Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fumitory: A 'smoking' medicinal plant

The fumitory  is a genus of about fifty annual flowering plans native to temperate Europe and Asia though some species are found in North and South America, Australia, etc. Several species are found in Malta. Many difficult to tell apart unless one looks carefully for minor features that distinguish one from the other.

In Maltese fumitories are generally known as daħnet l-art, which can be translated as ‘smoke of the ground’. This name mirrors its English, Italian and scientific names which comes from fumo (smoke). 

It is said that these plants come in contact with the eyes the eyes will water just as they would if they were exposed to smoke.  One wonders whether the Maltese name was given to it by local country people or by botanists who coined it from its Italian or scientific name.

Fumitories are well known for their medicinal properties. The best known species is the common fumitory which is also known as earth smoke. This species is the main source of fumaric acid a chemical used in medicine to produce compounds which are sometimes used to treat psoriasis. Fumaric acid is also used in the food industry as an acidant in beverages and it used as a substitute for tartaric and citric and malic acids.

Fumitory has been highly valued since at least Roman times for its tonic and blood cleansing effect upon the body. It is used as a stimulant and for is cleansing action of the liver and gallbladder and is principally used to treat chronic itchy skin problems such as eczema. It is also diuretic and mildly laxative. In excessive doses it is toxic and is said to have hypnotic and sedative effects. Traditionally the leaves of the plant were macerated in wine and a full glass drunk every four hours. 

This article was published in The Times on 13 May 2009. 

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