aromatic and medicinal plants

The use of medicinal plants is as old as the history of humanity. One of the oldest records of the usage of medicinal plants goes back to the Neanderthal man, 60.000 years ago, and was found in an archeological excavation in Shanidar, in Iraq. The first written documents belong to the Sumerian civilization, 3000 years before the Christian era: they are clay plates transcribed in cuneiform characters (preserved in the British Museum), which refer to, e.g. poppy (Papaver somniferum L.), flax (Linum usitatissimum L.), and mandrake (Mandragora officinarum L.).

In all ancient civilizations there are historical records of the knowledge and use of medicinal plants, being the Middle and Far East the places where medicinal plants had and still have more use. In China, the work Pent ts’ao (2800 a.C.) was published, in which several plants are mentioned, in Egypt, the compendium Ebers Papyrus (1550 a.C.), with 700 formulas and prescriptions.

In ancient western civilizations such as Greece, new contributions arise, such as those given by Hippocrates (460-370 a.C.), the father of medicine, with his Corpus Hippocraticum, where 400 species of plants are included, or by Theophrastus (370-285 a.C.), father of botany, with Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants, where he studies and describes 500 plants, giving indications about their toxic and medicinal effects. Later, in the 1st century, the treaty De Materia Medica from the Greek doctor Dioscorides stood out, in which 600 plants are referred, this treaty was considered for 15 centuries as the greatest botanical work, and would continue as such during the following centuries.

The Romans also left their testimonies of the knowledge of medicinal plants; we highlight Celsus, doctor from Augustus’ time, that writes De Medicina, mentioning 250 medicinal plants; and Pliny, whose Natural History is a compilation of 2000 works about plants and their uses. This knowledge perpetuated through time until the Middle Age, being mostly preserved in monasteries, in which several species were cultivated in their gardens and surroundings.

During the Age of Discovery, new plants and their valuable uses emerged in Europe, consequence of the explorers’ work, which observed and documented plant uses by the aboriginal people during their travels. During this period stand out the Colóquio dos Simples e Drogas he Cousas Medicinais da Índia (Conversations on the simples, drugs and material medica of India) from Garcia de Orta, elaborated after the stay of the author for 30 years in India, and the records of Jesuit Father José Anchieta, which resulted from the observations of the indigenous people in Brazil.

In the 15th century the island of Madeira was discovered and, together with the other Atlantic islands, played an important role as a center of convergence and redistribution of the migratory movement for the neighboring archipelagos (Canaries, Azores, Cape Verde and São Tomé) and for distant continents. All this process of Atlantic dominion and occupation, with the respective commercial exchange among the different regions, allowed the appearance of new plants, some of which acquired enormous importance in the places where they were introduced, given that they modified the economy, the farming techniques, the eating habits, etc.

The time’s dynamism and the need of possessing enough subsistence means for a population in continuous growth, caused that new plants and their respective uses be introduced into the island of Madeira. From the European continent came grain (rye, barley, and wheat), vines, and cane cuttings; from America and India arrived corn, potato, yam, rice and a large variety of fruit trees. The aromatic and medicinal plants were also among these new introductions that, together with the existing vegetation in the island, provided the Madeiran population with the means to cure their maladies, skillfully sought and applied when necessary, as mentioned by Alfredo de Freitas Branco: “Almost all of them are based more or less in the virtues of certain plants. The Madeiran people certainty in the prescription’s efficacy is so rooted in their insular spirit that, even educated people, prefer to resort to folk medicine than to medical prescriptions” (BRANCO, 1941, 1). In this sense, plants end up being used by the population with more or less frequency and with different strategies, namely adapting the medicinal uses to the local flora (e.g. due to the morphological or olfactory similarities), and/or developing ways for acquiring the plants from the original migrant source that stored or cultivated them in gardens. This is a set of knowledge differentiated according to genera, age, occupation, sociocultural status, and religion. In the case of aromatic and medicinal plants, it is predominantly a female domain; we highlight in particular the role of the “curandeiras” (healers) or “mulheres de virtudes” (women of virtue) that, as referred by Alfredo de Freitas Branco, “have a notable position in folk medicine, (…) and since they know well the diseases, they are almost never wrong about the diagnostic” (Id., Ibid.).

