Fumitory (botanical name, Fumaria officinalis) is an annually growing herb that generally grows up to a height of 30 inches. This plant, commonly also known as ‘Earthsmoke', has thin stems and several wilted branches that bear gray-green hued leaves. The leaves of fumitory are usually split into triangular shaped jagged leaflets. The flowers of fumitory appear at the terminals of the branches in the form of extended bunches of petite, tube-shaped blooms that are purplish-pink having crimson tips. The flowers are generally 7 mm to 9 mm in diameter and appear during the period between May and September. Each flower has two lips and is spurred having sepals that run about a fourth of the flower's length.
The flowers give way to fruits that are basically achene - tiny, dry, hard, single-seeded fruits that do not open even on ripening. The fruits have rich content of compounds that are beneficial for our health, including tannins, alkaloids and salts of potassium. In addition fumitory fruits also enclose high amounts of fumaric acid. One can easily recognize this plant since it has stems that are angled, delicately split leaves and deep pink, zygomorphic (bilaterally even) flowers. As mentioned earlier, this plant is commonly known as the ‘Earthsmoke' or even Fumewort (the term being derived from the Latin word ‘fumus' denoting smoke) possibly because the roots exude a nitrous smell when they are dug out from the ground first.
The gray-green leaves of fumitory have an ethereal look akin to curling smoke rising from the ground when one observes them from a distance. In fact, fumitory is a weed that has come with agriculture in Europe since as early as the Neolithic period. Near the beginning of the Greco-Roman period, fumitory was known as kapnos - the Greek term for smoke. According to Pliny, the first century A. D. Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, a balm prepared with fumitory enhanced eyesight as well as prevents the re-growth of eyelashes that have been plucked. Pedanius Dioscorides, renowned Greek physician and a contemporary of Pliny, asserted that when fumitory is ingested, it functions as a diuretic. Both Pliny and Dioscorides have noted that fumitory got its name ‘smoke' owing to the plant's tangy flavored juice that results in the watering of the eyes in the same manner as they do when they are exposed to smoke.
During the times of Shakespeare, fumitory was commercially available in apothecary (pharmacist) shops and was known as ‘fumus terrae' (Earthsmoke) - plant's name in Latin. A herb book printed in those days documents that an extract obtained from fumitory or a syrup prepared with the juice of its leaves worked to invigorate the functioning of the liver, facilitating in eliminating toxic substances and wastes from the body as well as help get rid of skin contagions. According to the findings of a number of recent studies, this plant encloses compounds that work on the heart and also blood pressure. However, these properties of fumitory are yet to be ascertained. According to traditional beliefs, fumitory is also said to possess the unusual power to ensure longer life.
Despite the fact that the vivid red/purplish blooms of the common fumitory make the plant a gorgeous annual herb in gardens and fields, currently it is usually regarded as a weed. The seeds of fumitory sprout during the early part of spring and the plants are generally ready to blossom in May. Fumitory plant possesses the aptitude to enduring long periods of frosting during autumn. It is interesting to note that in spite of being a very familiar herb, fumitory can conceal itself very well in the midst of other vegetation which becomes quite difficult to trace it. Even insects often fail to notice the plant and, hence, the plants of this species require self-pollinating to yield seeds.
Flowering aerial parts.
The ‘Earthsmoke' or common fumitory has been used for remedial purposes since long, especially for treating skin complaints, such as acne and eczema. The herb's utility in curing skin problems is attributed to its potential as a medicated cleanser. It is believed that fumitory helps to get rid of the toxins and wastes from the body by way of the liver and kidneys and this, in turn, helps to cure the skin disorders. In addition, a formulation of this herb is also used as eyewash to alleviate the symptoms of conjunctivitis.
Since as early as the Roman era, fumitory has been held in high esteem owing to its actions as a tonic and blood purifier. In effect, this herb is considered to be particularly effective in treating all types of obstructions to the viscera, especially the kind of problems with the liver, when an individual is affected by scurvy (an ailment caused by vitamin C deficiency and distinguished by distended and bleeding gums, bruised spots on the skin and others) as well as in niggling eruptive skin ailments like eczema. In fact, fumitory can be used both internally as well as externally to treat eczema.
Fumitory or “Earthsmoke' possesses aperient (mildly laxative), antispasmodic, cholagogue (an agent that enhances bile secretion), gently diuretic, purgative, somewhat diaphoretic (any substance that induces sweating) and feebly tonic properties. In addition, the herb has also been traditionally used for treating health conditions, such as liver problems, arthritis and gallstones. It functions as a digestive tonic and an infusion prepared with fumitory is applied topically to treat scabies. A decoction prepared with the herb is an effective lotion for treating ‘milk crust' formed on the scalps of infants owing to too much and anomalous release from the sebaceous glands. In addition, fumitory is also prescribed by herbalists to treat cold and fever.
Despite its numerous therapeutic properties, it is advisable to exercise some caution while using fumitory. Using the herb in excessive amounts may result in tranquilizing and hypnotic after-effects, particularly if the herb is taken continuously for around eight days.
Apart from the therapeutic uses of fumitory, this annual plant is also used for industrial uses. For instance, the flowers of the plant yield a yellow dye. Owing to its emollient (softening and relaxing) attributes, this herb also forms an active ingredient in several cosmetics, especially facial tonics.
It is ideal to harvest the fumitory just when the plant begins to flower during the summer. The harvested herb can be used fresh or dehydrated for use when necessary later.
Habitat and cultivation
Fumitory or ‘Earthsmoke' is indigenous to Europe as well as North Africa. Currently, this plant is also found growing in North America, Asia and Australia, where it has been naturalized several years back.
Chemical analysis of the fumitory herb has shown that when compressed, its leaves give out a juice that possesses therapeutic attributes. When an extract is obtained by evaporating the juice obtained from fumitory leaves or a decoction prepared with the leaves, it disposes of a profuse salty spray on its surface. While it was established long ago that the plant enclosed fumaric acid, later it was its isomerism (presence of two or additional nuclides with equal atomic numbers and mass numbers, but dissimilar energy forms) with maleic acid was also proved. It is believed that the alkaloid fumarine is similar to corydaline, but it varies in formula as well as its response to nitric and sulfuric acids. Fumarine is available in the form of monochrome and insipid crystals, which easily dissolve in chloroform. It is not so soluble in benzine and even less in alcohol and ether. Fumarine is scarcely dissolved in water.
Basically, two medical preparations are made using the fumitory plants - infusion and tincture. You can prepare an infusion by adding one to two teaspoonfuls of the dehydrated herb in a cup of boiling water and allow it to permeate for around 10 to 15 minutes. Drink this infusion liberally for treating your health conditions. However, if you are taking the infusion for any skin disorder, it is advisable that you drink it a minimum of three times every day.
For best results, tincture prepared using the dried parts of fumitory plant should be taken in dosage of 1 ml to 2 ml thrice every day.
Side effects and cautions
Fumitory is considered to be a safe herb, although there are no reports available regarding the safety levels of the herb's use. Hence, it is likely that the herb may interact with some other medications that you might be taking. Hence, it is advisable that you consult your physician or healthcare provider before you start taking this herb for any of your conditions.
Collection and harvesting
It is best to harvest fumitory plants when they are in bloom, i.e. all through the summer season.