Senna, sometimes called “Mecca Senna,” is a plant of Arabian origin, whose yellow-green leaves smell tea-like but have no marked taste. As an infusion, they are said to induce nausea and make a useful mild purgative.
The plant is widely acknowledged in Bahrain as medicinal. Its pods and leaves are used there as a purgative, and can be purchased in Bahrain’s Suq Hawaj.
Senna is not widely used as a folk medicine today in the nearby Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where some Bedouins regard it as toxic to livestock. However, the seeds are eaten by Bedouins in central Saudi Arabia, who say they are good for the stomach.
The plant also grows on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern coastal plain, the Tihama, where it is known for the laxative yielded by its leaves and pods. The seeds are used as a laxative in the United Arab Emirates; Bedouins there claim it cures stomach pains of all kinds.
In his day, the great Islamic physician of the Middle Ages, Ibn Sina (known to Europeans as Avicenna), prescribed senna as a purgative for expelling black bile.
In modern times, the leaves are exported from Egypt to Europe, where they are used as the drug “dog senna.”
Arabic name: ishriq. Botanical name: Cassia italica or Senna italica.
The celebrated Mrs. Grieve, in her Modern Herbal (1931), says this about Senna:
Senna is an Arabian name, and the drug was first brought into use by the Arabian physicians Serapion and Mesue, and Achiarius was the first of the Greeks to notice it. He recommends not the leaves but the fruit, and Mesue also prefers the pods to the leaves, thinking them more powerful, though they are actually less so, but they do not cause griping.
Henriette’s Herbal Homepage (run by Finnish-German herbalist Henriette Kress) points out that the well-known India Senna is actually grown in Arabia and includes Mecca Senna:
INDIA SENNA is of two kinds, the Bombay, or East Indian, and the Tinnevelly. The first is usually imported from Bombay, though it comes from Mocha and other parts of the Red sea (Mecca or Arabian senna is frequently alluded to as Bombay senna); the Tinnevelly is the cultivated kind and is esteemed the best. The Pharmacopoeia thus describes India senna: “India senna consists of leaflets from 3 to 5 Cm. (1 1/5 to 2 inches) long, and 10 to 15 Mm. (2/5 to 3/5 inch) broad; lanceolate, acute, unequally oblique at the base, entire, thin, yellowish-green or dull green, nearly smooth; odor peculiar, somewhat tea-like; taste mucilaginous, bitter, and nauseous. It should be free from stalks, discolored leaves, and other admixtures”—(U. S. P.). Tinnevelly senna is the purest of all sennas, being free from stalks and foreign leaves. (for microscopical examination of Alexandria and India senna, see L. E. Sayre, Amer. Jour. Pharm., 1896, p. 585, and 1897, p. 298; also R. H. Denniston, Pharm. Review, 1898, p. 105; and E. Latour, Senna and Its Adulterants, Pharm. Jour. Trans., 1896, p. 481.)
A blog posting on the Local Harvest website recommends caution in using all kinds of Senna:
Senna pods and leaves contain anthroquinones, which have strong laxative effect. Does not matter which senna you use, they are all the same.
Senna is a powerful laxative that should be used for no more than seven days in a row except under a physician’s supervision. It can cause severe abdominal cramps. Do not use senna if you have intestinal problems such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Do not use senna if you are pregnant or nursing. DO NOT give senna to children.
Senna is a potent cathartic drug, not just a different tasting tea.