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PJ Online | Onlooker (Herb of Alexander / Afghans suffering / The alternatives / Warning ignored?)

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The Pharmaceutical Journal
Vol 268 No 7195 p582
27 April 2002

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Onlooker

Herb of Alexander [more]
Afghans suffering [more]
The alternatives [more]
Warning ignored? [more]


Herb of Alexander

This spring has seen an impressive crop of alexanders along the lanes and clifftops adjoining the sea in my part of the country. This yellow-flowered umbellifer is not native, but probably came from the eastern Mediterranean with the Romans. Smyrnium olusatrum, previously known as Smyrnium dioscoridis and Petroselinum has been found in the remains of a Roman camp in Caerwent, and it is thought that it may have been cultivated there as a potherb.

Dioscorides in his Greek Herbal of the first century AD refers to the plant as Hipposelinum, and says that the Romans called it Olusatrum. Prior in his 'On the popular names of British plants' (3rd edition, 1879) comments that the Dioscoridean name Hipposelinum means "horse-parsley". He adds that the common name of alexanders, though said to be derived from its presence in Alexandria, was more probably from an earlier name, Petroselinum macedonicum, the parsley of Macedon, which was the great Alexander's country of origin. Another vernacular name for the plant was black lovage, since the ripe fruit consists of a bilobed black mass.

The penchant of alexanders for warm oceanic coasts made it an ideal immigrant into the island of Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel, where one explorer of the Somerset coasts reported that its growth was so rank that he could with difficulty make his way through the clumps. Alexanders was probably cultivated there by the monks of the priory, and it is often to be found in the vicinity of old castles and monasteries. In Steep Holm the first record of the plant dates from 1562, by which time alexanders had largely been supplanted by celery as a salad ingredient.

Parkinson in his 'Theatrum Botanicum' of 1640 remarked: "Our allisanders are much used to make broth with the upper part of the roote, which is the tenderest part, and the leaves being boiled together, and some eate them either raw with some vinegar, or stew them and so eate them, and this chiefly in the time of Lent, to helpe to digest the crudities and viscous humours which are gathered in the stomacke by the much use of fish at that time." In the 18th century in Ireland, a soup called Lenten pottage was made from alexanders, watercress and nettles.

As a medicine, alexanders has enjoyed only a limited use, despite its connection with myrrh (smyrnium), which was supposed to exude from its root. In the 17th century the ripe black seeds were sold in apothecaries' shops under the name of Macedonian parsley seed, and among other things were recommended against snake bite. Robert James in his 'Pharmacopoeia universalis' of 1747 wrote that its leaves were aperient, diuretic and sudorific, good for colic asthma and "ischiadic" pains", as well as assisting menstrual discharges and easing difficult births. Samuel Frederick Gray in his 'Supplement to the pharmacopoeias' (1818 edition) similarly claimed that the root and herb were "opening, emmenagogue, useful in colic and asthma".

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Afghans suffering

In the face of an outbreak of scurvy affecting in particular 15 villages in the Ghor Province of Afghanistan, the World Health Organization has reported that seven million tablets of ascorbic acid are needed urgently to deal with the crisis.

The WHO believes that the scurvy has weakened the affected population and rendered them susceptible to a secondary disease — so far undiagnosed — that has killed 40 people to date. Moreover, there have been reports of night blindness in villagers that indicates that the local population is deficient in vitamin A. The possibility is being explored of providing vitamin-fortified biscuits to the population by way of an urgent nutritional measure.

There have been reports of deaths in Darwaz in Badakhshan Province of adults and children who developed high fever and a facial rash and died within two days of the manifestation. These are undergoing investigation. Influenza has killed 60 children in the Yumgan valley of Badakhshan, where medicines provided by WHO have brought the outbreak under control. Local fighting hindered earlier efforts. A meeting to determine the future strategy for health in Afghanistan was held in Geneva in March, and a report is anticipated.

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The alternatives

According to a report in The Lancet for 6 April, there are mixed feelings over the findings of a controversial United States presidential commission on alternative medicine. The commission calls for the US government substantially to broaden its support of complementary and alternative medicine, giving increased funding for research, more support for training in complementary medicine, and the formation of a co-ordinating authority. At the same time the commission has acknowledged that most types of alternative therapy have not yet been scientifically evaluated and found to be both safe and effective. Alternative therapies should be evidence-based and subject to the same rigorous scientific standards as conventional ones, says the report.

In the US the types of therapy included under the heading of alternative or complementary are ayurveda, chiropractic, homoeopathy, macrobiotic and megavitamin schemes, Qigong, therapeutic touch, meditation, prayer and mental healing. The object of the report is to encourage generation and rapid dissemination of better information about such therapies for the benefit of practitioners, conventional medical providers and the general public. It is important for these people to know whether or not the practices work, and sound decisions cannot be made on the poor information at present available.

Some alternative methods of treatment do bring benefit, but there is no evidence that some others do so, and progress is slow; for example, it took two years for the National Institutes of Health to arrive at a consensus over the status of acupuncture.

Critics have complained that the panel deciding on such matters has been stacked with individuals who had strong financial or philosophical connections with various alternative therapies. In the face of such a situation any document agreed upon must be regarded as irresponsible.

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Warning ignored?

Is modern man degenerating into a noisy and destructive urchin who will use the whole planet as once the Vandals did Rome? Certainly his behaviour is becoming alarming, and his confident guffaws under the eternal stars must warn them that life below has taken another awkward turn. Yet it is idle to complain. Science has put the tools into his hands which he for himself would never have discovered, and it looks as though he will maim himself and all else with them unless someone brings a light and a mirror before it is too late, and persuades him to take a long and steady look at himself.
— H. M. Tomlinson: 'Tidemarks' (1924) .
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