Herbal Medicines

Considering that narcissus are a rich source of alkaloids (see Chapter 6, this volume), it is not surprising that the genus has figured in herbal medicine. This has been vindicated by recent developments. The Daily Mail (28 September 1996) carried a headline 'Shire says it with snowdrops'. 'Flower power could soon be helping sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome. Shire Pharmaceuticals is testing galanthamine, a compound found in daffodils and snowdrops, on victims of "yuppie flu". The drug already has improved the mental performance of Alzheimer's patients.'

The Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos (460-377 BC) recommended a pessary prepared from Narcissus oil (probably N. poeticus) for the management of uterine tumours (Pettit et al., 1986). Plants of the Narcissus genus have been used to treat a variety of human medical problems (Pettit et al., 1995), and N. poeticus was described in the Bible as a well-established treatment for symptoms that would now be defined as cancer (Pettit et al., 1990). Pliny the Elder (AD 23-77) also recorded the topical use of N. poeticus and another derived from N. pseudonarcissus for the treatment of uterine tumours. It is now known that N. poeticus contains 0.012% of the antineoplastic agent narciclasine in the fresh bulb (Piozzi et al., 1969).

However, narcissus are not recommended for domestic use. A homoeopathic medicine is made from the bulbs and used for respiratory disease, particularly bronchitis and whooping cough, according to Culpeper's (1616-1654) Herbal (Potterton, 1983):

The roots boiled and taken in posset drink cause vomiting and are used with good success at the appearance of approaching agues, especially the tertian ague, which is frequently caught in the springtime. A plaster made of the roots with parched barley meal dissolves hard swellings and imposthumes, being applied thereto; the juice mingled with honey, frankincense wine, and myrrh, and dropped into the ears is good against the corrupt and running matter of the ears, the roots made hollow and boiled in oil help raw ribed heels; the juice of the root is good for the morphew and the discolouring of the skin.

Galen [AD 130-201] saith: That the roots of Narcissus have such wonderfull qualities in drying, that they consound and glew together very great wounds, yea and such gashes or cuts as happen about the veins, sinues, and tendons. They have also a certaine clensing facultie. The root of Narcissus stamped with hony and applied plaisterwise, helpeth them that are burned with fire, and joineth together sinues that are cut in sunder. Being used in manner aforesaid it helpeth the great wrenches of the ancles, the aches and pains of the joints. The same applied with hony and nettle seed helpeth Sun burning. Being stamped with the meale of Darnel and hony, it draweth forth thorns and stubs out of any part of the body.

Narcissus are also referred to in John K'Eogh's Irish Herbal (Scott, 1986). Narcissus was said to have a hot and dry nature. The roots, pounded with honey were good against burns, bruised sinews, dislocations and old aches. They take away freckles and heal abscesses and sores, and they draw out thorns and splinters. A decoction of the roots is a great emetic.

It has also been used as an application to wounds, for hard imposthumes, for strained sinews, stiff or painful joints, and other local ailments. The narcissus was the basis of an ancient ointment called Narcissimum. The powdered flowers have been used as an emetic in place of the bulbs, and in the form of a syrup or infusions for pulmonary catarrh. A decoction of the dried flowers acts as an emetic, and has been considered useful for relieving the congestive bronchial catarrh of children, and also useful for epidemic dysentry. In France, narcissus flowers have been used as an antispasmodic. A spirit has been distilled from the bulb, used as an embrocation and also given as a medicine and a yellow volatile oil, of disagreeable odour and a brown colouring matter has been extracted from the flowers, the pigment being quercetin, also present in the outer scales of the onion. The Arabians commended the oil to be applied for curing baldness and as an aphrodisiac (Grieve, 1998). Conveniently, the bulbs of N. tazetta have also been used as a contraceptive (Matsui et al., 1967). The influence of daffodil on the nervous system has led to giving its flowers and bulb for hysterical affections and even epilepsy, with benefit. It entered into the books as a purge and a vomitive and a cure for erysipelas and the palsy (Grigson, 1996).

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Arabian, North African, Central American and Chinese medical practitioners continued to use Narcissus oil in cancer treatment (Pettit et al., 1993). For example, the bulbs of N. tazetta var. chinensis, cultivated in China as a decorative plant, were also used topically in folk medicine as a liniment for the treatment of tumours. In this case, pretazettine was proved to be one of the antitumour active compounds (Furusawa et al., 1973; Ma et al., 1986). The bulbs of N. tazetta continued to be used in Turkey as a home remedy for the treatment of abscesses, because of their antiphlogistic and analgesic property (Qakici et al., 1997).

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