothered to mention it. In the hot and dry countries of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Aloe Vera served as a soothing household remedy for sunburns and a ready-to-use moisturizing cosmetic lotion.

Some of the confusions surrounding this plant stem from the fact that it is frequently mistaken for lignum Aloes or Wood-Aloes, which is an entirely different species of plant. Although abundantly mentioned in the Bible as an incense ingredient and constituent of embalming oils, Wood-Aloes, in fact, is not even of Mediterranean origin. In fact, it is a tree belonging to the genus Aquilaria, known as Agarwood that is native to Southeast Asia. While the latex of Aloe Vera does dry and transforms into a hard substance, sometimes referred to as Aloe resin, it is not a particularly aromatic substance and has never been used as incense.

As mentioned above, Aloe Vera’s best known and most widely documented use is as an external application – usually in the form of a commercially produced gel. Such products do not offer quite the same benefits as the fresh gel obtained from a freshly cut leaf. The reason for this is simple. The natural jelly-like substance is not very stable and deteriorates quickly when exposed to air (oxidation). Commercial manufacturers have to process the gel in order to preserve the valuable properties and extend the shelf-life. But processing rarely enhances a natural product. More often it reduces a ‘miracle herb’ to a mediocre substance with questionable benefits. By the time it has been rendered into a substance that is suitable for use as an ingredient for creams and lotions, the remaining benefit will be minimal.

And this sheds some light on some of the rather puzzling research results: although Aloe Vera has a glowing reputation in folk usage, when tested in laboratories the results have often been fairly disappointing. Why would that be? The answer seems to lie not so much with the plant, in the laboratory conditions and processing methods. Lab conditions do not simulate traditional, real-life use very well. Instead, keen to discover and exploit a plants’ ‘active principles’, extracts are concocted that are supposed to concentrate the potency – but invariably destroy the plants’ natural synergy. Also, when the actual gel was used instead of extracted components, the quality was questionable. Conventional methods to stabilize and preserve the gel involve pasteurizing, which means the gel is heated to a high temperature, thus destroying many of the more sensitive constituents. Furthermore, preservatives are added, which further adulterate the gel. So, while many research results seem to demonstrate that much of Aloe’s benefits may be hype, what they actually show is that we lack proper processing methods to preserve the natural composition of fresh Aloe Vera gel.

Aloe vera plantation

A recent trend has popularised ‘Aloe vera juice’ (as well as a myriad spin-off products that contain the juice). This product is always processed and often mixed with sundry flavourings of dubious origin to make it more palatable and to extend its shelf-life. In its natural form, Aloe juice (gel) is rather bitter and not exactly a pleasure to gulp down, which is probably why there is no mention of this particular use in any of the traditional medical texts, except perhaps as an emergency measure or ‘heroic’ medicine to treat intestinal parasites or gastric infections.

Due to enzymatic processes oxidation sets in as soon as the leaves are cut. Careful handling during the harvesting process is of utmost importance. Once cut, the leaves are taken to a processing facility as quickly as possible, ideally in a refrigerated truck. At the processing plant, the leaves are filleted by hand to remove the outer, green skin. Unfortunately, most of the beneficial compounds are concentrated just beneath that outer skin and filleting removes many of these compounds and discards them along with the skin.

Recently, more efficient processing methods have been developed, which utilise the whole leaf and by removing only the green parts of the leaf in a cold process that involves a cellulose dissolving substance. This maintains the biochemical activity in its entirety. The resulting gel is yellow in colour, as it also retains the aloin, the bitter, laxative compound found just beneath the surface. Further processing involves adding various anti-oxidants since any oxygen present in the gel promotes breakdown and deterioration, as well as providing a breeding ground for aerobic bacteria. Finally, the pulp is separated from the liquid part, the aloin is filtered out by adding a carbon compound that is subsequently removed. To destroy any bacteria the liquid is then passed through tubes and exposed to ultraviolet light.

This method still requires stabilising compounds to be added to the final product, but it is a great improvement over conventional processing techniques that only processed the gel and applied a heat treatment to sterilize the liquid.

Another whole-leaf extraction method involves the same cold process leaf processing as the first step, but then uses a short, low temperature controlled sterilisation techniques to kill off bacteria, without adding chemicals. The resulting gel is then concentrated in a vacuum chamber and dehydrated to yield a water-soluble compound that retains the biochemical activity, without the need for additional preservatives. This method is currently regarded as the most efficient, even though heat is used in the process. The heating is closely controlled and never exceeds 65°C or lasts for more than 15 minutes at a time. Longer exposure or higher temperatures would degrade the final product.

