Cyprus Mail

Plant of the week: Herbalists use plant to treat coughs, hair problems

Name: White Squill (Urginea maritime)

Otherwise known as: Scilla, Sea Onion

Habitat: A perennial member of the Liliaceae growing up to 1.5m in sandy or rocky soil around the Mediterranean coastline. The plant produces lance-shaped, onion-like leaves emerging from a half submerged bulb which may weigh up to 2kg; the leaves die away in summer and leave a long flowering spike of white, star-shaped flowers that produce oblong seeds. The bulb and juice are poisonous.

What does it do: The Squill was well known to the ancients and was referred to by Homer and mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus as an object of veneration for its ability to treat heart disease. Dioscorides employed its essence in his vinegar which was used as a diuretic, while Pliny refers to its emetic properties. In Mediterranean countries a number of monastic herbals refer to a preparation made from the bulbs mixed with olive oil as a hair restorative (Macharas Herbal). The Arab physicians of Avicenna introduced the plant to Europe where preparations made from the bulb are still employed by modern herbalists.

It is used by herbalists to treat whooping cough, dry coughs, bronchial asthma, and in cases of Oedema (excessive fluid in the tissues). William Wittering the 18th century physician who extracted Digitalis from Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) to treat dropsy, also experimented with it. Extracts from the plant are to be found in modern hair preparations that claim to treat dandruff and excessive oil in the scalp.

Red Sea Onion (Urginea indica), a sister plant found in Cyprus is a powerful rodenticide and was grown around fig trees to repel rats. In Cyprus, farmers would place the bulbs in their stored grain sacks. Recent researches indicate that the chemicals found in the bulb will act as an insecticide and are being employed in third world countries to combat insect predation of stored food.

A word of caution: care must be exercised when handling the bulbs as the juice can cause severe skin irritation.


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