In this sense, it is thought that the set of knowledge and uses of aromatic and medicinal plants in the island of Madeira altered due to several factors, namely the need of usage and/or the availability of said plants, or more recently, due to the new migratory flux in the island that, in absolute values, became one of the highest at a district level during the second half of the 19th century, having witnessed in the 60’s the most significant movement of people to Venezuela, and the third and fourth largest migrations to Brazil and South Africa respectively.

This way, the building process of this set of knowledge in the island of Madeira is not static but dynamic, as happens also in other localities, being constantly produced, reproduced, and transformed as a consequence of the practical commitment with daily life.

Main contributions to the study of medicinal and aromatic plants

In the island, the first records of plants with aromatic and medicinal usage were performed in 1455 by Luigi Cadamosto; Venetian navigator at the service of Prince Henry of Portugal, Cadamosto prepared, when visiting the islands of Porto Santo and Madeira, the oldest narrative about the archipelago, valuable element for the history of the Portuguese maritime navigations, which contains the usage description of Dracaena draco L. (dragon tree – endemic to Macaronesia) by the Porto Santo population: “I found there dragon’s blood, that is born in some trees. It is extracted in this way: some knife blows are given at the base of the tree and next year, said strokes throw gum, which they cook and purify and make the blood” (MARGARIDO, 1994, 13).

Unavoidable is also the contribution given in the following century, in the year of 1590, by Gaspar Frutuoso, in his work “Saudades da Terra” (Nostalgic-longing for the Land), where he makes reference to several medicinal plants, as well as to the cultivation of “herbas cheirosas” (smelling herbs), possibly aromatic herbs, existing in the monastery of Saint Francis: “the Saint Francis monastery […] one of the most noble and important of the kingdom, […] has many vegetables of Murcian sprouts, eggplants, and thistles, and among others there are orchards of thorn trees, palms, cypress, pears and pomegranates, and all the freshness that can be had from fruits and smelling herbs […]” (FRUTUOSO, 1998, 46). Later, in the 17th century, emerges a new record of the medicinal plants (“funcho”, fennel), conducted by Francisco Manuel: “everything was covered in a lush medicinal fennel cure even for the snakes of which is written, without which cannot even change their old skin […]” (MANUEL, 1660, 335).

In the 19th century, Fr. António Cordeiro, in “Historia Insulana das ilhas a Portugal Sugeytas no Oceano Occidental” (Insular History of the Portuguese Islands subject in the Occidental Ocean), mentions also some plants, among them, myrtle, fruit trees, several vegetables, cereals, dragon tree, making even reference to some herbs, possibly aromatic, namely: “It has beautiful gardens and herbs, so odoriferous (…), having this Island a fragrance and smell so comforting and soothing that overall nourishes those who perceive it” (CORDEIRO, 1866, 109).

Foreign visitors such as Jane Wallas Penfold in Madeira – Flowers, Fruits and Ferns, Susan Vernon Harcourt in A Sketch of Madeira, Ellen M. Taylor in Its Scenery and How to See it, and Sarah Bowditch in Excursions in Madeira and Porto Santo also contributed in the 19th century with new records of plants and their popular uses. From these visitors, the main contribution was done by Fr. Richard Thomas Lowe (1802-1874), English naturalist and author or several articles and works, among which: Manual Flora of Madeira and Some Account of the Fruits and Vegetables of Madeira, Canaries and Cape Verde, and numerous botanical collections, which he elaborated during his 26 years of residence in the island.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Carlos Azevedo Menezes, Madeiran botanist dedicated to the study of the flora of Madeira, published several works, among them Flora no Arquipélago da Madeira (Flora of the Madeira Archipelago), where he reports some species with medicinal use. Three years later in 1917, Fernando Augusto da Silva and Carlos Azevedo de Menezes started the difficult task of redacting a historical literary work in three volumes about various subjects, the Elucidario Madeirense, the latter of which refers many uses of several plants, including information regarding their taxonomy and ecology.