Thus, it should be obvious that what is available at the store is not the same as what you get from the plant and that it is important to read the label so as to gain insight into the specific processing procedures that have been applied to the product.

Producers have established a self-regulating body to certify Aloe Vera products according to their own standards of quality control. Their seal of approval gives a certain degree of reassurance that the products do contain what the labels claim. However, there are even differences between certified companies, which are largely due to different methods of processing.

Aloe vera cut leaf

Medicinal Uses

Parts used: resin, gel extracted from the leaf

Constituents: Hydroxyanthracene derivatives of the anthrone type (principally barbaloin); 7-hydroxyaloin isomers, aloe-emodin, chrysophanol, and their glycosides; chromone derivatives (aloesin and its derivatives aloeresins A and C, and the aglycone aloesone. Gel: glucomannan (a polysaccharide), steroids, organic acids, enzymes, antibiotic principles, amino acids, saponins, minerals.

Actions: latex: cathartic, laxative, emmenagogue, digestive stimulant

Gel: immune system stimulant, skin healing, anti-irritant, moisturizing, anti-cancer

Indications

Traditionally, Aloe Vera gel has been used as a soothing topical application for sunburns and minor burns, abrasions, acne, psoriasis, shingles and even cold sores. The gel can be squeezed from the fresh leaf and applied directly to affected areas. Its skin repair qualities on burns and sunburns are truly remarkable – healing occurs quickly and without scarring, which is why Aloe Vera is also used to reduce scarring and stretch marks. The gel even seems to protect the skin against immune suppressant effect of ultraviolet light – thus it not only makes an excellent ‘after sun care’ application but may also be useful as a protective sunscreen lotion. It is a highly valued additive for cosmetic preparations that can moisturize and rejuvenate the skin by stimulating the synthesis of elastin and collagen.

External application of Aloe gel penetrates the skin directly and produces a soothing, pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effect on arthritic joints and tendonitis.

For internal use, Aloe Vera latex preparations are usually mixed with antispasmodic herbs to reduce the spasmodic effect of its laxative action. Used by itself it would produce a rather cathartic and painful cramping effect. The latex also stimulates the uterus thus promoting menstrual flow. Laxatives containing Aloe latex should be avoided during pregnancy.

Used internally, high-quality Aloe vera juice can stimulate the immune system. Laboratory studies on mice have shown it to be effective in the treatment of certain types of cancer and HIV and further studies are on the way.

Aloe juice seems to have a healing and balancing effect on the digestive system, improving absorption of nutrients and eliminating toxins. This improves general cell nutrition and activates the body’s own healing powers. It can relieve gastrointestinal problems associated with peptic or duodenal ulcers, improve regularity and enhance energy levels. It is also used to soothe colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. In fact, many chronic conditions have a component of digestive imbalance, which is apt to trigger secondary symptoms due to malabsorption and cellular malnutrition. Aloe vera juice can help to restore balance to the entire digestive system.

Furthermore, Aloe Vera juice also appears to have a beneficial effect on the liver and kidneys. It seems to reduce levels of blood lipids that are liable to clog up the arteries and may lead to coronary heart disease. It also seems to have a positive effect on blood sugar levels, which can make it a useful nutritional supplement in case of diabetes.

Caution:

Do not use Aloe Vera based laxatives during pregnancy. The juice may also be adulterated or contain levels of aloin above what would be deemed safe during pregnancy.

If you are on prescription medication consult with your health advisor regarding possible interference with other medicines when using Aloe Vera internally.

The quality of Aloe Vera gel or juice very much depends on the manufacturing process and some products that are currently on the market have little or no medicinal value. Research the products carefully before spending a lot of money on what may turn out to be an inert substance. Whole-leaf extracts are recommended. Look for the International Aloe Science Council certificate for quality assurance.

Grow your own

Everybody should have an Aloe Vera plant on their kitchen window sill. It is without a doubt the best instant remedy for burns. Growing Aloe Vera is easy, as it is a very undemanding plant. Just don’t over-water it and protect it against freezing temperatures. It loves the sun but will grow in semi-shade as well. It does not need particularly rich soil. Well-draining, sandy soil will do.

