Nilufar Z. Mamadalieva
Institute of the Chemistry of Plant Substances, Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan.
2011 UNESCO-L’ORÉAL Fellow

Peganum harmala L. belongs to the plant family Zygophyllaceae and appears spontaneously in the wide arid and semiarid areas between Western China and
the Middle East/North Africa region. It is also distributed in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Caucasus. P.harmala is a perennial glabrous herb that reaches thirty to one hundred centimeters in height with a short creeping rooting system, white flowers, and three-chamber capsule-type fruits that can contain about fifty black seeds. The roots can reach a depth of five or six meters to adapt to drying soils. The plant tends not to suffer from grazing due to its bitter taste (alkaloid content).

P. harmala is a rich source of alkaloids, polyphenols, flavonoids, tannins, saponins, essential oils, fatty acids, and anthraquinones. When the seeds are extracted with alcohol, a red dye is obtained; this dye is commonly called “Turkey Red” and is used to dye carpets and wool. P. harmala seeds have also been used to produce an invisible ink, the process for which involved pounding the seeds before soaking them in water for two days. The liquid obtained thereafter functioned
as an invisible ink when written on paper. In order to read it, the paper is brought close to a flame, the heat from which makes the writing visible.

P. harmala has been used for centuries in the Old World for the treatment of many diseases. As a result, the plant has become known by many local names depending on location. For example, “Isiriq” is the common name in Uzbekistan, while it is called “Harmel” in North Africa (including Egypt). In the United States, it is known variously as “African,” “Mexican,” or “Turkish Rue,” and it is called “Hazor isfand” in Tajikistan, “Haramala” in India, “Ishbandh” in Bangladesh, and “Uzerilk” in Azerbaijan and Turkey. Dioscorides, the great Greek physician, was the first to use P. harmala and he named it “peganon agrion.” Years after, the Greek botanists named it “persaia botane,” because of its sedative, narcotic, antispasmodic, and emetic properties. It has also been taken
to control chronic asthma, colic, neuralgia disorders, and dysmenorrhea. The great scientist and physician Ibn Sina (widely known as Avicenna) described the plant in his book Canon of Medicine. He recommended this plant (used internally as an oral solution and externally as ointments and poultices) as a treatment for joint pain, inflammation of the sciatic nerve, and urinary retention, menstruation, and colitis.

P. harmala branch with unripe fruits © Photo from Alim Gaziev

In Central Asia, the seeds, bark, and root of the plant have been widely used for the treatment of lumbago, bronchoconstriction, intestinal spasms, and as a stimulant for the immune system. However, the fruits are effective as an analgesic and antiseptic while the seeds were used as an antipyretic agent. In Afghanistan, P. harmala seeds have been used for the treatment of central nervous system disorders and tumors, while decoctions of the seeds have been used for treating asthma and rheumatism, and with chili pepper for the treatment of syphilis.

Uzbek (Central Asian) families believe in the disinfecting and antiseptic properties of the plant © Photo from N.Z. Mamadalieva

In Ukraine, the roots have been used for treatment of rheumatism, itching, and pediatric fits. In the Caucasus, juice from fresh herbs have been used for treatment of cataract and the seeds used as a sleep aid. Kazakhs and Uzbeks drink a decoction and extract of P. harmala herb for the treatment of neurasthenic fits and malaria. However, the Kyrgyz people also drink a decoction of the herb for the treatment gastrointestinal diseases and dyspepsia. P. harmala leaves have
been used in Azerbaijan as a wound-healing aid and for the treatment of abscess.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the seeds have been widely used to treat cancer, asthma, jaundice, and lumbago. Seeds in the form of a powder are given as an anthelmintic against tapeworms. In general, the seeds are widely utilized in Turkey, Iran, and the region from Central Asia to China to treat coughs, rheumatic inflammation, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma.

Dried fruits of P. harmala© Photo from N.Z. Mamadalieva

The oil obtained from the seed is said by some to be an aphrodisiac. Smoke from burning pods with seeds is a traditional intoxicant, relaxant, and sexual stimulant in the countries of Central Asia. People use the plant in the form of smoke by burning the aerial parts to purify the air and kill airborne pathogens, but also to expel ghosts and spirits, especially after childbirth and during marriage ceremonies. The smoke from burning seed pods is believed to have antiseptic properties.

The antimicrobial potential of this medicinal plant has also been reported. Components of P. harmala showed promising antibacterial potency against both gram-positive and gram-negative microbes such as S. aureus, P. aeruginosa, Brucella melitensis, Salmonella, E. coli, Klebsiella, P. vulgaris, and others. The
extract has also demonstrated good antifungal effect against different Candida and Aspergillus species. The antiviral effect was noticed on Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and Coxsackie B3 (CoxB3) viruses.

P. harmala represents one of the most economically and medicinally important plants that has been extensively used in traditional medicine for management of
various ailments. Chemical profiling of the plant revealed the presence of a wide array of secondary metabolites that have been isolated from different plant organs. Biological survey illustrated the wide range of pharmacological and biological activities exhibited by the plant or its isolated compounds. However, the presence of many toxic symptoms associated with its use might limit its wider application in treatments. Therefore, more in-depth clinical studies are still required to establish a good lead compound for treatment of many ailments.