DODDER, SOME OF THE CUSCUTA SPECIES
WHAT IS AMAR BAEL? DODDER: MEDICINAL BENEFITS AND HISTORICAL USES OF DODDER
DODDER, SOME OF THE CUSCUTA SPECIES
Dodder grows just about everywhere and was formerly placed in the Convolvulaceae family of plants, although now it is more often than not grouped in a species of its own, Cuscuta with a sub-group of grammica. You will probably have seen it as it tends to smother other vegetation, as it is a parasite. It has no leaves as such, just vine-like tendrils and stems which take nourishment from the host plant, which is whatever is nearest for it to climb on and cling to when its seeds germinate. It begins life with roots, but when it is firmly clinging to a host plant these die and it is solely nourished by the host. There are more than 150 species of dodder worldwide, and they come in a range of colours from white through to rust-orange, some tinged with red and purple. In Urdu it is called amar bael meaning the vine that lives forever, or everlasting vine.
In the UK alone there are several species among them the Lesser Dodder, Cuscuta epithymium, which was once used as a herbal remedy, and is the most common of the British dodders, preferring to live on gorse. It hides its host more or less completely with its red thread-like stems. The waxy flowers are pink-white and after it flowers, it dies back in winter having released its seeds which will germinate in the following spring.
The 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper favoured the dodder that grew on thyme, because, he thought it took on the properties of the plant on which it grows. He says “…We confess Thyme is of the hottest herb it usually grows upon and therefore that which grows on thyme is hotter than that which grows upon a colder herb, for it draws nourishment from what it grows upon…”
He believed that it helped diseases of the “head and brain” such as “trembling of the heart, faintings and swoonings.” Along with herbalists from other countries including the Chinese herbalists and those from the Indian subcontinent (Cuscuta reflexa Roxb. synonym Cassytha filiforma Linn) he believed that it was also good for the spleen, kidneys and liver. It is a diuretic which is quite potent and an infusion was made of the stems of dodder. These are used in Western medicine, whereas the seeds are more commonly used in Eastern medicine, especially as an aphrodisiac with Cnidium seeds which were believed to cure impotency and other erectile dysfunctions such as premature ejaculation. It is used especially to cure jaundice in these traditional systems of medicine.
Culpeper states that the dodder which grew on nettles took on their properties and was an excellent diuretic and cured any complaint of the urinary tract. An infusion is made from the whole plant in the usual way for a tisane, with 1 -2 ounces of fresh dodder to one pint of boiling water, which you should allow to steep for 10-15 minutes, to use as a purgative like senna and jamalgota. As it tastes bitter it is best used as a decoction, and boiled with ginger root and allspice to disguise the taste of the dodder.
The Greater or Common Dodder (Cuscuta europaea) prefers to grow on nettles and thistles, and this one has red or yellow curling stems and has pale orange flowers. There is also Flax Dodder (Cuscuta epilinum), Cuscuta trifolii, which is clover dodder, and Cuscuta Hassiaca which prefers Lucerne to be its host. The plant seems to contain a little chlorophyll in its flower buds, fruits and stems, but doesn’t need it to survive as plants generally do. The dodder fruit has papery walls with 1 – 4 brown or black seeds inside it.
Japanese dodder is used for a number of different ailments such as for vaginal discharge, diarrhoea, constipation and impotence, for the liver and a general health tonic. For these ailments a decoction is made from the seeds.
In the Indian subcontinent Cuscuta reflexa Roxb. is used for jaundice as a mild laxative, to boost the immune system, for muscle pains and coughs. It also has useful antioxidant properties. In Chinese medicine Cuscuta chiniensis is used for all kinds of ailments including fever, headaches, oedema, skin problems and paralysis. The seeds are the parts used but they should not be taken over a prolonged period and it is thought that you can overdose on them, so best avoided!
Very little research has been done into dodder’s possible medicinal properties, although what has been carried out suggests that it can help the liver.
Dodder has been popular in Arabian medicine for centuries and here is one old remedy (for interest’s sake only).
"It is for elephantiasis, mange, dandruff, and exfoliation of the skin. It disperses phlegmatic and atrabilious humors, purifies the body, clarifies the complexion, is useful for a red face, pimples, and leprosy.
"One takes ten dirhams each of Indian and Kabul myrobalan* without the stones, five dirhams each of common polypody, Cretan cuscutus, Meccan senna, lavender, and Syrian borage, twelve dirhams each of dry, red raisins without the pips, three dirhams each of seed of endive (meaning chicory the herb rather than the endive vegetable), pulverized seed of fumitory, and stripped licorice root, a dirham of cuscuta seed, a mithqâl of roses without stems and a dirham of fennel seeds. It is all cooked in 400 dirhams of pure water until it is reduced to a quarter. It is sieved. Then there is macerated in it seven dirhams each of cassia and manna. It is filtered again and on it is thrown a dirham of sieved agaric, a quarter of a dirham of salt, and a spoonful of almond oil, and ten dirhams of sugar. It may be used.”
* myrobalan is a cherry plum and can also refer to hareer or Terminalia chebula.