Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Aristolochia: not for my garden salad

I have a couple of native dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia tagala) vines growing in my small, heavily planted garden. I put them in to feed the caterpillars of the Cairns birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera euphorion). I was careful to get the native species as other species within the genus will still attract the butterflies, but kill the caterpillars.

It turns out that plants in the Aristolochia genus havee been used in tradional medicine, both as a deliberate ingredient and as an adulterant substituted for other herbs. In Europe it has been given to pregnant women, and been given the name birthwort. The genus name is ancient Greek for noble birth.

 Unfortunately evidence has been emerging that Aristolochic acid, present in the genus and some others, can have significant adverse effects:
Signs of harm have emerged in recent decades, and the acid is blamed for causing a kidney disease called Balkan endemic nephropathy, first described in 1956, that afflicted rural farmers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Serbia.

The villagers were found to be baking seeds from a weed called Aristolochia clematitis in their bread.

Evidence for Aristolochic acid being a factor in urinary tract cancer has also been building. In 2000 Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration released a practitioner alert calling traditional chinese medicine practitioners to the risk posed by plants in the genus.

As I did my evening wander through various websites this evening my eye was caught by news of a new study which has further implicated the Aristolochia genus in urinary tract cancer:
A toxic ingredient in a popular herbal remedy is linked to more than half of all cases of urinary tract cancer in Taiwan where use of traditional medicine is widespread, said a US study Monday.

Aristolochic acid (AA) is a potent human carcinogen that is found naturally in Aristolochia plants, an ingredient common in botanical Asian remedies for aiding weight loss, easing joint pain and improving stomach ailments.

Respectful Insolence has more on the nephrotoxin and carcinogen on my doorstep.

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