From Cedar to Hyssop
5. Science and Folk Lore
There is so much of myth and charm in the uses of these plants of healing employed in Palestine that it is natural to ask whether there is any medicinal value in them at all. The cure-all properties of the forty 'Arba'in' plants seem a long way from modern medical practice. But it must be remembered that natural plant products are still amongst the most important drugs of today.
Many of the plants mentioned in this book have obvious medicinal properties, e.g., Hyoscyamus sp. and Mandragora officinarum (hyoscyamine and hyoscine), Peganum harmala (harmine and harmaline), the various carminatives such as Pimpinella anisum, etc. Of others it is more difficult to determine whether any effect produced is due rather to the virtue of the plant or the faith of the patient. In any recorded analyses of these plants we find a list, necessarily incomplete, of various constituents of more or less curative value. Some of the compounds listed are used as medicine at the present day, but it may not be always justifiable to compare their reactions given separately in a pure state with those when they are found in very small quantities in company with many other substances. This must depend on the nature of the effect concerned since many compounds have extraordinarily powerful physiological activity even in most minute quantities.
These difficulties are encountered for example in the study of the aromatic herbs, which are among the most celebrated healing plants, both in Palestine and elsewhere. Salvia triloba, which is assigned almost miraculous powers in the East, yields an essential oil which is said to contain cineol, camphor, perhaps thujone and esters (bornyl acetate). Cineol, camphor and thujone have medicinal properties – chiefly antiseptic and stimulant – and are used in modern medical practice in various forms. The plant may certainly be considered generally useful, as it is regarded in Palestine.
The oil from the hyssop, Origanum maru, another famous plant, appears to consist almost entirely of a mixture of thymol and carvacrol, both of which are powerful antiseptics similar to phenol, but less irritant and less toxic. It is difficult to trace any direct connection between modern medicinal use of thymol and that of the hyssop in Palestine and among the herbalists. The materia medica of the present day state that thymol may be used externally as an antiseptic and deodorant, particularly in skin diseases, internally as an anthelmintic and internal disinfectant and by inhalation for nasal catarrh and laryngitis and bronchitis. But the stories of the great prowess of the plant, whether as a cure for colic or a stimulant to the brain, for the "wamblings" of the stomach or the bites of serpents, may still have their foundation in its undoubted medicinal properties.
It would be difficult indeed to deny to any of the plants listed above a certain degree of medicinal value, and their use probably began in cases in which their value was really shown. But in time any scientific experience on which such use rested has been forgotten and to any one plant claiming a healing power a whole host of other virtues become attributed, until at length it is believed to cure all mortal ailments. It is not difficult to imagine how certain steps in this process might have came about.
Take for instance, the hyssop, O. maru. Suppose that leaves of this plant, containing as we have noted, antiseptics similar to phenol, had been applied to a snake bite (a use comparable to that of carbolic acid) and that the patient had recovered. One can see how this external use might have became an internal one, and subsequently the prophylactic consumption of the plant acquire its present vogue. As the process of degradation is carried still further the plant becomes a charm, the mere touch of which confers virtue, as with the mandrake, whose magical powers are valued while its narcotic principles are ignored. One would have to draw a little more freely on the imagination to see haw this could have came about, but it might be attempted thus. In the story of the mandrake in Genesis it is remarkable that it is the fruits that are in question, the 'love apples' which presumably were eaten, though later magic always employs the root. Now suppose that these fruits, which as we have noted, contain hyoscine, had at some time been used, very practically, to allay pain. There might have resulted from this a primitive 'Twilight Sleep' case, and the reputation thus earned being spread abroad, grows into general virtue for those who wish 'store of children.' Through some such transformations of its very real uses the blessed sage also has came to be said to ensure 'quickened minds' and 'length of days' and ,even to render men immortal.
So behind the cloak of charms and legends, of many worthless or even dangerous practices we may still perceive the nucleus of scientific observation. And while among the fellahin such observations have become distorted and forgotten, elsewhere they have led to further research. The first task of scientific investigation has been the separation and identification of the active principles which occur in the plant mixed with many other substances; and the plants to be studied first were generally those of the herbalists. In many cases the chemical structures of these active principles have then been determined and this has been followed by much work on the relationship between physiological reactivity and chemical constitution leading to the production of new substances unknown in the plant world.
In all directions this work is still going on today. To the purely chemical investigation for example belong researches on the still unknown structure of strychnine and the synthesis of quinine, while to the correlation between chemistry and physiology is due the production of many new local anaesthetics in imitation of cocaine, present work on anti malarials following quinine and the study of that peculiar series of acids, the first examples of which were found in chaulmoogra oil, which are used to cure leprosy.