Cuscuta: natural history and ethnobotany
Digital Atlas of Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae)
“It is Kushut:
no root, no leaves
no fruit, no breeze,
[Poem written by unknown Arab poet
cited by the grammarian Alkhalil bin-Ahmad]
“With a green fuse of joy,
parasites devour their host.
It is their act of worship."
[Brian Aldiss 1971, from the story Somber noises in a marginal land]
The Complete [book] in Simple Medicaments and Nutritious Items by the Ibn-Albaytar (ca. 1180-1248) is probably the most comprehensive known Arab materia medica. In this work, the Arab physician, pharmacist and botanist compiled and added to his own observations relevant information coming from over 260 old sources. Next you will find a translation in English of the most salient parts from an article written by Jubran (2006), which is a study of the Arabic text. For the complete version and the translation [in Portuguese], the author’s notes and references see the link below:
Jubran, S. A. A. C. 2006. A assimilação das idéias tradicionais em matéria médica e farmácia no LTA: o estudo de um caso, a Cuscuta. In: XV Reunião da RIHECQB, 2006, Buenos Aires/São Paulo. Atas do Cesima Ano X. São Paulo : PUC/SP-FAPESP-Thomson Gale, pp. 395-502.
This is what Ibn-Albaytar wrote about Cuscuta:
‘Cuscuta is actually what exists in Syria and Iraq, where it is used by their physicians; it is not the same plant known in Meghreb and in Egypt where is called Akshut besides other names such as: hamool alkutan [“what is carried by flax”] in Egypt and qariat alkutan, in Meghreb’.
Ibn-Samjun, quoting Alkhalil bin-Ahmad (d. 791): ‘The term Kushut is used by the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, it is an Arabic term, the Arabs calls is Kshutar. It is an uprooted yellow plant, clutches to the extremities of thorns. They add it to wine.
Ahmad bin-Dawud (d.894): ‘it is known by the names: kushut, alkushuth and kushutha; it is something that clutches on the vegetation like threads, absorbs its water, doesn’t have roots, neither leaves but has delicate fruits in the extremities. When it climbs on trees, it sticks to the branches. It is abundant in the vineyards and on alfalfa (Medicago sativa). Generally, it damages the crops, but it is also used as a medicament. It has bitterness and when added to wine it strengthens it, making it drunkenness more rapid’.
Sabur bin-Sahl (d. 868): ‘the intensity of its heat or coldness is proportional to the heat and coldness of the plant [host] that is attached to, so it is hot if the vegetation is hot, and cold if the vegetation is cold’.
Ibn-Masawayh (d. 857), in his book on food: ‘Kushut is constituted by several powers: it is bitter and acid. The bitter taste gives it heat, and the acrimony makes it earthly cold [This means “cold dry”, according to the Greeks regarding the relationship between elements and qualities]. Generally it is hot in the first grade, but dry in the second, because of its bitterness and acidity. It softens the stomach, strengthens the liver and opens its obstructions. In the spleen it makes the rotten secretions be discharged from the vessels and veins. It is useful against the persisting inflammations, and it softens the nature. Its water is good for the inflammations that assault young men, especially if drank with oxymel, but it is heavy to the stomach if taken in large amounts because of its bitterness and its earthly essence. In the book ‘Improving the purgative medicaments’, he said: its property is to purge the yellow bile, but its power is inferior of that of the Absinthe (Artemisia absinthium). Who wants to use it should add 10 dirhams (approx. 2.5 gr.) of sugar to 1 ratl (approx. 350 gr.) of its water boiled and not boiled’ [Probably this refers to the oils and other substances that are preserved better when the extraction is made without the use of heat].
Attabari (d. 872): ‘the juice of Cuscuta mixed with rock sugar candy is useful for who has icterus’.
Masih (IXth century): ‘it purifies the body, cleans the liver and the stomack’.
Avicena (980-1037): ‘it fortifies the stomach, especially if boiled. If drank with vinegar, it eases the hiccup. Its fresh juice, or if grounded and added to any kind of drink, fortifies the weak stomach, cleans the fetus abdomen from the dirtiness by cleaning the veins. It eases the urine, the menstruation, colic, and decreases the hemorrhage. If boiled, it restrains the stomach and holds the discharge of the uterus’.
