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Almost Myrrh


The celebrated aromatic tree resin and health remedy myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) has a poor cousin called bdellium (Commiphora mukul).

In ancient times bdellium was sometimes mixed with or substituted for “real” myrrh, which was widely regarded as superior both as a medicine and an incense. Bdellium was sometimes steeped in wine to enhance its fragrance when burned. But this resin, whose trees grow primarily in South Asia but also in Arabia, has retained its reputation as a natural remedy and aromatic, particularly in the context of traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine.

Pliny said the best bdellium grew in Bactria, though he noted it was found in Arabia and other areas as well. (Today bdellium trees still grow alongside the frankincense trees in the Omani province of Dhofar, but they are said to be rarely harvested.)

The people of ancient Mesopotamia called this popular incense “guhlu” (an Akkadian word) and Sanskrit speakers called it “guggulu.” By the 19th century, the Anglo-Indian term for bdellium was “googul balsam,” and today a common term for the resin in Asia and the Middle East is “mukul myrrh.”

In India today, bdellium gum is sold in herbal shops and spice stores, and is used as an astringent, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. Bdellium is taken internally as a bitter, stomachic, carminative and digestion aid.

Says one online Ayurvedic herbal marketer:

Commiphora mukul resin oil possesses a powerful stimulant, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, astringent, and it exerts prostaglandin.

Commiphora mukul is one of the most respectable herbs known in Indian Herbal System (Ayurveda). Commiphora mukul gum resin is used in treatment of rheumatism, neurological disorders, obesity and related disorders, hypothyroidism, scrofula, syphilis, skin and urinary disorders.

Properties include astringent, antiseptic, aperitif, carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic, emmenagogue, expectorant, stomachic, alterative, uterine tonic and sedative.

The smoke out of burning resin has been used in treating hay fever, nasal catarrh, laryngitis, bronchitis and phthisis.

A standard work on Indian medicinal plants reported in 1935:

[The gum of C. mukul is a] laxative, stomachic, aphrodisiac, alterative, tonic, anthelmintic … heals fractures, ulcers, pistula, piles … cures indigestion, urinary discharges, urinary concretions, leucoderma, tumours, inflammation, tubercular glands in the neck … useful in ascites, asthma, and troubles of the chest; removes bad discharges from the ear … cures abdominal troubles. [It is also] useful in muscular rheumatism, lung complaints [and] dyspepsia … is a demulcent, aperient, carminative … especially useful in nervous diseases, scrofulous affections, urinary disorders and skin diseases. It is applied locally as a paste in haemorrhoids, incipient abscesses, and bad ulcers. It is also used as an expectorant. [Blatter, Caius and Mhaskar 1935: 527-528]

According to ancient Arabia specialist Daniel Potts and his colleagues, bdellium was transported by the ton from Arabia, Bactria and other sources to distant destinations in India, Mesopotamia, and even the Mediterranean, both by camel caravan and cargo ship. It was sometimes used as tribute to powerful regional rulers, including Assyrian kings.

Potts has posted online an interesting paper on the ancient trade in bdellium and the various terms used for this significant and underrated herbal remedy.

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Senna of Arabia


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.

Sound advice….


Shilajit — Medicinal Ooze

Mumijo samples. (a) Mumijo from Samarkand (Turkestan) (black). (b) Mumijo from Antarctica (yellow). In addition, the extract used in traditional formulation as medicine in Russia (in the background). (a) Mumijo Altai; (b) Mumijo Panacea.

The latest rage on the alternative medicine front is a substance called “shilajit,” an herbal-mineral goo exuded from rocks that supporters say can cure everything from Alzheimer’s disease to bronchitis to diabetes.

Shilajit – also known as “mumiyo” – is featured in India’s Ayurvedic medicine and in Graeco-Arabic medicine (Unani-Tibb). It was reportedly favored by the Islamic physician Avicenna (Ibn Sina), and by the Greek sage Aristotle, who recommended mixing it with grape juice, honey and milk.

Experts seem to have trouble pinning shilajit down as an herbal or geological product. Its alternate name, “mumiyo,” has echoes of “mummia,” an old term for the resin “asphaltum” (distinct from the petroleum-based product asphalt), which was once used in the embalming of mummies and had a run of popularity as a health remedy from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century.

The Los Angeles Times recently noted that shilajit is catching on with the Hollywood crowd:

It has a smoky, bitter taste, a deeply unpleasant odor and bears a close resemblance to black gobs of tar. Pricey tar, mind you: 10 grams (a month’s supply) will set you back $80.