Home-made cosmetics

If you wish to incorporate Aloe vera gel in your own home-made skin-care products, you can use the gel to replace all or a portion of the liquid called for in your recipe. However, beware that unprocessed Aloe Vera gel is not very stable and won’t keep long, so make small batches only, store in the fridge and use up quickly. For maximum benefit, skin care preparations should contain at least 20-40% of gel. Purists may opt to simply cut a bit of leaf off and to rub it straight onto the skin.

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Description:

A slender, graceful palm of the Arecaceae family, Açai is native to the seasonally inundated lowland forests of eastern South America, especially Brazil. Several stems sprout from its base and it can grow to about 15-25m high. It takes 4-5 years to mature. The roots are perfectly adapted to the seasonally inundated and waterlogged conditions of its habitat, by developing special root structures known as pneumatophores, better known as aerial roots, although some prefer to call them aerating roots. These vertically erect, pencil-like shoots grow from the submerged horizontal roots that are below the soil. They not only help to stabilize the plant and protect the soil from erosion, but also help the roots to obtain oxygen as they will be exposed to the ground above the mud or flooded ground.

 

The leaves of the Açai palm are typical, pinnate palm fronds that arise from a reddish crown. In the course of a year, it produces 4-8 bunches of fruit, with yields being heaviest during the dry season, and most flowering mostly occurring during the wet season. The fruits form bunches of small, purple-black drupes, each with a large stone in its center and a minimal covering of purple-red pulp. Bunches can weigh up to 6kg each. The fruits are an important food source for rodents and birds, thus helping to spread the seeds. Thanks to its general usefulness this palm is often planted near human habitations.

 

History

Açai juice and smoothies are all the rave among health-conscious consumers in the US. But in the Amazon it has long been a staple – it is so ubiquitous and consumed in such large quantities, especially among the indigenous people and ribereños, the river communities of the lowland rainforest, that it is often referred to as ‘poor man’s food’.

 

Recently its superfood properties have been hailed, and successfully marketed to the young fitness crowd. Amazing qualities are ascribed to it – like most superfoods it is said to improve everything from the tone of your skin to your sex drive and have anti-cancer properties, too. No wonder it sells like hotcakes. If you google Açai you will instantly get a return of 5 million (!) pages – mostly advertising some novel product based on the magic berry. There is no end to the hype. But is it really true? Searching for solid evidence that is based on actual studies, one is baffled to find – precious little. There has been almost no research on this fruit at all. The hype appears to mostly be marketing froth. A new food fad is born.

 

Not that the fruit is bad for you, far from it. It does indeed have quite an impressive amount of anthocyanin, the antioxidant substance that gives it its colour – the same compound that achieves this effect in Bilberries. The actual amount of this substance is said to be twice as high in Açai than in blueberries, which does seem impressive. However, it comes in a very unstable form, which rapidly deteriorates after picking. The berries also contain protein, calcium, Vitamin B1, A, and E, as well as a good amount of calories – but despite the superlative claims its overall profile is not that remarkable. In the Amazon, although widely popular as a food/drink stuff, the berry has never been used medicinally.

 One of the most common ways to consume it is as a kind of porridge. The berries are soaked in water in order to soften the outer skin so that the pulp can easily be separated from the seed. The resulting mash is a deep purple, shiny thick mass, which may be mixed with the pulp of manioc, a starchy vegetable, to make a filling porridge. The mash is also frequently eaten with granola and other fruits as an energizing ‘health food’. Or, it is diluted with water or other fruit juices to make the famous energy drink that has recently become so popular among urbanites throughout the Americas.

 

The rapid nutrient deterioration is not of great concern in the Amazon, where it is eaten pretty much right from the tree. But to preserve any of its potential benefits for consumers on the other side of the planet, it is necessary to preserve the fruit pulp for export. The usual method is to pasteurize it, which, however, is not terribly gentle and destroys some of the more fragile compounds. It is then frozen or freeze-dried, which further reduces any potential benefits. Thus, it seems like Brazilians are reaping most of the benefit, providing the juice is made in clean condition with clean water and equipment, compared to the processed derivatives found in juice bars or on supermarket shelves thousands of miles from the Amazon.

 But business is booming. Dietary crazes have a way of catching on that defies any rationality. In Belem, the main market town in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon has an area solely dedicated to the sale of Açai berries, known as ‘Feira do Açai’, where more than 100 vendors sell 200,000kg of berries PER DAY during the dry season. And there is talk of substantially increasing business by planting more Açai trees. (One project plans to plant 5 billion Açai trees over the next 10 years!)

