Experts at the Zayed Center for Herbal Research tell The National about their work to preserve the knowledge of traditional medicinal plants in the UAE.
The Zayed Center for Herbal Research is keeping traditional herbal healing alive
To the casual observer, the small mangrove trees scattered along some UAE shores add a delightful splash of greenery to the desert landscape.
But the Avicennia marina (Forsk) Vierh – named in honour of the famous physician Avicenna or Ibn Sina (AD980 to 1037), and more simply known as the Grey or White Mangrove – also has some important medicinal properties.
Its astringent bark is used to treat scabies, and has antimicrobial, anti-fertility, aphrodisiac and tanning properties. The conical fruits are edible, and the flowers are used in perfumes, while the leaves can be used to treat toothache. The leaves and seeds also provide food for camels and other animals.
The mangrove is just one of hundreds of local plants studied at the Zayed Center for Herbal Research, which operates under the mandate of the Health Authority – Abu Dhabi, and is located next to Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi.
In 2005, the centre published its assessment of 29 of those plants in The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants of the UAE.
This year, there has been a push to reinvigorate the centre’s unique position as a reference source and leading local authority on traditional medicine – a field that has grown in popularity in recent years.
“Healing properties from plants and herbs are still used in conventional medicine today,” says professor Maha Barakat, the director general of Health Authority – Abu Dhabi.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 4 billion people – 80 per cent of the world’s population – use herbal medicines for some aspect of primary health care. It has been practised for many generations in the UAE, and the centre has worked with healers and herbalists to conduct its research.
“The role of the centre is to study the plants and herbs often used in traditional medicine and document scientifically their properties and what they can be used for,” says prof Barakat.
Sheikh Zayed, the Founding President, set up the centre in 1996, reflecting his appreciation of traditional medicine as part of the UAE’s culture and that of the region.
“It was part of a vision to preserve an important part of UAE heritage, and at the same time progress this field further through research and documentation,” says prof Barakat.
The centre hosts a library with hundreds of books on all aspects of traditional medicine.
Its Traditional UAE Medicine Museum uses wax figures and a display of old tools and herbs to illustrate traditional ways of treating common aliments.
There is also an educational living garden of medicinal plants, and those known to be toxic.
While the museum and the garden are not yet open to the public, students and researchers can visit by making an appointment. There are also plans to develop online resources.
“There are many written texts regarding traditional medicine, with instructions on indications and usage of plants and herbs, but one has to be careful as plants and herbs can have toxic side effects if not prepared well or mixed correctly,” says prof Barakat.
The wealth of knowledge in the displays, books and research papers at the centre make it worth a visit for anyone interested in the field of complementary and traditional medicine.
“While some of the traditional treatments are outdated, there is still much wisdom to be learnt from our forefathers and their techniques,” says Barakat.
“We are going back to what they used and discovering the scientific reasons why some herbs worked for one ailment and not another.”
Learn the properties of local plants
Besides serving as a hub of knowledge and research, the Zayed Centre for Herbal Research also provides information to visitors about the medicinal properties attributed to common spices, herbs and plants that grow in the UAE, as well as the ones that are toxic.
“One of the most common plants you find next to homes is known locally as Al Ashkhar (Calotropis Procera or Aiton), also [called] Apple of Sodom, where the whitish [sap] contains calotropin, which in some parts of the world is used to make arrow poison,” says Fatheya Abdullah Al Marzooqi, the awareness section head at the centre. She regularly guides visitors through a special garden of toxic and non-toxic plants.
Local hospitals often see cases of children who touched the plant and ended up with eye infections as the sap can cause corneal damage.
The common signs of toxicity from this plant include gastrointestinal-tract disturbances, including abdominal pain and vomiting, and cardiovascular symptoms, such as bradycardia (slow heart rate) and ventricular fibrillation (caused by disrupted electrical activity in the heart).
Other common toxic local plants include:
• Al Dafla (Nerium Oleander) or Royal Rosebay: popular as an ornament for its beautiful pinkish flowers and is highly toxic. In addition to gastrointestinal- tract disturbances such as nausea and vomiting, it can cause drowsiness, tremors and even coma.
• Iphiona Aucheri, known locally as the Hawa Al Ghazal: this plant has yellow flowers and there are records of camel deaths resulting from it. Symptoms of toxicity include acute liver and kidney impairment.
“We regularly publish brochures and have campaigns to educate the public on the toxic and non-toxic plants they find around their neighbourhoods or in the wild,” says Al Marzooqi.
“Whenever people go camping, they should read up on what plants are safe and which ones aren’t, for the sake of themselves and their children.”
• Lantana Camara, also known locally as Al Lantana: its tiny colourful flowers look nice, but its unripe berries can poison children who like to play with the flowers and berries because of the attractive colours and shapes.
Signs of toxicity include jaundice, constipation, sluggishness and, in chronic cases, weight loss, mouth and nostril lesions, as well as swellings in mucous membranes.
• For more information, call the Zayed Center for Herbal Research on 800 555. While herbal remedies can be beneficial, always talk to a doctor if you are experiencing any health issues