The substance, called shilajit, is an ancient ayurvedic medicine. On websites, you’ll read that it has anti-anxiety, “rejuvenating” and aphrodisiac properties and is a panacea for many ills, from diabetes to bronchitis — and, further, that it was praised by Aristotle, prized by Genghis Khan and was the closely guarded secret weapon of Soviet cosmonauts and Olympic athletes. Whew. Now it’s hit Hollywood, and “Big Love” actor Branka Katic, for one, is a fan. “It brightens my view of the world. My head feels calmer and I have more energy,” she says.

What exactly is this stuff? Shilajit consists of ancient plant matter transformed over millions of years into a black substance that oozes from the rocks of the Himalayas. Johann Helf, founder of Los Angeles-based importer Lotus Blooming Herbs, says he navigated a narrow Himalayan pass in a snowstorm, with a Buddhist monk — praying all the while — riding pillion on his motorcycle, to obtain a source of shilajit from a village in Ladakh, India. The curious and the hopeful are now sampling the stuff at the Hollywood Farmers Market.

David Winston and Steven Maimes, in their book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, say shilajit has been tested clinically on mice with positive results. Not much yet on human trials, though:

There has been extensive research to discern what shilajit actually is. There are several theories, including one that says it is the remains of bacterial and/of fungal degradation of plants that are rich in resin and latex. Another theory suggests that it is created by mosses and liverworts that break down soil and rocks. Whatever the actual source, different locations produce shilajit with varying chemical compositions.

The material from the Himalayas is considered vastly superior to the material gathered in Russia or China. Modern research (mostly performed with animals) has confirmed many of the traditional uses of this substance.

Mouse studies have shown that shilajit is better than the drug metformin at reducing blood sugar levels and that when shilajit is combined with the drug Glibenclamide, a greater drop in blood sugar was noted than when using either of them alone.

Oriental Express Central Asia, an online travel firm based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, sings the praises of shilajit, which apparently oozes in that country:

Shilajit extract – little was known about this high mountain herb/mineral compound until the early 1990’s, when Russian scientists brought it to the Western world. Russian Black Anabolic or Shilajit is a potent adaptagenic herbal complex. It has been used by the Russian military and sports establishment for nearly four decades, supposedly for increasing strength and muscle mass as well as for its recuperative powers….

Traditional Uses:

Analysis of Shilajit reveals that it is high in naturally occurring minerals and elements. Shilajit is Mother Nature’s original organic colloidal multi-mineral supplement with self assimilation qualities as compared to inorganic colloidal sources. And yet Shilajit is much more than colloidal minerals. It has unique properties not found in any other natural preparation. There is a folk saying by the indigenous people who live in the Himalayan region that Shilajit makes the body strong as a rock, and there are indeed some rock-like qualities in Shilajit. There is hardly a disease that cannot be cured or least improved by Shilajit. Shilajit amplifies the benefits of other herbs by enhancing their bio-availability. It helps transport nutrients deep into the tissue and removes deep-seated toxins. It improves memory and the ability to handle stress. Shilajit reduces recovery time in muscle, bone and nerve injuries. Shilajit stimulates the immune system and reduces chronic fatigue. It is an adaptogen, (Rasayna), that helps to combat immune disorders, urinary tract disorders, nervous disorders and sexual dissatisfaction. It promotes strong bones and heals damaged muscle tissues, and osteoarthritis.

Sounds pretty cool, eh?

It’s got to be the same substance as good old-fashioned mummia….

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Cactus for Your Health?

Caralluma in Jordan

Caralluma is an Old World cactus that is said to have several important health benefits. Several species are found in the Arabian Peninsula, from northwest Saudi Arabia to Oman. Those species that grow in Arabia look like grayish stones and have a “carrion-like” aroma which attracts flies, aiding in pollination.

Caralluma grows in many parts of Africa also, but it is best known for its health properties in India, where it grows wild, can be found along roadsides, and is sometimes used to border gardens.

Traditionally, tribal people in India chewed pieces of caralluma to keep from being hungry during a long hunting expedition.

Says WebMD: “These days, a solution that contains chemicals taken from the plant (extract) is used to decrease appetite for weight loss. It is also used to quench thirst and to increase endurance.”

However, WebMD adds that there is “insufficient evidence” to prove caralluma’s weight-control abilities.

