The plant known commonly as alkanet is a biennial herb familiar to all herbalists. The herb is characterized by coarse and hairy stems as well as leaves that arise out of a cluster of basal leaves. The plant is about 1- 3 feet tall when fully developed. The plant is also characterized by possessing lower leaves that are stalked; these can grow up to eight inches in length. Leaves in the upper part of the plant are narrow, they can be oblong or lance like in shape, these upper leaves can reach about six inches in length with a width an inch. Alkanet bears very dainty and purplish blue flowers, these flowers bloom from late May up to October, the flowers are tubular in shape, they can be about one fourth of an inch across and are replaced by minute and nut like fruits of the plant.
Alkanet has a long history of use with many traditional herbalists and finds mention in Dr. Robert Thornton's New Family Herbal, that was published in England in 1810 - it notes that "a decoction of the leaves and root of the alkanet is advantageous in inveterate coughs, and all disorders of the chest. ...the expressed juice is given with great success in pleurisy." Furthermore Dr. Thornton also speaks of the alkanet's other beneficial properties such as its "efficacy in the cure of melancholia and other hypochondriacal diseases". Therefore, this herb has a long history of use in traditional herbal medications.
An herbal tea made from the alkanet is still extensively used as a remedy in modern folk medicine for treating problems such as melancholy; this tea is also used to ease the symptoms such as persistent coughing. The tea is also used to promote perspiration and to break a prolonged fever. Alkanet tea is used to soften and soothe irritated skin, it also finds use as a potent diuretic, as well as an astringent and a "blood purifier"- this means it is seen as an agent that can perhaps purge all the toxic substances out of the human body.
The plant has a name derived from the Arabic “alhinna” or "henna," which has been transliterated as alkanet - this Arabic name of the plant reflects the ancient use of this plant and other related species, whose roots were and are still used as a red organic dye. Alkanet is also used to make the organic red dye, however, the dye possessed by this species - known by the common name bugloss - is not as potent or lasting as the commercial red dye that is derived from a closely related species called Alkanna tinctoria. Alkanet is also prized by many gardeners for its pretty violet blue flowers that are cut for floral display.
Traditionally, French women used the alkanet in powdered form as a temporary make up. The roots of the plant were also used to make a dye utilized in the preparation of many different decorations and staining techniques. This root dye must not be consumed for any purpose.
The alkanet is an invasive species and thrives in all kinds of temperate environments such as grazing pastures, in alfalfa fields, in pine forests, on prime rangeland, as well as riparian and even in waste or deserted lands. Hay bales often give in to mold on being near the fleshy stalks. The alkanet tends to be very competitive for space, as it can grow in large and very dense stands, this gives very stiff competition to the native plant communities already present in a place.
The main use of the alkanet in herbal medicine today is in the role of an expectorant - a substance that brings up phlegm, for topical purposes, it is also used as an emollient - a substance that softens and soothes the skin. However, clinical researchers and pharmacologists have not found any evidence that supports the expectorant action of the alkanet. The emollient action of alkanet is still to be evaluated in a clinical setting as well.
Alkanet remedies made from any parts of the plant posses an expectorant and demulcent activity. Such remedies are used as a topical treatment for the treatment of all kinds of cuts, bruises and phlebitis; these remedies are also consumed to treat persistent coughs and disorders such as bronchial catarrh in different patients. The herb is also used in preparing a homeopathic remedy often used in alleviating ulcers in the stomach and duodenum.
Habitat and cultivation
Alkanet is a European species; it is an invasive species in North America and can now be found growing locally in the wild from Maine up to New Jersey in the south as well as westward up to the states of Ohio and Michigan - it is seen as a weed in most of the places it grows in.
The plant thrives in sunny areas and can grow well on most type of soils. At the same time, the alkanet prefers fertile and well drained soils. Flowers of the alkanet are very attractive to bees, as they are a rich source of nectar. Alkanet leaves are also dried and used in potpourris as they give off a rich and musky fragrance, the fragrance is similar to the smell of wild strawberry leaves before they are dried.
To grow alkanet in the garden from seeds, sow the seeds during the spring in sandy soil in pots. Germination is aided by the overnight drop in temperature. Seeds normally germinate in about one to four weeks at an average temperature of about 21°C. As the alkanet plants grow and become large enough to handle by hand, each individual seedling must be pricked out into individual pots and then planted out in the soil during the summer months. An outdoor soil bed can also be used to sow the seeds during the month of July; this must be followed by the transplantation of the growing plants to where they will finally be fully grown early in the autumn season. Such plants tend to grow larger and flower earlier than the plants that were sown during the spring season.