Açai is also economically important for other reasons. It is currently the main source of palm hearts, locally known as ‘palmito‘, which is part of the traditional Amazonian diet, although not significant from a nutritional point of view. Palm hearts also have a sizeable export market, mostly in France. Originally Açai’s cousin ‘Euterpe edulis‘ was harvested to obtain the hearts, but since it only grows one stem and the tree has to be cut and killed in order to obtain the precious ‘heart’ harvest from this species proved highly unsustainable. Euterpe oleracea, on the other hand, produces several stems and cutting one or two encourages the growth of new shoots. Thus, Euterpe oleracea has now largely replaced E. edulis as a source of palm hearts.

 The species is also important as a source of palm fronds, which are used for thatching roofs. A secondary product derived from Açai that plays an even greater role is unlikely to ever become a hit abroad – even though it is deemed a delicacy in the Amazon: the grubs of the palm beetle (Rhynchophorus palm beetle), which although highly nutritious and rich in protein is unlikely to win much favour in any of the superfood markets abroad. To encourage the beetle the cut-down stumps of Açai are urinated on, which apparently creates an ideal environment for the beetle to lay its eggs. A few weeks later 3-4 pounds of nice, fat beetle grub larvae are harvested and consumed with relish.

 Some environmentalists welcome the growing popularity of Açai, as they see it as a sustainable non-timber forest product that can be successfully marketed to bring much needed economic benefits to poor forest and river-dwelling communities without threatening the forest. However, whether the production will, in fact, be sustainable in the long run remains to be seen. The habitat of this palm is limited to riverine locations and although it occurs naturally and prolifically, forming extensive groves, it is not clear where plantations will be established. Will established forest have to be cleared in order to grow this superfood for export, or will existing soy fields be converted to Açai? Also, as yet there is little evidence that sustainable management and harvesting methods actually much employed. Instead, palm heart harvesting is still often done by clear-cutting large areas instead of just taking out individual trunks. There is some hope that Açai berries will eventually far outweigh the market for palm hearts, in terms of their economic importance, but it looks as though there will always be a market for them, both locally and abroad.

 As for the current Açai craze – it is doubtful that it will last. Marketing buffs are very good at creating a buzz – preferably by throwing some sex into the marketing spin. The technique is not a new one. Even tobacco was once hyped and marketed along the very same lines. That particular craze had a long-lasting effect, mainly thanks to the addictive nature of tobacco, but exotic fruit crazes come and go – noni, mangosteen, kiwi – they all were once perceived as nutritional miracle bombs. No doubt they have their virtues, but are they really worth the money that millions of consumers are prepared to pay for the promise of ‘youth in a bottle’? Personally, I would prefer the local heroes – wild blueberries for example, fresh from the bush, no processing required and all nutritional benefits intact.

 

Medicinal uses:

 Constituents:

 1-4% protein, 7-11% fats, 25% sugar, 0.05% calcium, 0.033% phosphorous, and 0.0009% iron. It also has some sulphur, traces of vitamin B1 and some vitamin A and E. It also delivers 88 to 265 calories per 100 grams, depending on the preparation method. In addition to the standard vitamins and minerals found in most fruits, the main plant chemicals in Açai fruit include epicatechin, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, gallic acid, (+)-catechin, protocatechuic acid, ellagic acid, p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, vanillic acid, cyanidin, and pelaronidin 3-glucoside. (source: rain-tree database)

Medicinal uses:

In Brazil the oil of the fruit is obtained and used to treat diarrhea; a decoction of the roots is considered beneficial in cases of jaundice and boosts blood production. The grated fruit rind is infused to make a wash for skin ulcers, and the seeds are crushed and prepared as an infusion for treating fevers. In the Peruvian Amazon, an infusion of the crushed, toasted seeds is used to ally fevers, and a decoction of the root is used for malaria, diabetes, hepatitis and jaundice, hair loss, hemorrhages, liver and kidney diseases, menstrual pain, and muscle pain. (source: rain-tree)

 

 References:

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C3%A7a%C3%AD_palm

Rain-Tree database https://www.rain-tree.com

 Total oxidant scavenging capacities of Euterpe oleracea Mart. fruits, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, Volume 56, Issue 1 February 2005 , pages 53 – 64

 Farbatlas Tropenpflanzen, Andreas Bärtels, Eugen Ulmer Verlag 1996