In the 30’s, Madeiran Alfredo António de Castro Teles de Meneses de Freitas Branco, viscount of Porto da Cruz, reporter, contributed in an unquestionable way to the ethnographic, literary and folkloric study of Madeira. Among his multiple works, stand out the works recording the popular uses of medicinal plants, published in several periodical magazines such as Brotéria, Das Artes e da História da Madeira, Revista Portuguesa and Publicações da Liga para a Proteção da Natureza, that demonstrates the importance of this type of traditional knowledge for the population of the time. In that same decade, Vicente Henriques de Gouveia, assistant at the Faculty of Medicine of Coimbra University, writes Plantas Medicinais Populares da Ilha da Madeira (Popular Medicinal Plants from the Island of Madeira) where several species and their corresponding medicinal uses are described.

In the 50’s Madeiran Fr. Eduardo Clemente Nunes Pereira, collaborator for several newspapers and author of various works, publishes Ilhas de Zarco (Zarco’s Islands), where he also refers innumerous aromatic and medicinal plants. Four decades later, Rui Vieira publishes A Flora da Madeira O Interesse das Plantas Endémicas Macaronésicas (Flora of Madeira The Interest of the Endemic Plants of Macaronesia), where he mentions the importance and usage of vascular plants as medicinal, ornamental, scientific, industrial, agricultural, food, among others.

During the 20th century, scientific papers were published about this subject in several international magazines, namely Journal of Ethnobotany, Phytothérapie, and Journal of Ethnopharmacology, and in reprints from some universities (e.g. Coimbra University); small divulgation articles have yet emerged, available in regional magazines, such as Revista Xarabanda e Girão.

Most used aromatic and medicinal plants

In the island of Madeira, about ¼ of the total taxa have aromatic and medicinal applications and are used in veterinary and in superstitions/rituals. The many bibliographic records consulted, comprising an approximate period of 200 years, that contained all the aromatic and medicinal uses of plants, allow to infer that the dominant families are Poaceae, Labiatae, and Asteraceae, followed by Rosaceae and Fabaceae, most of them native plants (with natural occurrence in Madeira, but not exclusive of this island, the archipelago or the Macaronesia region); then the introduced cultivated plants were mentioned; and finally, the endemic (plants exclusively from Madeira, from the Madeira archipelago or from the Macaronesia region). The introduced plants were, in its vast majority, from Europe, Central and South America, from Asia or from the Mediterranean.

Concerning the medicinal plants it appears, through the various studies conducted in the island, that most were used for internal use, being the main modes of preparation the “chá” (tea; term used for infusions or decoctions), followed by “infusão” (alcoholic macerations) of blends of one or more plants in wine- or sugarcane-brandy, juices, and even the direct ingestion of the plant’s parts (e.g. fruit). For external use, these were applied through poultices, washings (of specific areas) and baths with the plant decoction, direct application of the latex or juice, or even vapors and “fumos” (fumes; e.g. burning of leaves). The parts mostly used are leaves, branches, sprigs, fruits, and latex, fresh when possible.

The medicinal and aromatic species mostly referred in the island are: Laurus novocanariensis Rivas Mart., Lousã, Fern. Prieto, E. Dias, J.C. Costa & C. Aguiar (laurel); Rosmarinus officinalis L. (rosemary); Senecio serpens Rowley (blue chalk sticks); Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (L.) Hayek (cress); Sambucus lanceolata R. Br. (elderberry); Chenopodium ambrosioides L. (wormseed); Linum usitatissimum L. (flax); Eucalyptus globulus Labill. (eucalyptus); Artemisia argentea L’ Hér. (wormwood); Sibthorpia peregrina L. (pilgrim grass); Persea americana Mill. (avocado); Allium sativum L. (garlic); Juglans regia L. (walnut) and Thymus vulgaris L. (thyme).