The FDA website carries a research paper contending that one caralluma species, Caralluma fimbriata, is an effective appetite suppressant:

Caralluma fimbriata has been clinically demonstrated to suppress appetite and to stop hunger pangs in patients. It is believed that the pregnane glucosides in Caralluma fimbriata inhibit the hunger sensory mechanism of the hypothalamus.

Patients on Caralluma … report feeling more energetic and have gained lean muscle mass, while losing fat.

The reason for this is, that CaraIluma not only inhibits fat synthesis as mentioned above, it also increases the burning of fat. This makes more energy available to the body and makes the patient more active and lively.

In foods in India, caralluma is cooked as a vegetable and is used in preserves such as chutneys and pickles. It is also eaten raw.

In Oman, caralluma is said to be good for liver ailments and its freshly cut stems are used to treat burns. Caralluma juice is also added to milk; the resulting curdled product is used to strengthen the sick during convalescence and is given as a general tonic.

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Arabian Medicinal Herbs

I just discovered that my old Geocities web page, The Handbook of Arabian Medicinal Herbs, still exists out there in cyberspace. Geocities is no longer with us, but Oocities apparently is.

This handbook joined forces with the work of master herbalist Donna Pepperdine (now Evans) and led to the creation of Natural Remedies of Arabia (London: Stacey International, 2006).

If you haven’t looked at the handbook, I suggest you check it out. The formatting of this version has a few flaws, but there is some interesting herbal medicine lore that didn’t make it into the book.

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Hunayn ibn Ishaq on the Hidden Drugs of Galen – Part II

Here is the second and concluding part of our “restructuring” of the English translation of the Arabic Al-Adwiya al-Maktuma (“The Hidden Drugs”) written originally by Galen and commented upon by Hunayn ibn Ishaq:


Carob tree - female flowers


Carob Tree

Ceretonia siliqua L.

 Galen: The malodorous plant whose cones (fruits) resemble kidney beans: if a woman swallows from its seeds one whole seed she will not become pregnant for a year, and likewise every [other] seed [that she takes counts] for [another] year [that she will not become pregnant].

Hunayn: He means the plant that is called […]. [The authors, taking their cue from the term “planta Xilocarapte” in the Latin version, believe Hunayn is referring to the carob tree. Carob is not known to prevent pregnancy, and we have not seen evidence it was used for this purpose in the ancient Mediterranean or Middle East. – RWL]

White Hellebore [Poison]

Veratrum album L. and Var.

(Arabic: kharbaq)

Galen: The plant that has in its middle a raceme like the raceme of the banana tree kills worms and reptiles. Whoever colors his eyelids with one of its seeds will find it beneficial against ophthalmia and bleariness. It is beneficial against unilateral headache and [pain in the] eye, and cures running eyes.

Hunayn: He means the white hellebore plant.

Galen: The plant that is called “the lamp of darkness” – it is one of the lethal drugs if it is not administered properly – it is one of the [emetics]. It should not be used as a drug except for someone who is far away from a doctor. It expels all the phlegm that is harmful and that descends from the head into the stomach. If it is given to drink to someone for whom drinking it is not good, and who cannot withstand its use, it kills when it is imbibed. It increases the flow of urine and menses, if it is taken in measure.

Hunayn: He intends the dandas (?) [plant] [Latin version: the plant that is called “white hellebore”] because it shines in the dark night. When travelers and wayfarers see it, they have no doubt that it is a lamp. However, when they come near to it, they do not see a thing.

Black Nightshade

Solanum nigrum L.

Galen: The plant that has in it something like the tamarisk…. The seed of this plant is helpful for epilepsy and hallucinations…. The plant that grows between the vineyards whose wood is square: if its leaves are pounded, and kneaded with vinegar, and given to the person suffering from [Latin: tenesmus] to drink, it cures him. Whoever drinks from its juice will hardly become inebriated from wine. If a pregnant woman drinks from the water of this tree, she will miscarry the fetus.

Hunayn: He means by this the black nightshade plant.


Hyoscyamus niger L.

Galen: The tree which [causes] male birds to drop dead when they alight upon it is useful for the bite of vermin, cold winds, and hard swellings. It clears gout, adds sexual vigor, and strengthens the erection. If one fumigates with it, it removes quartan fever.

Hunayn: He means henbane…. It is one species of the [different species] of the banj…. It is an Indian tree.

Strawberry Tree

Arbutus unedo L.

(Arabic: qatil abihi)

Galen: The tree which, if a pregnant woman looks at it, she miscarries and the fetus dies within her.

Hunayn: He means the ‘DR’WZN (?) tree. It is called in Arabic “strawberry tree” [qatil abihi = “father killer”].

