BEIRUT: With a lush biodiversity, Lebanon’s wilderness not only satisfies the visual sense, but also shelters thousands of plant species which possess many attributes, including that of natural medicine.
The very beginning of medicine when corporations and pharmaceutical industries did not yet exist, was when mankind turned to ingredients found in nature to study and utilize for their therapeutic powers.
With more than 4,500 plants species, of which 2,863 are considered native, Lebanon’s medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) represent an integral part of its natural wealth, according to a 2013 technical report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), and Global Environment Facility (GEF).
The same report states that MAPs provide additional sources of income for rural communities across the country, as there is a long tradition of using MAPs as raw material for traditional remedies, recipes, handcrafts, essential oil, and distilled water.
“Us human beings have gotten awfully distant from our natural roots, unlike our plant neighbors who live and die without any artificial interference," expert in organic farming Kohar Arakelian, told Annahar,
For that reason, Arakelian added, it is “a blessing for us to know that we can “use their help and ancient restorative abilities to rewire our DNA and cells and help us heal and treat illnesses we have mostly caused ourselves because of our unnatural habits.”
According to agricultural engineer Georges Gharios, Lebanon enjoys about 136,900 ha of dense and sparsely dense forests (Food and Agriculture Organization data), where “most medicinal and aromatic plants of the country are to be found.”
Unfortunately, however, many believe that the local ethnobotanical knowledge is going extinct, among them is Hicham El Zein, expert in botany and ecosystem conservation.
El Zein places the blame on urban lifestyles and consumerist interests, which have “diverted the young generations from the ancestral knowledge about native plants and their uses.”
Additionally, given the fact that Lebanon does not have a pharmacopeia, another issue at stake is that the same knowledge about local herbs and their usages is remaining merely oral, and their vernacular names are differing from one village to another, Marc Beyrouthy, PhD, ethnobotanist and ethnopharmacologist, told Annahar.
Beyrouthy believes that when it comes to the transfer of herbal knowledge, “traditional knowledge may not always be accurate.”
In a parallel perception, Gharios said that most “urban” people have not conserved a close relationship with the natural environment for medicinal utilization because “going to the pharmacy and buying drugs is too easy,” and when they do want to “access medicinal herbs,” they resort to packaged natural mixes by the many local herbalists.
“However, there is a need to properly train the local herbalists in plant taxonomy, disease diagnosis, and proper herb collection and storage,” he said in order to avoid selling prescriptions that could have health risks or side-effects.
The native flora of Lebanon has, for years, been threatened by various factors, at the peak of which are unregulated human activities - quarries, construction of dams and roads, urbanization, dump sites, forest fires, overgrazing, overharvesting, and pollution.
El Zein finds the current situation very serious, and advises in the urgent planning of huge efforts by the Lebanese government to restrain the ecological disaster affecting the country.
“The preservation of the natural patrimony should be considered a priority, not only for its aesthetic quality, but also for all the ecosystem services that natural habitats provide for humans, such as air cleansing, temperature regulation, flood prevention, and the mental and physical health benefits of having the presence of nature in our direct environment,” he said.
Adding to El Zein’s statement, Beyrouthy also addressed the Lebanese government.
“Only two herbs, sage and oregano, are supposedly protected by law in Lebanon, which is merely ink on paper," he said.
“The younger generation should see and understand the secrets of longevity from the rural peoples whose remarkable resilience is because they live surrounded by nature and in symbiosis with it,” said Georges Lamak, a farmer in the Ras El Haref village.
With the assistance of the interviewed sources, Annahar gathered a list of common herbs found in Lebanon with their names in both the English and Arabic vernacular, their scientific name, their flowering or full blooming time, and some of their various uses or benefits.
1- Chicory (Cichorium intybus) Handbe- Flowering time: July- October. Fights colon cancer, anti-inflamatory, promotion of wellbeing, hepatoprotective activity, digestive, relaxant, etc.
2- Micromeria (Micromeria myrtifolia) Zoufa-Flowering time: June- September. Currently being tested for anti-depressant qualities.
3- Mallow (Malva sp.) Khebbayze- Flowering time: July- September. Used for irritation of the mouth and throat, dry cough, and bronchitis. Also used for stomach and bladder complaints and to treat wounds, and others.
4- Syrian Marjoram or Za’atar (Origanum syriacum) Za’atar zuba-Full bloom: May- July (could extend to December). Leaves and flowers of O. syriacum are used widely as a food, flavour, and seasoning ingredient in the traditional cuisine in Lebanon and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.
5- Sage (Salvia fruticosa) Kassiin or Maryamiyeh. Full bloom: May- July. Treatment of inflammation, diarrhea, gastrointestinal pains, diabetes, and others.
6- Hollyhock (Alcea sp.) Khatmyeh- Flowering time: May- September. The infusions of its dried flowers is used for preventing and treating breathing disorders and digestive tract problems, treating ulcers, painful swelling, and others.
7- Myrtle (Myrtus communis) Himblas or Rihan- Bloom time: May- July. Treating lung infections including bronchitis, whooping cough, and tuberculosis. For bladder conditions, diarrhea, persistent heartburn, heavy periods, yeast infections, and worms.
8- Common Hawthorn (Crataegus sp. ) Za’arour-Flowering time: May- June. Used for diseases of the heart and blood vessels such as congestive heart failure (CHF), chest pain, and irregular heartbeat. Used to treat both low blood pressure and high blood pressure, “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis), and high cholesterol.
9- Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) Shoumar- Bloom time: June-August: Used as carminative, digestive, diuretic and in treating respiratory, kidney stones and gastrointestinal disorders, and others.
10- Calamintha (Calamintha origanifolia) Hashishet El-Basha, Hashishet El-Jabal- Flowering time: July- September. Used in Za’atar blend, believed to aid birthing women and those with uterus problems.
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