The following are the medicinal, aromatic and/or traditional/ritual usages of each species mentioned for the island of Madeira.

Laurel (Laurus novocanariensis Rivas Mart., Lousã, Fern. Prieto, E. Dias, J.C. Costa & C. Aguiar)

Medicinal Uses: Antibacterial, cold, stomach, throat, apoplexy, tetanus, burns, anti-expectorant, skin affections, tonic, stops the flow of blood, thrombosis, cancer (initial stage), jellyfish (Tetrachymus sp.) – ingested or directly apply the oil from the berry. Antirheumatic, boils, hemostatic, cold, pustules, sudorific – infusion. Cold – drops of oil taken with water or tea, decoction of C. limon (lemon), L. novocanariensis (laurel), R. officinalis (rosemary), M. sylvestris (mallow), M. officinalis (lemongrass) in a glass of sugarcane-brandy or the same mixture without lemon but with sweet orange (Citrus medica), sweetened with sugar or honey. Bronchitis – poultice tinder and berry oil, olive oil, or turpentine. Hoarseness – ingestion of egg white with laurel berry oil and sugar. Strengthening of bones – leaf infusion, sometimes adding parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Pains – decoction with angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia suaveolens), violets (Viola odorata), mallows (Malva sylvestris), plantain (Plantago major) and acanthus (Acanthus mollis). Emollient and analgesic – oil mixed with wheat flour. Apoplexy – fumes from leaves burned on charcoal, or adding Artemisia argentea (wormwood), Ruta chalepensis (rue), Lavandula pedunculata (lavender), Myrtus communis (myrtle), Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary), Eriocephalus africanus (African rosemary). Emmenagogue – decoction of Viola odorata (violet), M. sylvestris (mallow), P. major (plantain), A. mollis (acanthus) pressed, with a spoon of olive oil and flour, knead and place over womb. Baldness – rub flies fried in olive oil.

Superstition/Rituals: Cure from a cold air – Traditional prayer. Evil eye – ingestion of oil drops. Chase away the devil and sorceresses – laurel leaves and branches of myrtle.

Others: Inlaid, fuel, domestic and agricultural tools, and beehives. Lamps – oil. Ornamentation – forecourt and streets near churches or chapels. Cooking (skewers) – young branches, seasoning.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.)

Medicinal uses: Headaches, stress, migraines, thrombosis, menstrual pains, feeling unwell, cough, fastidiousness, cold, stimulant – infusion. Thrombosis – fumes of branches burned on charcoal. Headache and stress – infusion of C. reticulata (tangerine), C. sinensis (orange) and C. limon (lemon). Menstrual pain – infusion of L. angustifolia (lavender) or baths with R. officinalis (rosemary), L. angustifolia, P. judaica (spreading pellitory), B. pilosa (beggar’s tick) and E. africanus (African rosemary). Cold – decoction of C. limon (lemon), L. novocanariensis (laurel), R. officinalis (rosemary), M. sylvestris (mallow), M. officinalis (lemongrass) in a glass of sugarcane-brandy or the same mixture without lemon but with sweet orange (Citrus medica), sweetened with sugar or honey. Apoplexy – fumes of A. argentea (wormwood), L. novocanariensis (laurel), R. chalepensis (rue), L. pedunculata (lavender), M. communis (myrtle) and E. africanus (African rosemary) burned on charcoal. Rheumatism – washing with decoction. Feeling unwell and overeating – mix with Chamaemelum nobile (camomile).