Oriental Plane Tree

Platanus orientalis L.

Galen: The tree which, if flying creatures, that is bats, eat its leaves and smell its scent, they die within the hour. It is beneficial against inflamed tumors, and its ashes are beneficial against putrid ulcers.

Hunayn: He means the “plane-tree,” and it is [also] called as-sant (acacia tree, Acacia nilotica or Acacia senegal).


Cuscuta epithymum L.

Galen: The plant that is called “the sandal” [Latin: wild purslane] opens obstructions, takes away superfluities, helps against [quartan] fever and hard tumors.

Hunayn: He intends here the clover (lesser) dodder [parasitic plant]. It is called by that name because it has no roots, it has veins which entwine itself around trees, without roots.


Coriandrum sativum L.

Galen: The tree that is called “the bearer of great strength,” is useful in the case of inflamed tumors. It checks a loose belly, cuts the matter of yellow bile, and it is employed in foods in general.

Hunayn: He means the plant that is called “fresh coriander.”

Papyrus Sedge

Cyperus papyrus L.

Galen: The plant that is called “the speaking tongue and the penetrating command”: if it is burned and sprinkled on the place from which blood flows, it will check it. It is useful in the case of gangrenous sores in people. It dries out ulcers and checks menstrual blood, if it is applied in a suppository.

Hunayn: [Galen] means the reed plant from which papyri are made. When papyri are burned, they have the same effect as that plant, and they are useful in the case of the illnesses that he mentioned. He called it by that name because they convey the written message after an interval.


Sedum acre L. etc.

(Arabic: shajar al-yusr; al-musamma shajar adh-dhahab)

Galen: The plant that is called “the menses tree” is useful in the case of strangury, the bite of vermin, ischias, and excess (?) blood in the bladder.

Hunayn: He intended the […] plant. It is called in Arabic “the golden plant.” It is called “the menses tree” because its leaves, when they are pounded and applied in a suppository [stop] the excessive [menstruation] at once. [The authors suspect this plant is stonecrop, a.k.a. “golden moss,” one of the Crassulaceae. – RWL]

Greater Celandine or Tetterwort (Europe)

Chelidonium majus L.

Galen: The plant … is useful in case of [illegible] pain, dries up ulcers, dissolves superfluities; it has wonderful diluting properties.

Hunayn: He intends the celandine, because it has the capacity to cure the eye. Especially when it is pounded alone [and applied] as a collyrium, it eliminates every ailment that is due to scabs, heaviness, wind (pneuma), and the like.

Indian Hemp

Cannabis sativa L.

Galen: The plant that is called “man’s deception” is helpful in case of palpitation of the heart. It strengthens the brain, and it is helpful in case of epilepsy, facial paralysis, and chronic illnesses, when it is mixed with drugs that balance it. However, if it is taken by itself, and it is done to excess, it is fatal; if less than that [measure] is taken, it intoxicates.

Hunayn: He intends Indian hemp because some men are delighted when they take it with their meal, and others enjoy it, when they swallow it with some drink. It is [also] called “manj.

Black Papaver or Opium Poppy

Papaver somniferum L.

Galen: The smell of the [plant] that is called odor-[less] is helpful in all cases in which the “man’s deception” is helpful. It too must be balanced just as [the “man’s deception”] is to be balanced. Its harm is just like its [“man’s deception”] harm.

Hunayn: He intends the black papaver, from whose juice opium is produced. It is called by this name for the following reason. When its juice, opium, is administered to someone in order to kill him, and the attending physician sees that the [victim] is absolutely incapable of speaking to him, nor can he move at all, if that physician is skillful, he will rub a part of his body briskly with musk, until that part heats up […]. Then the physician will smell the part that has been rubbed. If he smells the scent of opium, he then knows that he has been administered [that ingredient], and he does his utmost to ward off its harm.


Indigofera tinctoria L.

Galen: The [plant] that grows amongst sorghum (Sorghum vulgare) checks the blood and dries ulcers. If its leaves are pounded and placed upon a swelling, they dissolve it. It is one of the drugs that are laxative in the extreme.

Hunayn: He intends the […]. It is known as the “seed of indigo.” The wild [type] is of no good, but the domestic [type] is good and grows mostly between sorghum. For that reason, Galen kept it hidden, attributing it [instead?] to the places within which it grows.

Ceylonese, Chinese or True Cinnamon

Cinnamomum ceylanicum Nees.