Alghafiqi (d. 1165): ‘it works more as laxative if drinking its infusion uncooked, but if cooked it will work as deobstruent. Drinking its juice or eating its seeds could have the same effects like those of the infusion and the cooking. It is inconvenient for those who have fever. It is good against the gout, rheumatism, if used to wash hands and feet’.
‘Attajribatayn’: if added to other medicaments for the treatment of scabies, would make them more efficient’.
Ishaq bin-Imran (d. 865): ‘its water would be useful for the humors composed of phlegm and yellow bile. Eating it is not bad’.
Ibn-Masah: ‘Cuscuta is good for the stomach specially if been conserved adding to it seeds of anise, celery e fennel’.
Ibn-Samjun: ‘some of our physicians recommend that if Cuscuta is not available it can be replaced with a third of its weight of Absinthe’.
Dioscorides, and later Pliny, recommended "Epythimum" as a purgative, as well as "for melancholicall, & ye puffed up with wind, ye quantity of an acetabulum to ye quantity of 4 dragms with honey & salt, and a little Acetum (4:179, see Gunther 1959; also Pliny the Elder, Natural History 26:55). Gilbertus Anglicus, around 1250 endorsed "Epithymum" as a remedy in a mixture of plants that “purge the head of evil humors”(Getz 1991). Culpeper (1652) noted that it is also good "to purge black or burnt Choller, which is the cause of many Diseases of the Head and Brains, as also for the trembling of the Heart, faintings, and swounings". Since dodders are under the sign of Saturn, "this helps by Sympathy, & strengthens al the parts of the Body he rules: Melancholy, Addust Choller, Trembling, fainting, swooning, Spleen, Hypochondria, Obstructions, Gall, Jaundice, Liver, Disury" (Culpeper 1652).
Quoting Arabs, Fuchs and other medieval herbalists (Ruellius 1529; Gerald 1633; Parkinson 1640; Culpeper 1652) believed that the curative powers of dodders depend on the "character of the parent (host): if it invades a warm plant, it strengthens its heating nature, and if it clings to a cold one, it will acquire the cold strength" (Fuchs, Historia Stirpium:349, 1542). This is why during medieval times, dodders were named according to the host they are growing upon (see above) (e.g. Gerard 1633; Parkinson 1640). Among these, "Epithymum" was said to have the best therapeutic properties because Thymus, its host, is dry and hot in the third degree, as indicated by Galen (Tragus 1552; Gerard 1633; Parkinson 1640; Culpeper 1652). "Physitians crying up Epithymum, (most of which comes from Hymettus in Greece, or Hybla in Sicilia, becaus those Mountains abound with Time) he is a Physitian indeed that hath wit enough to chuse his Dodder according to Nature of the Diseas and Humor peccant" (Culpeper 1652). "That dodder growing upon Tares (Vicia spp.), being the most frequent in London, and wherewith our markets are onely in a manner furnished and Apothaecaries shoppes stored from thence... can have no effectual quality comparable to Epithymum for... Tares are hard of digestion and binde the bellye and the nourishement of them engendereth thicke blood apt to turn into melancholie" (Parkinson 1640). [You can find all the cited references in the paper cited below - Costea & Tardif, 2004.]
Did you know that the etymology of the word “Cuscuta” unites different languages and cultures such as Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian and Greek? Did you know that the ancient Greeks, Romans, Hebrew and Arabs had a better understanding of parasitism phenomenon than the Western science until a few hundred years ago?
Costea, M. & F. J. Tardif. 2004. Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae) — The strength of weakness: a history of its name, uses and parasitism concept during ancient and medieval times. Sida 21: 369–378
Try this experiment: put the word “Cuscuta” in a few search engines, e.g. Ask.com, Google, AltaVista, etc. In the best ones, some of the first sites retrieved will be about the marvels of the Cuscuta seed (Tu si zi), in the worst, about “Catuba”, “Vigrx”, “Want a bigger P?”, often amusingly mixed with sites such as the USDA’s Plants Profile, Flora of China, etc. As for the sponsored links…well, just let you imagination soar! There are over 50,000 pages “about man’s health”, pure seeds or in natural mixtures, patches, homeopathy, Chinese herbalism, and many more. But is there is a real ethnobotanic or scientific basis for these remedies? Apparently, there is.