Superstitions/Traditions/Rituals: Evil eye – fumes of branches burned on charcoal. Home protection – branches of C. reticulata (mandarin orange), R. officinalis (rosemary), R. chalepensis (rue), C. sinensis (orange) and O. europaea (olive), taken on Palm Sunday to the local church and blessed. Smoke the house. Evil eye, “bucho encostado” (sick to your stomach), “olhado em flores” (evil eye), bad air, envy, sun, bad cold air – blessings. Evil eye – branches of R. officinalis (rosemary), bushes from the road. Chase away sprits – sprinkle with holy water, pray the prayer “credo em cruz” (creed in cross; “Creed in Cross, enemy without light, before you looked at me, Jesus looked at me”) or burn R. officinalis (rosemary). Fishermen – place the R. officinalis (rosemary) cross in the boat bed or at the bottom of the box of clothes against the evil eye. Evil eye or bad air in pigs – ox or sheep horns, empty bottles with R. officinalis (rosemary), tied to the sty or just a piece of charcoal and R. officinalis (rosemary). Popular saints – girls cast lots (small papers rolled with the name of the boys) inside a glass with blessed R. officinalis (rosemary) water, praying the “creed in cross”; before the sunrise hurry to see which paper opened, which should correspond to the husband’s name the saint indicated. S. Peter Vespers – a handful of dirt is placed in a glass with water; after the blessing with R. officinalis (rosemary) and the “creed in cross”, the water is drained and the dirt is wrapped in a clothe, leaving it in the dew; if next day the dirt is dry, it is because death is far way, if it is humid, it means that is on its way, if mud persists is because life is ending. Fortune-telling – during the vesper of a saint’s feast, a fresh egg is cracked in a way that does not mix with the glass of blessed R. officinalis (rosemary) water, and the form is watched.

Others: Perfume clothes. Solve cases of love infidelity – the woman should ingest juice of Senecio serpens (blue chalk sticks), only breaking fast after noon, and bring close to her body R. officinalis (rosemary).

Blue Chalk Sticks (Senecio serpens Rowley)

Medicinal uses: Eye infection – juice. Bronchitis – decoction with snails (H. aspera, L. undata), A. sativum (garlic), A. capillus-veneris (maidenhair fern), T. vulgaris (thyme), honey and sugar. Tuberculosis – decoction of Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (watercress), crushed snails, honey and sugar (syrup); or piece of marmalade, beer or Madeira wine, egg yolks, juice of Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (watercress). Anemia – infusion with wine. Restorative – juice with marmalade or honey, egg yolk and glass of Madeira wine. Chest stroke – rub area with hot wine and drink juice of Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (watercress). Falls – rub area with the juice and vinegar. Burns, phthisis, bruises, tonic, sty, internal contusions, analeptic, cough, sores, wounds, strokes – juice.

Others: Love infidelity – the woman should ingest juice for three days, only breaking fast after noon, and bring close to her body R. officinalis (rosemary)

Watercress [Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (L.) Hayek]

Medicinal uses: Cough – ingestion of watercress juice cooked with cinnamon and honey. Restorative, liver, lungs, and stomach – juice. Lungs – tea. Tuberculosis – decoction with Senecio serpens (blue chalk sticks), crushed snails, honey and sugar, or adding blue chalk sticks. Asthma and bronchitis – syrup. Anemia, phthisis, diuretic, strokes, tonic, antiscorbutic – ingestion of the plant. Chest stroke – rub area with hot wine and drink juice of Senecio serpens (blue chalk sticks).

Others: Covering cakes – juice.

Madeira elder (Sambucus lanceolata R. Br.)

Medicinal uses: Swollen legs and feet – bath with decoction. Menstrual pain – brandy with fruit. Toothache, diuretic, emollient, sudorific, and swollen throat – infusion. Contusions, wounds and ulcers – poultices of leaves. Open wounds – decoction of flowers. Sores – washing with the decoction of leaves. Toothache, throat – mouthwash with tea.

Others – fruits used in the intensification or darkening of common wines.

Wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosioides L.)

Medicinal uses: Emmenagogue, sores, stomachic, soothing, nervous and hysterical crises. Roundworms – infusion or added to Mentha piperita (mint).

Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)

Medicinal uses: Cold, diuretic, liver diseases, bladder inflammation, urine retention – infusion. Asthma and bronchitis – poultices of boiled seeds and placed on chest; in the case of bronchitis, add mustard (Brassica sinapistrum). Respiratory problems, menstrual pain, liver, whitlows and stomachache – put boiled seeds in a linen clothe and place on the affected area. Tetanus (nail wound) – soak earth flax in olive oil and apply.