Galen: The [plant] that is called the “cooler of the glowing heat” is helpful in case of severe headache that is due to strong vapors of yellow bile. If it is placed upon [the patient], relief begins for him immediately, and his pain is removed. If it is placed in a home where [people suffer from] fever, fever departs from it.

Hunayn: He means the [plant] that is called in Greek […]. It is called “cooler of the glowing heat” because if someone takes it and [enters] the bathhouse, its heat cools off until nothing is left of it and it is [completely] cold. It is Chinese cinnamon.

[SOURCE: Bos, Gerritt, and Y. Tzvi Langermann. “Pseudo-Galen, al-Adwiya ‘l-maktuma, with the commentary by Hunayn ibn Ishaq,” Suhayl 6 (2006), pp. 81-112.]


Hunayn ibn Ishaq on the Hidden Drugs of Galen – Part I


Acacia nilotica

Arabic bibliographers in the Middle Ages reported the existence of a pharmacological work called Al-Adwiya al-Maktuma (“The Hidden Drugs”) written originally by the great Greco-Roman physician Galen and commented upon by the celebrated Arabic translator and scientist Hunayn ibn Ishaq. No copies of the Arabic treatise were known to exist.

Eventually a Latin translation of the work surfaced in Renaissance Europe, called De Plantis (and in other manuscripts De Medicinis Occultis).

Scholars recently uncovered an incomplete version of Al-Adwiya al-Maktuma written in the Arabic language but with Hebrew letters.

The manuscript, in the collection of David Solomon Sassoon, was written in a 13th-century Yemeni hand. A translation and study of the manuscript by Gerritt Bos and Y. Tzvi Langermann appeared in the journal Suhayl in 2006. The authors confirmed that this text was the source of the Latin translations of De Plantis that began circulating during the Renaissance.

This manuscript contains a wealth of ancient herbal lore of Greek and Arab origin. Bos and Langermann call the work “a short, enigmatic, and intriguing text dealing with medicine, botany, and the occult.”

While the physician Galen of Pergamon (129-199 AD), a Roman citizen of Greek ethnicity, is no longer believed to be the original author of the text (it is attributed now to another Greco-Roman known only as “Pseudo-Galen”) the treatise presents herbal knowledge and traditions that first emerged in the West in Greek science and were later expanded upon by Arabic-speaking scholars like Hunayn.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873), known to Latin audiences as Johannitius, is believed to be the actual translator and commentator of Al-Adwiya al-Maktuma. (Some say he is even the author of the Galenic material in that work.) Hunayn was an Assyrian Nestorian Christian physician and scientist who translated a number of Greek medical and scientific works into Arabic and Syriac. He worked in Abbasid Baghdad and was head of Bait al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom), the great educational and research institution founded by the Caliph al-Ma’mun.

In the Adwiya, Hunayn asserts that Galen hid some of his medicinal truths from the general public, using code-names and roundabout ways of describing certain plants. In Hunayn’s own words:

The aim of Galen in this book is to describe that which he gathered in the course of his life concerning drugs having wondrous special properties. He experimented with them many times. However, he did not write down his experience with them, thus hiding it from most people, but only hinted at them…. I looked at more than one copy, collecting that which was correct. I experimented with it, tested it, and cured with it….

Hunayn seeks to provide known names (in Arabic, Greek or other languages) for all of the plants Galen mentions, and he often adds important therapeutical information about them.

Here are some of the herbs discussed in the text. Galen’s description is presented first, followed by Hunayn’s commentary:


Paeonia corallina Retz. or Paeonia foemina Garsault

(Arabic: al-fawaniya, al-kahyana)

Galen: The tree that is called the tamarisk is effective for epilepsy. If its buds are hung around a person, he will never suffer from epilepsy at all. It is also effective against lethal poisons and the bites of vermin, if the one bitten and the one who has been given poison to drink imbibes it.

Hunayn: Galen means a wood that is called al-fawaniya (peony)…. Its description is: it has a sharp smell, of black color – I mean its exterior. As for its interior, it is white, and the best kind is the hard one. Galen mentioned that he met someone suffering from epilepsy. He hung it around him and it went away. He thought the disease was [completely] eliminated, so they took it off of him, and the epilepsy returned. [They repeated the therapy a few times more, with the same result. – RWL]…. I experimented with it several times, and found Galen to be correct.

Acacia Tree or Gum Arabic Tree

Acacia nilotica

(Arabic: sant)

Galen: The menses of the tree that menstruates blood is effective for pain of the stomach and womb and for the coarse winds that originate from it and it is effective for scaly rash.

