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Something to chew over

The Piper betel finds a place in the ayurvedic medicine chest.

PIPER BETEL called Vettrilai in Tamil and Tambulam in Sanskrit, is a necessary ingredient in most Hindu functions and festivals. It is customarily chewed with lime (choonam) and arecanut. A study showed that this habit was responsible for preventing osteoporosis in a group of economically, and socially disadvantaged, people. It surmised that the calcium in the choonam was easily assimilated in the presence of betel juice.

Betel leaf is aromatic, a carminative and a stimulant. It is also an aphrodisiac and an antiseptic. It improves digestion, clears the voice and cures flatulence. The leaf juice is given internally to treat cough and indigestion in children. Warm leaves (lightly heated on a tava) and smeared with oil are applied to the chest in cases of coughing and difficulty in breathing during infancy and childhood.

It is a treat to watch a veteran betel chewer go about the serious business of betel chewing. She would carefully select the leaves, wash it, wipe it and remove both the stem and the tip of the leaf, apply choonam, add a little betel nut, fold it ceremoniously and then proceed to eat it with relish. The stem of the betel leaf and the roots are said to produce sterility in women and that would perhaps account for the fact that the stem is always removed before chewing the leaf. The leaves are said to be invigorating and an aphrodisiac and, therefore, not to be used by celibates and ascetics.

The betel vine grows well in marshy lands, with good rainfall but can be coaxed into growing in drier climes with profuse watering. Being a creeper, it can be grown near a tree and trained on it. Commercially, the betel leaf crop is a labour intensive crop, grown in areas with abundant water. More than seven varieties of betel leaf have been identified in ancient ayurvedic texts.

For saplings and further information contact:

The Medicinal Plant Development Area, Forest Department, Government of Tamil Nadu, Pulleri, Chengalpattu.

Or

Arcottankudisai, Vellore

Centre for Traditional Medicine and Research, Chennai.

Tel: 441 5993, 440 5583.

E-mail: phyto@vsnl.net; herb95@hotmail.com

The writer is Chairperson, T.N. Pollution Control Board

Text and photograph by SHEELA RANI CHUNKATH

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