Some Plants of Afghanistan, and their Medicinal Products.
BY I. E. T. AITCHISON, C.I.E., F.R.S., Brigade Surgeon, Bengal Army.
Read at an Evening Meeting of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, Wednesday, December 8, 1886.
During the month of August, 1884, I was appointed by his Excellency the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, the Marquis of Ripon, Naturalist with the Afghan Delimitation Commission. The British Commissioner, Sir Peter Lumsden, G.C.B., coming direct from England, joined the Indian portion of the mission in the vicinity of the proposed boundary. The party from India, commanded by Colonel—now Sir West—Ridgeway, left India in the end of August, Quetta on September 22, 1884, marched through northern Beluchistan to the Helmand, thence through Afghanistan to Khoesan, which was reached on November 18. During 1885 I travelled over a great extent of country in northern Afghanistan and Persia, finally left the mission on August 16, 1885, proceeding through Khorasán, viá Meshad and Astrabad to the Caspian, thence viá Baku, Batoum and Constantinople to England.
In making my collections it was one of my principal aims to obtain those plants which yielded products of commercial value, and personally to collect from the living plant the product it yields, taking nothing for granted or on heresay only, hoping thus to assist materially in elucidating the many diverse opinions held relative to the substances themselves, as well as to the plants that yield them. I also considered it of great importance to obtain good specimens for botanical identification, with seeds for cultivation, and when possible, the local names of the plant, and product were noted. I need hardly tell you that this was but a fragment of my work, having brought to England some eight hundred species of dried plants, amounting in all probability to ten thousand specimens, in addition to my numerous zoological collections. Although the work was intensely interesting it was of necessity laborious, and the difficulties to be overcome were numerous but now that I have begun to discover the value of the material amassed, these troubles and labors are well nigh forgotten.
The class of plants with their products, upon which I propose speaking to you first this evening, and in which I feel sure you will be most interested, is the Umbelliferae which form the characteristic vegetation of the region under consideration. The country in which these Umbelliferae flourish consists of the great shingle and conglomerate plains lying between the hills and the beds of the rivers, which are broken up by numerous ravines and traversed by what are usually dry water courses, which once in every two or three years, on the occurrence of heavy falls of snow on the hills above, or local showers of rain, suddenly become roaring torrents. The altitude of these plains above the sea level ranges from 2,000 to 4,000 feet. These plains during winter are perfectly treeless, arid, and bare, the only signs of a past vegetation being the gnarled remains, scarcely over a foot in height, of a few shrubs. As one gazes on this desert-like country, extending on all sides, one wonders whether it could possibly produce even a blade of grass in summer. To make things worse, there is little or no water, which to the traveller is a matter of risk and difficulty, owing to the distances between the springs and the uncertainty of the supply. As summer advances a complete change comes ever the scene; these bare plains become rapidly covered with a mass of splendid verdure produced chiefly by the presence of the following umbellifers, viz., Ferula foetida, Regel, Dorema Ammoniacum, Don, and Ferula galbaniflua, Boissier and Buhse. The two former usually occur associated together, whereas the latter is generally found alone. The habit of growth of these three species, is much the same; they all produce a great show of foliage thrown out from their perennial root stocks. This foliage spreads out on the ground to nearly three feet, forming a circle round the base of the flowering stems, little under six feet in diameter, and it is the close approximation of the foliage of adjacent plants that gives to the country in which they grow its wonderful appearance, of a never-ending pasturage. Upon each species throwing up its own peculiar form of inflorescence, the landscape becomes much altered, more especially with regard to the appearance presented by Ferula galbaniflua. When this is in full flower, with its golden-colored panicled inflorescence from three to four feet in height, representing a miniature forest, the sight is one to be dreamed of rather than believed in or described. This wonderful verdure lasts from the end of April to the beginning of July, by the end of that month it has as suddenly disappeared as it originated, even to the fruit-bearing stems. The hot sun dries the plants to a cinder, and the prevailing winds finish the work of destruction so thoroughly, that by August not a trace of the past season's vegetation is left.
Ferula foetida, Regel, syn. Ferula Scorodosma, Bent. and Trim.; Scorodosma foetida, Bunge.—The plate in Bentley and Trimen's 'Medicinal Plants' is a most excellent one of the plant in fruit. The native name for the asafoetida plant near Herat is Angoeza-kéma, Koerné-kéma, Khora-kéma. Kema may be considered the generic term for all the Ferulas and Doremas. Anguza is the term for the product asafoetida, and is what in India is called "hing." This last name is also applied to it by traders in these parts.
