Squill is a bulb that grows perennially to a height of almost five feet (1.5m) and is generally available in while or red colors. It has a single flowering shoot that is a decoration of large basal leaves and a thick barb of white flowers. If you want to visualize the squill better just draw a picture of an onion of the size of a cabbage weighing almost 13 pounds, having a flowering stem as high as five feet. In fact, a squill is a sea onion or bulb full of chemicals. Squill is native to the sand-laden coastal areas along the Mediterranean as well as in South Africa and the coastal areas of the Canary Islands. Interestingly, for ages squill has provided people with several useful and important medicines.
Squill or the sea onion bears a bunch of pale or rosy flowers at the top of its leaf-less purple-colored stem. The flowers normally blossom once in several weeks and are usually one or two feet below the top of the stalk. The flowering is unique in the sense that a bunch of flowers begin to blossom at the lower end and then works upwards to the stem. Normally the stem of the squill grows in late summer, much after the spring has passed. It grows after the decorative lance-shaped leaves, each measuring about one-and-a-half feet long, at the base of the plant have withered. The squill bulb is usually harvested during the period between latent period of the bulb and the time when the leaves have faded as this is the time when the bulb contains the maximum useful chemicals. These days squill are being cultivated in many parts of the world, but still the majority of the chemicals derived from squills still come from the wild variety of the plant.
Depending on the color of the squill bulb's external complexion, the contents of the chemical may be different. While red squill is most prominent and widely available, there are two varieties of the bulb - red and white. Both varieties of squill have the bulb and contain major medicinal qualities and are used to cure many disorders. However, the red range of the species that is commonly found in Algeria and Cyprus also possess a toxic substance known as scilliroside. Hence, it is only the white variety of squill that is generally used for medicinal purposes.
In ancient Greece, Egypt and Arabia physicians used the squill bulb as the base of an expectorant, diuretic and remedy for cough. They were also aware of the fact that extra consumption of the chemicals contained in the squill bulb was harmful and led to rigorous vomiting. Present-day researchers also believe that the ancient physicians in Arabia, Greece and Egypt probably were also aware of the fact that the ingredients in squill were a useful tonic to accelerate the functions of the heart. The bulb and its properties were valued by the physicians, especially in Europe, till other useful digitalis replaced its functions. Finally, scientists segregated the concealed cardiac spur and it was found to be a crystal-like compound known as scillaren A. Combined with other inferior element known as scillaren B, this forms the fundamentals of contemporary medicine.
As mentioned earlier, the red variety of squill contains a toxic substance known as scilliroside is commercially viable. It is useful as rat poison. Normally, when consumed by animals, including humans, scilliroside first lead to terrible vomiting and then spreads its deadly poisonous action. While humans are able to overcome the toxic effects of scilliroside due to vomiting, rodents fall prey to the fatal power of the poison as they are unable to vomit.
Squill, like all tubers, is composed of several fine and scale sheets. Significantly, the exterior layers and those near the core of the tuber or bulb are of any medicinal use. In order to get your hands on the medicinal part of the bulb, you need to do away with the external layers and cut the bulb into fine slices as one does in the case of normal onions and then dehydrate them. Once the useful middle layers of the squill bulb or tuber are dried, they are powdered. The medicinal contents of squill are then obtained from the powder of the bulb.
The squill has multifarious uses in wide range of conditions as it is a diuretic, emetic, stimulant for the heart as well as an expectorant herb. Squill is considered to be a good diuretic especially when there is water retention in the body. As the ingredients found in squill do not permit excessive water to be accumulated in the body it can be used as a latent replacement for foxglove to heal worsening heart conditions. When used in reduced amount squill acts as an excellent expectorant. And when it is applied in high dosages, squill acts as an emetic and leads to vomiting. Apart from being a vital herbal remedy, squill is also used in homeopathic medicines.
Squill is a strong and effective expectorant, a medicine that stimulates the production of phlegm, and is widely used to cure unrelieved bronchitis, particularly when there is low sputum production leading to an irritating dry cough. Usage of squill aids in the secretion of a liquefied mucus that smoothens the progress of expectoration. At the same time, the mucilage substance makes the bronchiole passages simpler and calms them down and in this way helps the stimulation of the glycosides. Many herbal physicians also use squill to heal bronchial asthma as well as whooping cough. Squill also has a motivating action on the heart and hence has been used by physicians to cure heart failure and help in water retention when there is concern about the heart.
Habitat and cultivation
While squill grows naturally in the Canary Islands, Spain and South Africa, the bulb is commercially cultivated along the coasts in the Mediterranean region. The white variety of quill bulb is dug out of the ground during the late summer. Since the red variety of the squill bulb contains toxic elements, it is not of much medicinal value.
Squill contains cardiac glycosides (0.15 - 2.4% bufadienolides, including scillaren A), flavonoids, anthocyanidins, and mucilage. The cardiac glycosides are strongly diuretic and relatively quick-acting. They do not have the same cumulative effect as those in foxglove.
The ingredients of the white variety of the squill bulb can be taken in the form of infusion as well as tincture.
Collection and harvesting
Soon after flowering, the bulbs of squill are collected.