Unlike most of the herbs, which either trace their origin to the Orient or the West, centuries ago Arabs had discovered the visnaga. They found that the tiny, dull, egg-shaped, perfumed fruits of visnaga contained multiple therapeutic qualities and could cure several diseases, especially the piercing pain of angina pectoris originating from a decreased flow of blood to the heart. Scientists later discovered that this remedial function was owing to the presence of a substance called khellin in the fruits of the visnaga plant. Realizing the importance of khellin in alleviating heart problems, scientists have even described it as a discerning coronary vasodilator, which helps in relaxing as well as enlarging the arteries carrying blood to the heart. Hence, the usage of khellin brings instant respite from angina caused owing to slender or partially blocked coronary arteries.
Significantly, khellin also functions as a bronchodilator and expands the bronchi or the breathing tubes that guide air from the throat to the lungs. The Arabs were aware of these primary properties of the visnaga fruits and hence used them to heal people choking from the horrifying bronchial seizures owing to asthma and acute allergies. Extracts from the visnaga fruits also function as a diuretic and help the body to release the excessive fluids through an increased urine flow. As the extracts of the visnaga fruits are capable of filtering through the ureter - the tiny tube that connects the kidney to the urinary bladder - they are also effectively used to alleviate pains owing to the presence of kidney stones.
However, the bad part about using khellin is that along with its healing properties, it also has its share of adverse side effects. Researchers were disheartened to discover that usage of khellin often leads to a snowballing toxic effect. When taken over a period of time, the main ingredients of khellin accumulate in the body where the medicine has been administered and this is likely to result into nausea and vomiting in the patients even after their recovery. It is owing to such side effects that the usage of khellin as a medicine has been discontinued in the United States. However, herbal medical practitioners in the region in and around the Mediterranean Sea still actively use khellin to heal a number of ailments. In fact, the visnaga is found in abundance in this region and hence the tendency to continue with the practice.
Much like its other family member Queen Anne's lace, visnaga plants grow up to two feet in height and have thinly cut fern-like leaves. The plant possesses many flowering stems and each of these is crowned with encompassing collections of countless minuscule white flowers. These clusters of flowers are known as umbels as their shoots spread out from a middle point like the ribs of an umbrella. It is interesting to note that the umbels themselves are made of smaller umbels. Once the flowers have dried up and the seeds ripened, the small stems of the main umbels become rigid and hard. This part of the plant too is used by the Arabs as toothpicks and hence they have aptly named the visnaga plant as the ‘toothpick plant'!
The medicinal usage of visnaga dates back to ancient Egypt and it even finds mention in the Ebers papyrus (c. 1500 BC). Over the ages visnaga's fruit extracts have been used to cure kidney stones and even to this day Egyptian herbal medicine practitioners use the visnaga to alleviate pains caused by kidney stones. Visnaga helps to reduce the pain caused by the stones trapped in kidney by loosening up the ureter muscles. This way, it helps the locked stone in the kidney to ease down into the urinary bladder.
Researches have established that visnaga possesses anti-spasmodic features and hence it is widely used to heal asthma and is also considered to be a safe medication even for children. Even though visnaga is not always effective in healing severe bouts of asthma, it is certainly beneficial in averting the recurrence of the ailment. Visnaga is also an efficient medication for different respiratory ailments and is helpful in curing bronchitis, emphysema, and also whooping cough.
Visnaga efficiently improves the blood supply to the heart muscles and relieves patients of angina by soothing the coronary arteries. However, contrary to some common belief, visnaga does not help in lowering the blood pressure. On the other hand, researchers in Andalusia in Spain have used the best quality of visnaga to cleanse teeth and the results were said to be excellent. When people were asked to asses the value of the herb, they reportedly remarked “Oro, plata, visnaga o nada!” (This means, ‘gold, silver, visnaga or nothing').
Habitat and cultivation
Although indigenous to northern Africa, visnaga also grows naturally as well as profusely in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean Sea region. In due course, visnaga has been naturally grown in Australia as well as in South America, where the plant is cultivated extensively. Visnaga grows from seeds and normally the fruits bearing the seeds are collected in late summer before they mature completely.
Scientific researches as well as clinical examinations conducted by pharmacologists functioning in Egypt in 1946 have discovered that visnaga, especially its extracts like khellin and visnagin have multiple medicinal properties and are helpful in healing a number of ailments. Both khellin and visnagin are said to possess effective anti-spasmodic properties and act efficiently on minor bronchial muscles, on coronary arteries that carry blood to the heart as well as the urinary tubules. Visnaga can loosen up the small bronchi for as many as six hours. And the best part of the herbal medicine is that it virtually has no adverse side effects. Particularly, khellin contained in visnaga fruits is of great significance as intal, an extensively used conventional medicine used to treat asthma, is chemically obtained from this herbal extract.