De Materia Medica is a five volume work authored by the Greek physician Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarbos (Asia Minor; 1st cent. CE). Photo: Statue of Dioscorides at Villa Giulia; Palermo, Italy.
De Materia Medica stands out for being one of the most comprehensive collections of ancient pharmaceutical knowledge, monographing some 1000 drugs – mostly plants. The present work is based on Renaissance physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli‘s commentary edition from 1568.
Mattioli (1501 – 1577) was a famous botanist and physician, and spent large part of his career on the study of the drugs described in Dioscorides‘ treatise.
First, Mattioli‘s (1568) work was digitized and inventoried…
…then, fieldwork was carried out in the Euro-Mediterranean area, mainly Sardinia.
Occasional wild fires strongly shape the Mediterranean flora. Photo: Burnt vegetation in the surroundings of Arbus (Medio-Campidano, Sardinia, Italy).
Thapsia garganica L. (Apiaceae) has recently attracted attention for being a natural source of Thapsigargin, a promising anticancer drug candidate.
The root of Carlina gummifera (L.) Less. (Asteraceae) produces a sweetish exudate that contains toxic diterpenoid glucosides.
Dioscorides (Book III, Chap. 8) recommended the root of this thistle as a diuretic and antidote to snake venom.
Ephedra distachya L. (Ephedraceae) typically grows in sandy soils. (Dunas Piscinas, Medio-Campidano, Sardinia, Italy)
Interestingly, Mattioli seems to have misidentified Dioscorides‘ description of Ephedra as a Salsola species (Book IV, Chap. 53). The historical use of Ephedra includes internal applications of the fruits against diarrheal conditions and vaginal discharge.
Arable weeds like common corn-cockle (Agrostemma githago L.; Caryophyllaceae) once were an important part of the Euro-Mediterranean flora and herbal medicine. Due to intensified agriculture this plant is now uncommon and only locally distributed. Photo: Massa d’Albe, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy.
Coris monspeliensis L. (Primulaceae) grows in the Western and Central Mediterranean.
In De Materia Medica, its roots (Book IV, Chap. 10) are recommended against respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders.
Hercules-all-heal (Opopanax chironium (L.) W.D.J. Koch; Apiaceae) grows up to 3 meters tall. (Villamassargia, Carbonia-Iglesias, Sardinia, Italy).
Its root exudate, called opopanax, has a balmy smell and is used as incense and in perfumes. Historically (Book III, Chap. 50), opopanax was applied to induce labor, and against toothache, fatigue and side stitch.
Is Ferula tingitana L. (Apiaceae) the forgotten source of ancient silphium? (Beirut, Lebanon)
Foraging pigs in Sardinian oak forest.
A rather curious herbal drug are the seed tufts of Populus nigra L. (Salicaceae). Dioscorides considered these useful against epilepsy (Book I, Chap. 91). Photo: Road towards Tempio di Antas (Carbonia-Iglesias, Sardinia, Italy) covered in fresh tufts.
Despite its showy fruits, Lycium europaeum L. (Solanaceae) is probably not mentioned in De Materia Medica. (Photo: Assemini, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy)
Fieldwork also took place in Lebanon… (Photo: Tannourine Cedars Nature Reserve, Lebanon)
… where one can find Styrax officinalis L. (Styracaceae), the tree thought to be the ‚official‘ source of styrax resin. Unfortunately, the spotted individuals did not produce any exudate. (Photo: Kesrouane, Lebanon).
Salvia viridis L. (Lamiacaeae) is another Dioscoridean herb that can be found in Lebanon. The colorful bracts are a characteristic feature of this species.
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus L; Verbenaceae) grows on river banks and in coastal areas.
In De Materia Medica (Book I, Chap. 115), chaste tree seeds are recommended for the treatment of lethargy and scrotal indurations.
Although the main focus of De Materia Medica is on therapeutics, some food plants and spices are covered too. One of these is Sicilian sumac (Rhus coriaria L.; Anacardiaceae). Together with several Lamiaceae species and sesame seeds, sumac is an important ingredient of Za‘atar, a popular spice mixture used throughout the Near and Middle East.
According to Dioscordes, Sicilian sumach is astringent. Hence, not surprisingly it is recommended as an antidiarrheal and antihemorrhoidal drug, and for dying hair black (Book I, Chap. 125).
Another interesting food plant is water chestnut (Trapa natans L.; Trapaceae). The spiny fruits contain starch, but need to be cooked (i.e. detoxified) before consumption.
Water chestnut plants were spotted in the lakes of Mantova (Italy). There, local Trapa populations have recently declined due to Nutria (Myocastor coypus), an invasive, semi-aquatic rodent from South-America that feeds on the plant. The adjacent petroleum industry, which settled in the late 1950s, is thought to have put additional pressure on the aquatic ecosystem.
Despite the recent decline in population numbers, water chestnut continues to play an important role in local cultural identity and practices. (Photo: Water chestnut chain on a local tour boat)
Busy botanist‘s bed and breakfast.
The roots of Convolvulus scammonia L. (Convolvulaceae) are the botanical source of purgative latex called scammony.
Dracunculus vulgaris Schott. (Araceae) is native to the Central and Eastern Mediterranean.
Its acrid tuber is recommended for several respiratory, dermatological and ophthalmological ailments (Book 2; Chaps. 155 & 156).
Cretan dittany (Origanum dictamnus L.; Lamiaceae) has been considered a panacea throughout written history. Wild populations are exclusively found on the mountainsides and in gorges of Crete (Greece).
Mandrake (Mandragora officinalis Mill.; Solanaceae) is probably the most legendary herbal drug in the Euro-Mediterranean dispensatory…
…and was an important anesthetic (Book IV, Chap. 78).
Cistus ladanifer L. (Cistaceae) is the botanical source of labdanum, a sticky brown leaf exudate. Photo: Fruiting individual growing in an abandoned (?) labdanum field in Southern France.
Dioscorides (Book I, Chap. 109) considered labdanum an important aromatic with uses in cosmetics and women‘s medicine. Nowadays, labdanum it is mainly used in the perfume industry.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no. 606895.