The most common Chinese name of Cuscuta is Tu si zi (tu is derived from a Chinese character meaning rabbit; si means silk [alluding probably to the fluffy look of the inflorescences and stems?]; zi means seed; therefore, we get "bunny seed").
I found this Chinese story posted on several websites (changed it just a little): “A young man was hired by a farmer to look after his rabbits. One day, the young fellow accidentally broke the spine of one bunny [I wonder how?], and afraid of the repercussions, he hid it in a soybean field. The farmer discovered that one bunny was missing and he made the young man return to the field to recover the rabbit’s carcass. To his great surprise, the injured rabbit was not only alive but jumping around as happy as if in an Easter postcard. The young man then noticed the rabbit was eating the seeds of a strange-looking plant that resembled yellow spaghetti and grew on the soybeans—which you guessed, was Cuscuta! Seeing that, he began harvesting Cuscuta seeds and decocted them for his father, who was suffering from severe back pain. Soon afterwards, his father's backache was cured. Cuscuta seed has been known as "bunny seed" ever since.
Tu si zi (Cuscuta chinensis or C. japonica) is recommended in the Chinese Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) as a yang-tonic, for kidney and liver (the “hot” organs) deficiency, impotence, premature ejaculation, spermatorrhoea, urinal incontinence, frequent and profuse urination. If you’ll want to understand the "logic" of these Cuscuta effects in the Chinese traditional medicine, you’ll have to study the fundamental concept of Yin and Yang and the dynamics of Qi, the vital energy of the universe.
Luo Xiwen, tr. 2003. Bencao Gangmu: Compendium of Materia Medica, 6 vols. Foreign Languages Press.
Reid, D. P. 1987. Chinese Herbal Medicine. Shambhala.
Zhu, You-Ping. 1998. Chinese materia medica: chemistry, pharmacology, and applications, Harwood Academic.
Although as in the case of most herbal products for which modern science is far from understanding the underlying physiological mechanisms, clinical testing and formulating drugs, there are some scientific results that support these traditional Chinese (and Asian in general) uses for Cuscuta. Check out these articles:
A Chinese herbal mixture (Zuo-gui-wan) was reported to restore ovarian function in women with premature ovarian failure (POF) and secondary amenorrhea (Chao et al. 2003). Interestingly, such traditional Asian uses are not found in other cultures. As mentioned above, although a liver-medicine for other cultures, Cuscuta was never used by them a sexual tonic. Cuscuta chinensis and C. japonica are very distant from a phylogenetic point of view, and it would be logical to assume that dodder species from other parts of the world may have similar active compounds and effects. Quite the opposite, for example, Paiute Indians used Cuscuta spp. as a contraceptive, the plant being known as "woman without children" (Moerman 1998).
Chao S. L., Huang L-W. and Yen H-R. 2003. Pregnancy in premature ovarian failure after therapy using Chinese herbal medicine. Chang Gung Medical Journal 26: 449–452.
Moerman, D.E. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Timber Press, Cambridge, Portland. See also the online database.
Maidens of Pawnee Indians used Cuscuta gronovii to determine the seriousness and sincerity of a suitor: “A girl having plucked a vine, with the thought of the young man in mind tossed the vine over her shoulder, into the weeds of host species of this dodder […]. The second day after she would return to see whether the dodder had attached itself and was growing on the host. If so, she went away content with full assurance of her lover’s sincerity and faithfulness” (Gilmore 1914).
This is in agreement with common names such as "love vine" or "love dodder", which should be noted are English, not Pawnee names. What is the connection between love and Cuscuta in the western civilization we couldn’t determine yet. On a secondary note, this shows how stem fragmenting (e.g. by birds, herbivores or Pawnee lovers?) could play a role in the vegetative reproduction of Cuscuta.
Gilmore, M.R. 1914 (reprinted 1977). Uses of plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
Hmmm…I know this is not about Cuscuta, but the filamentous morphology of the plants served as a visual analogy for the authors who developed this new cosmology. I find it fascinating. I wonder if a parasitic analogy would fit in this model of universe.