In early spring great cabbage-like heads are to be seen distributed at intervals amongst the asafoetida, plants. Their peculiar forms represent the primary stage of the flower heads, enclosed and completely covered up by the large sheathing stipules of its leaves. In a few days these heads become transformed into the semblance of a cauliflower; from this period the stem bearing the inflorescence rapidly shoots upwards to a height of from four to five feet, its proportions being singularly massive and pillar-like. From a general calculation I found that only one out of a hundred plants bore a flowering stem. If you ask a native what plant this is, pointing to a, flower-bearing one, he will tell you that it is "kurné-kéma," and that it has nothing to do with the plants that yield asafoetida. He will take out his knife, remove the head, cut the stem from its base, strip off the few sheathing stipules that are still adherent to the stem, and in his hand you see what looks like a very large cucumber; from this he will remove the dark-green cuticle, and then slice way at the deliciously cool, soft, crisp, copiously milky stem, and eat slice after slice with the greatest gusto, and then say, "Did I not tell you it was the edible kéma, and not asafoetida?" "Yes," says an onlooker. "You will stink like a camel for the next three months!"
The method, of collecting the drug, as far as I could learn, was as follows: A few men employed for the purpose by some capitalist at Herat, are sent to these asafoetida-bearing plains during June. These take with them provisions, consisting of flour, and several donkey-loads of watermelons, the latter in lieu of water, which is not only scarce there, but usually saline. The men begin their work by laying bare the root stock to a depth of a couple of inches of those plants only which have not as yet reached their flower-bearing stage. They then cut off a slice from the top of the root stock, from which at once a quantity of milky juice exudes, which my informant told me was not collected then. They next proceeded to cover over the root by means of a domed structure, of from six to eight inches in height, called a khora, formed of twigs and covered with clay, leaving an opening towards the north, thus protecting the exposed roots from the rays of the sun. The drug collectors return in about five or six weeks' time, and it was at this stage that the process of collecting came under my personal observation. A thick gummy, not milky, reddish substance now appeared in more or less irregular lumps upon the exposed surface of the roots, which looked to me exactly like the ordinary asafoetida of commerce, as employed in medicine. This was scraped off with a piece of iron hoop, or removed along with a slice of the root, and at once placed in a leather bag, the tanned skin of a kid or goat. My guide informed me that occasionally the plant was operated upon in this manner more than once in the season. The asafoetida was then conveyed to Herat, where it usually underwent the process of adulteration with a red clay táwah, and where it was sold to certain export traders, called Kákrilog, who convey it to India. On August 17, when I crossed the great asafoetida plains where this drug is chiefly collected, except for the small domes over each root, there was not a leaf or a stem or anything left to point to the fact that any such plant had ever existed there, the heat and winds of July and August having removed every trace.
In northern Beluchistan, after much difficulty and searching, I came across one root of asafoetida, which I believe belonged to a different species; but I did not see a single stem, or even the remains of one, although we traversed immense plains upon which these fragments of leaves still existed, and where, I believe, during summer the plant must have grown in abundance.
Dorema Ammoniacum, Don..This is the Kandal-kéma of Afghanistan, or, in other words, the kéma that yields the product Kandal, and which appears to me to be ammoniacum. As already stated, this grows along with asafoetida, latter, and occupies Ferula foetida, Regel. It is equally abundant with the similar localities, having much the same habit. When these two plants have produced their base leaves only, it is almost impossible for anyone to distinguish between them, and both, on injury, yield a milky juice. On the flowering stem beginning to shoot, the Dorema is readily recognized, as the immature flower head shoots forth uncovered by any sheathing stipules, and in the form of a panicle, with the peduncles not spreading from the main stem. As the stem becomes fully matured, one-sided nodes form on at irregular distances, which give to it an undulating appearance characteristic of the plant. The plate of this plant in the 'Memoirs of the Imperial Academy of Science at St. Petersberg,' by Borszczoff, is excellent, though the peculiar enlargements on the stem are not sufficiently indicated. When it has reached its fruiting condition it is very liable to be attacked by a boring insect, especially in the fruiting heads, the result of which is the rapid escape of a large amount of a milky fluid, which, upon exposure, soon becomes tenacious and gummy, forming into solid concrete lumps of a grayish opalescent color. This substance in these parts is the collected simply Kandal or Ushak of commerce. It is by removing the lumps from the surface of the plant, or, if later in the season, from the ground. No means are taken to increase the flow of fluid from the stem artificially. Between Bezd and Shér-i-nao a large quantity of Kandal grows, and it is there gathered for exportation.
I may mention here that Dorema glabrum, which attains a height of from ten to twelve feet, grows in great abundance, along with tamarisk, in the Nehal shéni portion of the Badghis territory, forming thickets in the stream beds. It yields a gum-resin. I also collected a very distinct new species of a Dorema with foliage resembling Ferula foetida.
