Healing Herbs
Mirza Ravhan

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A glimmer of hope

After having experienced the harshest winter, the valley expects winds to change their course. Spring is expected to knock on the doors. The arrival of the spring gives an optimist a reason to hope for the better days ahead. Everyone here prays and seeks the times ahead to be peaceful and joyous for one and all.

 In the valley, the first signs of the spring come to fore with the blooming of the flowers of Narcissus poeticus, known as Poet’s Daffodils in English, Nargis in Urdu and Yamberzal in Kashmiri.  Narcissus is the first flower to bloom to the delight of viewers and is seen as a glimmer of hope. Considered to be one of the harbingers of the spring, this beautiful entity symbolises the good news that the period of the cold winter is about to end and the warm season of blooming flowers is to begin.

Narcissus brings hope and happiness to the viewers. The researchers see it is as a potential cure for dreaded diseases humanity is facing. Compounds such as Narciclasine present in Narcissus are believed to be a potential cancer drug. A part of the Amaryllidaceae family, Narcissus is the first flower to arise and announce, in a beautiful and fascinating way, that one should sustain hope. An average Kashmiri enjoys the sight of the flower as gives a unique feeling and raises the expectations for the pleasant times ahead!

Coming to the basics

Narcissus poeticus is a flowering plant belonging to the family Amaryllidaceae. They are herbaceous perennials that grow from the bulb. The genus Narcissus encompasses a large number of species, hybrids and forms. Daffodils and Jonquils are members of the Narcissus genus and also its most popular varieties. They are also cultivated as ornamental plants for their beautiful flowers and for the production of volatile oil.

 In fact Narcissus has often been associated with the Greek legend of Narcissus, the man who was known for his beauty who killed himself after falling in love with his reflection in a pool, his body then disappearing only to be replaced by the flower yet there is no clarity whether the flower has been named for the myth or the myth for the flower or if there is any substantial connection between the two. Pliny states that the plant was named from the Greek word “Narce” which means ‘to be numb’.

The flower consists of a pure white ring of petals and a short corona of light yellow with a distinct reddish edge. The flower is extremely fragrant and attains a maximum height of about 40cm. It was first published and described by Carl Linnaeus in his book ‘Species Plantarum’ in 1753.

Historical Background, Distribution and Cultivation

Theophrastus described the cultivation of Narcissus in 300 BC. In his botanical writings he wrote about a ‘spring-blooming narcissus’ which botanists identify as Narcissus poeticus. Narcissus poeticus has long been cultivating in Europe. It was introduced in America by the late 18th century in Philadelphia. The plant has since then naturalized throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada. The exact origin is unknown but distribution of these flowers points out towards them being native to Mediterranean region. The most common Narcissus species were brought into America from Europe by the early colonists and settlers from the east. Narcissus flowers have also over a period of time become a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings as they are symbol of the spring as well as some narcissus species such as Narcissus tazetta have been planted extensively in graveyards particularly Muslim graveyards in the Mediterranean region for their ritual importance in these cultures.

Bulbs of  Narcissus are the main sources of its propagation. Narcissus bulbs are easy to grow and require little maintenance. Even with minimal care Narcissus multiplies and thrives. However there are certain points to keep in mind regarding its plantation such as the soil selection. Although Narcissus grows anywhere but it prefers a well drained soil with a sunny or light shade environment. Once the flowers are produced it is optimal to keep plants away from direct sunlight or in a cool area. This practice prolongs the flowering in the Narcissus.

Medicinal Properties, Uses and Applications

Anticancer properties of Narcissus poeticus L. were already known to Hippocrates who is widely regarded as the “Father of Medicine” who documented this plant and even recommended a pessary prepared from narcissus oil for the treatment of uterine cancer. The use of this particular therapy continued through 1st and 2nd century A.D. Romans also used topical extracts of the plant for potential anticancer properties. Throughout the Middle Ages in the Chinese, Arabian, North African medicinal systems the use of narcissus oil in cancer management was very much in application. In fact the uses of other genera of the Amaryllidaceae family were also common and utilized by medical practitioners for specific tumours.

Most of  the compounds in the Amaryllidaceae family are alkaloids. Study of these compounds belonging to this particular family actually began in 1877 with the isolation of lycorine from N. Pseudonarcissus and since then more than 100 alkaloids have been discovered and isolated from these plants exhibiting diverse biological activities. Other important metabolites are Narciclasine, Prancratistatin and their congeners. Narciclasine, also known as, lycoricidinol is an isocarbostyril alkaloid found in the Amaryllidaceae family of flowering plants. Notably N. poeticus is now known to contain about 0.12g of narciclasine per kg of fresh bulbs.

In 1967, Giovanni Ceriotti, Luigi Spandrio, Annivale Gazzaniga isolated narciclasine from Narcissus varieties. At that time it was known to inhibit cell division. Then due to extensive research in the field it was finally established as an antitumor agent by early 2010. In addition to anti cancer activity narciclasine and its congeners also posses other biological activities which are beneficial for humans such as antiviral, antifungal, and bacteriostatic activity. However none of these compounds has advanced to human clinical trials for treating cancer and there is lot to be done on different accounts before that takes place. Apparently the major reason thwarting further development in the preclinical evaluation of these compounds is the issue of supply. Since isolated amounts of these compounds from their plant sources are small further search for plants synthesizing these metabolites is essential. Also a practical chemical synthesis from a commercially available starting material constitutes a very important alternative. Researchers working on these synthetic pathways are encouraged to revisit their work again and again in order to develop simple and efficacious synthetic procedures.

Limitless possibilities

As of now only 15% of world’s known plant resources have been screened for their potential therapeutic values. This particular stat should be enough to open our eyes as to how much can be done in this particular field. Natural products provide mankind with more environmentally friendly alternatives to commercially produced medicines. Bulbous plants should also be studied more intensively as they have proven to contain a range of biologically unique range of compounds.  We should also explore possibilities of commercial production of Narcissus species for production of Narcissus oil which is one of the most popular fragrances used in the perfumery industry. There are limitless possibilities in the world of healing herbs. Nature is calling .Lets pay attention.

 Wait and hope!

For thousands of years, Narcissus bemoans a woeful fate; it’s with great difficulty that a true admirer comes along. That is what the poet of east says in one of his oft quoted verses.

“Hazaaron saal Nargis apni be-noori pe roti hai
Badi mushqil se hota hai chaman mein deedavar paida” .

Meanwhile, weatherman has predicted fresh spell of snow and rain during the current week across the valley and this newspaper informed readers to ‘hold on their woollens as the winter is not yet over’!

Though Narcissus has appeared here and there in some areas .In the social media the privileged ones are flashing the pics of Narcissus blooming in their lawns, but for a full bloom of thousands of flowers in the valley, Narcissus seems to be awaiting warmer weather. Hope her wait is not too long, for the warmer weather and also for a true admirer!

(A regular columnist, Mirza Ravhan writes on issues related to science and society.     Email:mirzaravhan@gmail.com

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