Hunayn: [Galen] means the umm ghaylan tree [Maimonides says this is the acacia or gum arabic tree]. It has many thorns; its thorns are larger than those of boxthorn (lyceum). It grows plentifully along the roads of the Hijaz. It has a flower with round tips (?) that are joined together, not separated. Its flower has a thin stem, like the stem of the violet (Viola odorata L.), but its [stem] is smaller in length than it. It has a pleasant smell, wine-like, wondrous, fragrant, […] a perfume is made from its flower by the perfumers in Iraq. It has a red resin that is called […] [unreadable; the Latin version has “adendam”], and that is its menses. Sometimes something that looks like blood flows over its stem.

Harmal or Wild Rue

Peganum harmala L.

Galen: The plant that grows between graves is effective against pains of the joints, cold winds, difficulty in childbirth, winds of the wombs, toothache, and chronic gout.

Hunayn: [Galen] means by that the harmal (Peganum harmala L.) plant, which is found in many electuaries and pills.

Salsify or Goatsbeard

Tragopogon pratensis L. or porrifolius L.

Galen: The plant whose seeds and grains are fodder for the wild dove, that is al-ayl, has leaves that stop bleeding and heal wounds at once; there is therein no need at all for any [additional] medication. It firms flaccid joints, and it is effective against lethal drugs.

Hunayn: [Galen] means “goatsbeard” and this grass is the plant called “Cistus.” The best sort is the broom-rape. If the broom-rape is pounded fine and mixed into pills, it is effective against diarrhea and stops dysentery and bleeding. [Note: The linkage of goatsbeard and broom-rape is unclear. The authors identify broom-rape as Cynomorium coccineum L. or tarthuth. Broom-rape, a member of the Orobanche genus, is a parasitic plant like tarthuth but it is not identical. – RWL]


Gentiana lutea L.

Galen: The tree which, when one paints one’s hand with it together with henna, stops [excessive] menstruation, and is effective against the bite of lethal vermin. It opens obstructions, causes [a tumor in] the spleen to dissolve, and makes vision clearer.

Hunayn: It is gentian.


Semecarpus anacardium

Galen: The tree that grows in India, and which beetles do not approach, increases memory; it strengthens the mind and the nerves, improves the complexion, increases sexual vigor and strengthens the erection if the penis is rubbed with it.

Hunayn: It is the “marsh-nut” [a close relative of the cashew – RWL]. That is, if beetles approach this tree, they all die. If one smears its honey on the penis, it strengthens it; its strength and its erection are increased. Its special property is to clarify the mind.

Balm-Tree or Balsam-Tree

Commiphora opobalsamum

Galen: The wood and seed of the tree that is cut before it is pulled out, and their extracts, are effective against lethal drugs, the bite of vermin, earache, epilepsy, and draw out superfluities from the head.

Hunayn: It is the balm-tree, because [if] it is cut, that is its seed, the oil flows out of it. If one cuts [the tree itself], and its oil comes out, it dies.

Tamarisk Tree

Tamarix orientalis Forskal.

(Arabic: ‘adhb)

Galen: The tall tree that grows on the banks of rivers eradicates warts. It is effective against quartan and tertian fever, and opens obstructions.

Hunayn: It is the tree [called] ‘adhb. [The Latin reads: “Galen means when he says the tall tree etc. the willow.” The authors say ‘adhb refers to the gall-nut, a solidified morbid secretion, of the tamarisk tree. – RWL]

Galen: The tree which dyers use is beneficial against smallpox and leaden[-colored] swelling[s]. It strengthens the stomach and the gums, checks “nature” [the stools], it [can be used] to plaster the feeble parts of the body. It is beneficial against anal prolapse in youngsters.

Hunayn: It is the tamarisk gall-nut, and it is the fruit of the tamarisk.

Chaste Tree or Miriam’s Tree

Vitex agnus-castus L.

Galen: The tree that grows in the interiors of wadis, but is not [found] in the sides of the wadi, eliminates the lust for intercourse, dries the sperm, strengthens the back, sharpens eyesight, and eliminates the slackness (feebleness) of the parts of the body.

Hunayn: He means the chaste tree. It is also called Miriam’s tree. Its seed is like the seed of the eggplant [Solanum melongena L.].

[SOURCE: Bos, Gerritt, and Y. Tzvi Langermann. “Pseudo-Galen, al-Adwiya ‘l-maktuma, with the commentary by Hunayn ibn Ishaq,” Suhayl 6 (2006), pp. 81-112.]

To be continued…

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