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Wednesday, August 17, 2011


The Mast trees Polyalthia longifolia and the variant pendula are native to the Indian subcontinent, and are easy to spot because of their elegant erect appearance. They have long, lance-like glossy pale to dark green leaves, depending on their maturity, and look as though they could walk. They are usually planted as screens and it is a wonderful sight to see them in a line. They can give shade, so are welcome in hot climates. They are members of the Anonaceae family of plants which means that they are related to the custard apple (shareefa) Anona recticula or squamosa and to the American pawpaw, or prairie banana Asimina triloba. The mast tree is also known as the False Ashoka as people frequently mistake this tree for the Ashoka tree, which is not related. The trees in this family typically contain acetogenins which may have anti-cancer and anti-HIV activities.
  In the days of sailing ships the wood from these Mast trees were used for masts, as they are flexible with straight trunks. These days however the pale yellow wood is mainly used to make decorative items such as ornamental boxes. The trees have special religious significance for Hindus and are often planted close to temples. Their branches, leaves and pale green flowers are used in religious ceremonies as decorations.
  The Mast tree is evergreen, with the new leaves being a coppery brown, although they soon turn glossy pale green which darken as they mature. The pale star-shaped green flowers grow on the small branches in clusters but are difficult to spot as they blend in with the leaves so well. They blossom in spring and are followed by small fruit which contain a single seed. Five fruit can come from one flower, and these are much loved by bats that flock to the trees in the evening when they have fruit. The trees can grow up to 12 metres tall and are easy to see on the landscape. The name polyalthia comes from the Greek meaning ‘many cures’ while longifolia means long leaved, and pendulous, hanging.
 In Ayurvedic medicine the bark is used to bring down the temperatureof the body during fevers. It is also used for skin diseases, inflammation, diabetes and to lower high blood pressure. In traditional medicine the seeds are also used to lower the temperature in fevers Ithas been the subject of quite a few research studies and has been shown to have antimicrobial and antifungal properties. It is though that it is the alkaloids found in the stem bark that are responsible for these properties. In 2009 a patent was taken out on an extract of the leaves for anti-inflammatory diseases (rheumatism etc) and its action against cancerous tumours. Just recently, on July 12th 2011 it was reported that “new antioxidants” had been found in the Polyalthia longifolia var. pendula. Once again it would seem that ancient remedies for diseases often have a sound basis in medical science.

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