Ferula galbaniflua, Boissier and Buhse.—The plate of this in Bentley and Trimen is not sufficient, owing to the imperfect material they had to work with. Our plant differs from Boissier's description, in having a perfectly hollow stem and woolly petals; but this woolliness so entirely disappears in the herbarium, that unless seen originally one would doubt its having ever existed. Notwithstanding these discrepancies, we have no doubt that it is F. galbaniflua, Boiss. et Buhse. The native name for this plant is Brada-kéma. In habit it differs from the two already described species, in growing gregariousy, and in its being found in greatest luxuriance in moister localities, as in the Badghis near Gulran, where it grows in the sandy loam of that district. Its early root leaves spring from the ground like a fountain of soft green moss, and in this state it is greedily devoured by camels. The stem, which grows very rapidly, is of a semi-opalescent orange color when young and perfectly glabrous. When in full blossom the flower is of a brilliant orange-yellow; as the fruit forms and ripens the color changes from the base of the plant upwards, showing various autumnal tints. The stem is thick at the base but tapers suddenly upwards, terminating in an elegant tall, loose, panicled inflorescence, reaching a height of about four feet. The stem, on injury, from its earliest stage of growth, yields an orange-yellow gummy fluid, which very slowly consolidates, usually forming on the stem, like the grease on a guttering candle, and possessing in common with the whole plant when crushed a strong odor resembling that of celery The gum is commonly found adhering to the lower portions of the stem, and is so tenacious that, when subsequently examined pieces of the plant are frequently found attached to it. This substance, is called by the natives Shili-badra-kéma, Shilm-i-barzat, Birzand-Jao-shír, No artificial means are employed to my knowledge in the collection of this drug. It is stated to be an article of export through Persia viá the Gulf to Arabia and India. In Persia and Afghanistan it is said to be administered to parturient women, and the entire shrub is hung round the house to keep off evil spirits whilst parturition is actually taking place.
Ferula suaveolens, Aitch. and Hemsley, sp. nov. This is a new species of Ferula, that comes under the division Euryangium. It is a plant from three to four feet in height, and grows, at an altitude above 5,000 feet in the hills -to the south of Bèzd. The root of the plant, called Sambal, is scented and is collected and exported from Turbat-i-Haidri, through Persia, to the coast. The shrub itself is called Kéma, but so are all these large Umbelliferae. It has a solid stem, with nodes on it much resembling those of Dorema Ammoniacum, and also yields some form of gum-resin, which, however, I was unable to collect.
Trachydium Lehmanii, Bth. and Hooker, syn., Eremodaucus Lehmanii, Bunge, and Albertia margaritifera, Regel and Schmalh—The roots of this species are not thicker than a goose quill, and from three to four inches long, tapering off to a point. They are collected as a drug under the name Shákh-akhal, and exported from Herat. It is curious to note that generally on the central flower of the umbel there is a piece of gummy rose-red exudation, the result of injury by an insect.
I would now proceed to draw your attention to the several kinds of manna and their sources, which are produced in this country. There are three kinds which are usually met with and which form articles of export. The first, and that most largely exported, is an exudation that occurs in certain seasons and years upon Cotoneaster nummularia, Fisch. et Mey. The plant is called Siah-chob (black stick) and the manna Shir-kisht, meaning hardened milk. This cotoneaster is a tall stout shrub, growing occasionally to twelve or fourteen feet in eight. It is met with throughout the Paropasmisus range and in Khorasán, at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. Although common, everywhere in these hills it is found in greater abundance on the Siah-koh and Saféd-koh and the Ar-dewán pass, forming regular thickets; these are also the noted localities for obtaining the manna. During July, as the corn ripens, the smaller branches of the cotoneaster become covered with the exudation, and this is collected by merely shaking the branches over a cloth. It is eaten largely by the people as a sweetmeat, and exported in quantity to Persia and India.
The second kind of manna is that yielded by the camel-thorn, Alhagi Camelorum, Fisch. This is a thorny shrub of from two to three feet in height, growing generally over the country at an altitude of two thousand feet, very frequently gregarious, forming a dense shrub. In certain years, during the months of July and August, this manna is developed on the branches of the camel-thorn (Shutar-khár), or goat's-thorn (Khár-i-boezi). The manna is called Thranjabin, which means the honey from the green (bush), this name probably originating from the shrub remaining vividly green over the country long after all other plants have dried up and disappeared. The country round Rui-khauf, in Persia, is celebrated for this product, whence it is exported in all directions.
The third kind of manna is that yielded by Tamarix gallica, Linn., var. mannifera. I collected specimens of this plant in the Badghis, where it was pointed out to me by a Persian as being the shrub that in Khairan Persia yielded Gaz-shakar. The plant in Afghanistan is called Gaz, and the manna it yields Gaz-anjabin; the latter I did not find.
At Sha-Ishmael, on October 8, 1884, I collected a quantity of manna in the form of milk drops from the foliage of Salsola foetida, Del. It was pleasant to the taste, with a slightly aromatic flavor. This, I regret to say, has been lost.
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