Superstitions/Traditions/Rituals: to cure from the sun, bad air, and cold.

Others: Manufacturing of fabric and bandages, bleaching linen – place the linen fabric in a bowl with ashes and add wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), goldenberry (Physalis peruviana) and lady fern (A. filix-femina).

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus Labill.)

Medicinal uses: hypoglycemant, colds, bronchitis, diabetes – vapors. Respiratory problems, colds, bronchitis – infusion. Diabetes – tea.

Others: Moths. Fuel.

Wormwood (Artemisia argentea L’ Hér.)

Medicinal uses: Bronchitis (adults), stomach, menstrual pain, aperitive, tonic, vermifuge, sudorific – infusion. Fastidiousness, excitant, eupeptic – tea. Stomach problems – decoction with wormwood (Artemisia argentea), orange peel (Citrus aurantium), water mint (Mentha aquatica), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Anemia, lack of appetite – tea. Apoplexy – leaves of laurel (Laurus novocanariensis) burned on charcoal, rue (Ruta chalepensis), lavender (Lavandula pedunculata), myrtle (Myrtus communis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), African rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus) and wormwood (Artemisia argentea).

Rituals/Superstitions: House protection from evil eye – bouquet of L. novocanariensis, Citrus sinensis, Citrus limon, R. officinalis and wormwood (Artemisia argentea) are blessed on Palm Sunday and storage; when necessary, ingest infusion of all these herbs.

Pilgrim grass (Sibthorpia peregrina L.)

Medicinal uses: Expectorant, bronchitis, heart problems and asthma – infusion. Calluses – juice. Cough, expectorant and antipyretic – tea.

Avocado (Persea americana Mill.)

Medicinal uses: Astringent, antidysenteric, stomach problems, cystitis, headaches, liver, kidneys, rheumatism – tea. Noxious for cardiacs.

Garlic (Allium sativum L.)

Medicinal uses: Diuretic, vermifuge, antiseptic, bites, worms, cold, rheumatism, blood pressure. Mosquitoes – external application of garlic clove. Menstrual pain – infusion with gorse flowers (Ulex europaeus). Bronchitis – decoction with snails (Helix aspera, Leptaxis undata), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), blue chalk sticks (Senecio serpens), honey or sugar. Scratches, bites, stings – rub garlic crashed with olive oil. Worms – to prevent them for climbing to the mouth, place a garlic clove necklace around the neck. Weevers sting – rub garlic clove. Toothache – mouthwash with hot decoction of garlic cloves.

Others: Aromatic. Runny nose, tracheobronchitis, gunk, sneeze or drool in birds – chop onion (Allium cepa) and garlic cloves moistened with olive oil. Bad air – rub hot vinegar boiled with peel of garlic bulb, fruits and leaves of chili pepper (Capsicum frutescens).

Walnut (Juglans regia L.)

Medicinal uses: Blood, heart, lymphatism, skin diseases. Itching – bath with decoction. Elephantiasis – tea. Dermatosis – apply infusion externally. Heart disease prevention – eat fruits daily. Blood cleanser, skin diseases – tea.

Others: Oil is extracted from the fruit and is used in arts and in domestic economy. The wood is used in carpentry. Tincture from the peel is also used.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.)

Medicinal uses: Toothache – infusion with willow peel (Salix rubra). Cold – glass of wine boiled with the plant. Colds, regulate menstrual cycle – infusion. Sleep inducer, bronchitis – decoction with snails (Helix aspera, Leptaxis undata), garlic (Allium sativum), maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), blue chalk sticks (Kleinia repens), honey or sugar. Narcotic. Uterus stimulant – used in child-birth. Headaches, expectorant, bronchitis – tea.

Others: Veterinary – cows after calving: wine boiled with thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum).

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Licínia C. Ramos

Miguel Menezes de Sequeira

(updated 20.05.2016)