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Remarks on Some Medicinal Plants of Ceylon.

(Read at an Evening Meeting of the Pharmaceutical Society, April 4, 1883.)

BY W. C. ONDAATJE, F.L.S., Colonial Surgeon of Ceylon.

It is well known that several Indian drugs have been incorporated into the British Pharmacopoeia, which have added to the number of remedial agents, thus conferring no small advantage on the medical profession, and the publication of the Pharmacopoeia of India has conferred an incalculable benefit on the medical practitioner in the East, but still there are many medicinal plants of the colonies and India which deserve a scientific examination.

The public revenue of the colonies is applied to many useful purposes for promoting the general welfare of the people. I believe that if a sum of money were voted annually to be expended in carrying out the chemical examination of indigenous drugs and other products by competent persons in this country, all expenditure would be well repaid by the advantages reaped in the saving of Government expenses for medicines, and in the demand created for native products.

It is a matter of great importance to the millions in the East, and in fact to the whole community, that they be enabled to avail themselves of efficient substitutes for many official drugs which our colonies supply.

I may here mention that the annual cost of drugs for the use of the public service of Ceylon forms a considerable item. The natives are now more largely availing themselves of European medical practice, since the extension of Government hospitals and dispensaries, and consequently an increasing expenditure under this head cannot be avoided without detriment to the best interests of the population.

The necessity for adopting such a measure as I have suggested will be apparent to those who have studied Indian drugs.

The natives of the East have attributed imaginary properties to many plants and drugs, and much that is absurd is mixed up with much that is valuable.

While clinical observations in hospitals and medical colleges are of much importance to ascertain the therapeutic action, chemical examination will perfect the knowledge thus obtained, and will, with the aid of pharmacy, show the best mode of preparation and administration, and no institution can more efficiently carry out this work than the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.

I will now proceed to make a few brief remarks on some medicinal plants which I brought with me from Ceylon.

1. Randia dumetorum, Lam..—The seeds of this tree are used by the natives of Ceylon and India as a reliable agent in producing emesis.

I am not aware that any chemical examination has been made to detect the active principle.

It belongs to the same family (Cinchonaceae) as Cephaelis Ipecacuanha, and it would be important to determine if it contains emetine, more particularly since an allied species, R. uliginosa, is, according to Dr. Dymock, used in India as a remedy for dysentery. This species is also indigenous in Ceylon. The bark of R. dumetorum also possesses the same qualities.

I have seen the powdered seeds used with as good effect as ipecacuanha in doses of 5 to 10 grains. If analysis should prove Randia to possess the same active principle as ipecacuanha, a great saving might be effected by its substitution for the more expensive Brazilian drug.

2. Sethia acuminata, Arn.—This is a remedy much used by the Cinghalese as a vermifuge. The part used is the leaves, the juice of the leaves being mixed with sugar and castor oil, or with the powder of the leaves. The leaves are easily powdered when dried.

Professor Bentley notices its vermifuge properties in his "Manual of Botany."

Dr. Thwaites, in his "Enumeratio Plantarum Zeylaniae," also refers to it. He says "the Cinghalese attach much value to this plant as an anthelmintic for children, giving the juice expressed from the fresh leaves." It is chiefly used for expelling round worm, and possesses the advantage of not having a disagreeable taste. The powder is used in the dose of 10 to 15 grains.

3. Coscinium fenestratum, Colebr.—Many years ago, while using it as a tonic, I found by experiment that it possessed antiseptic properties, to which I beg to invite your attention.

I found that pieces of beef immersed in an infusion of the stem were preserved for several weeks. I am unable to give more details, as my notes made in Ceylon are not at hand.

I also used in Ceylon a weak infusion of the stem as a lotion for foul ulcers with great success.

I believe the plant has already been subjected to chemical analysis in this country, and contains the active principle berberia.

It has been used also as a yellow dye. As this drug has recently been imported in quantity into England it could easily be obtained, and an examination of the cause of its antiseptic properties seems desirable.

4. Vateria Indica, L.—The natives use the bark daily to arrest the alcoholic fermentation of the juice of the Jaggery palm, Caryota urens, which is a favorite beverage with them. This property of preventing fermentation might, I think, be turned to account in some of the great manufacturing industries, if not in medicine, and I trust the bark may be thought deserving of chemical investigation by some members of your Society.

5. Semecarpus Gardneri, Thw.—The black resin yielded by this tree, although not possessing medicinal properties, may be of some interest in the arts.

The resin is hard, breaks with a smooth fracture, burns with a bright flame, is soluble in turpentine, and adheres strongly to wood and metal. It is free from acridity.

The formula for using the resin as a varnish is as follows:

To a saturated solution of Vateria Indica resin in oil of turpentine, add by degrees pieces of black resin, and put it into a bottle and shake it well until the whole is dissolved, then apply it to wood or metal, which will give a varnish of great lustre and beauty. The resin should be first melted and strained through coarse calico or a sieve, to free it from impurities.

6. Vernonia anthelmintica, Willd.—This plant is cultivated by the Cinghalese, and is in great repute as a remedy, which is indicated by its name.

The seeds are black, of a bitter and nauseous taste, are easily procured from bazaars, and are commonly used by the village people for expelling the ascaris lumbricoides and act as a vermicide.

The dose of the powdered seed to an adult is from 1/2 to 1 drachm.

The native physicians prescribe it generally as a tonic in the shape of an infusion.

The Cinghalese name is sanne nayan and the Tamil name kado-seragam.

European practitioners in India, from personal observations, confirm the truth of the above statement.

7. Alstonia scholaris, R. Br.—In 1865 I forwarded to England, to my friend and correspondent, Mr. P. L. Simmonds, the Editor of the Technologist, specimens of a kind of caoutchouc, as a substitute for gutta-percha.

The following information supplied by me appeared in that periodical for August, 1865:

"Another substitute for gutta-percha, the milky juice of the Alstonia scholaris, a tree belonging to the natural order Apocyneae, has been forwarded from Ceylon by Mr. Ondaatje; it is stated to possess the same properties and to be workable as gutta-percha. It readily softens when plunged in boiling water, is soluble in turpentine and chloroform, receives and retains impressions permanently, and is adapted for seals to documents."

The bark of this tree is thick and spongy. Its properties as a medicinal agent are fully described in the Pharmacopoeia of India.

8. Acorus Calamus, Linn.—The well-known sweet flag I merely notice as an anthelmintic, which property is not included in the Indian Pharmacopoeia.

An infusion of the rhizome or root-stock given to young children acts effectually, as I have seen many such cases treated among the natives.

I hope on a future occasion to be able to contribute further notes on the native materia medica of Ceylon.—Phar. Jour. and Trans., April 7, 1883.


The American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 55, 1883, was edited by John M. Maisch.



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