Eucalyptus and coffee
Two herbal items have been attracting my attention recently because they smell so good. Both are from trees that have fragrant flowers and leaves, but there the similarity ends. My two favourite trees of the month are eucalyptus and coffee.
These two continue my fascination with the medicinal herbal properties of everyday preparations. Often we think of ‘herbal medicine’ as pills, potions and preparations purchased from pharmacists, naturopaths and health food shops. Yet many of the herbs that we use every day have valuable medicinal properties .
These Australian natives seem to be taking over the world! In Africa, South America, the USA and along the Mediterranean coast stands of these trees are everywhere. The trees are tough, fast growing and drought tolerant, providing firewood, building material, shade and shelter to millions of people.
On the down side, they out-compete native vegetation, have been declared a weed in some states of the USA, and were described as scraggy, dull coloured and not a proper tree shape by early settlers in Australia. Their habit of dropping limbs without notice is not popular in urban areas where parked cars, houses and people have been fatally damaged.
Ethiopian eucalytus trees
Australian Aboriginals used eucalyptus to treat respiratory disease and this was recognised by the early settlers, with the first steam distillation of the essential oil prepared in 1788. Bosisto and Muller produced commercial oil rich in 1.8-cineole (the active compound) from 1854 and the Bosisto brand is still widely available. There are over 500 species of eucalypts, with E globulus (blue gum) E citriodora (lemon scented) and E radiata commonly used for oil extraction.
Eucalytus oil, used with steam inhalation, is a superb decongestant for those suffering from coughs and colds. The concentrated pure oil is not taken internally as it is a nerve poison. It is safe at recommended low doses when taken as throat lozengers
As a surface spray, the diluted oil is antimicrobial (used in treating ulcers) kills dust mites and is anti-inflammatory (used to treat dermatitis and as a mouth wash). Aromotherapists use it topically (on the skin) to treat headaches and it is added to massage oils, having a soothing, uplifting effect and treating muscle aches and pains.
Since moving to the bush (tree change: note my new address) I live surrounded by these randomly shaped, brittle trees with their aromatic foliage and bee-attracting flowers. On warm days the air is scented with eucalyptus oil. Picking the leaves, my hands are sticky with the fragrant oil. In Australia it is added to many products, such as cleaning agents, fly spray, washing powder, cough drops, antiseptics. We love the clean smell of it.
The tree is beautiful with the green leaves and red berries and the flowers smell wonderful. In recent Ethiopian travels we travelled for a week through countryside where coffee had been harvested and the air smelt of roasted beans.
Can you spot the man in the beans?
Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora
Coffee is made with roasted and ground fruit (beans) from evergreen small trees. Prepared as a decoction in hot water, caffeine content varies from 50-150gm/100ml depending on the method of preparation and source of the beans. It has been used as a dink for thousands of years, originating in the Ethiopian highlands and now used throughout the world.
Coffee has an “avoid” label in many naturopathic diets because of its stimulating and dehydrating effects when taken in excess (more than 3 cups per day). However, studies have shown that caffeine not only improves athletic performance, it also preserves brain and nerve function (Arendash GW, Cao C, 2010), protects against Type 2 diabetes (van Dieren et al 2009) and prevents liver damage (Wedick et al 2011).
Ethiopian coffee is strong and aromatic, without the slight bitterness of Italian espresso coffee (I like that too). I intend to set up coffee making Ethiopian style, but have to acquire a few bits of equipment first. Equipment list is:
One small charcoal burner (and charcoal)
Small saucepan to hold 1 cup of unroasted coffee beans
Arabic coffee pot (long necked ceramic pot)
Mortar and pestle for grinding coffee.
Small Arabic coffee cups
Incense, preferably frankincense as a lump of resin
For an Ethiopian coffee stop in mid-morning you need to allow at least 30 minutes. It’s not fast barista-style coffee. Ethiopian coffee is brewed like Arabic coffee, but first the beans are roasted over the charcoal burner and then ground. While grinding, incense is burnt on the charcoal burner. Finely ground coffee (+/-sugar), and water are placed in a narrow-topped pot, and brought to the boil, then immediately removed from the heat. It is very briefly brought to the boil two or three times. The resulting strong coffee, with foam on the top, is drunk from small cups. Coffee is invariably served by lovely ladies who know the local gossip!
Why we love coffee
‘Coffee has been so much part of human culture for thousands of years, and such a social lubricant, that some have speculated that we have evolved a high tolerance to it. Humans in whom coffee improved cognitive function and physical endurance may have been favoured for survival! Caffeine improves both physical alertness and mental readiness, giving a physically weak species (humans) an edge over rival species. Its use is still important in the modern environment where success in competition increasingly depends on cognitive, rather than physical, prowess.' (A J. Yun et al 2007).
Arendash GW1, Cao C. Caffeine and coffee as therapeutics against Alzheimer's disease. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20 Suppl 1:S117-26
van Dieren S1, et al. Coffee and tea consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes.
Wedick NM1 et al. Effects of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee on biological risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a randomized controlled trial. Nutr J. 2011 Sep 13;10:93.
Yun A.J., Doux, J.D., Daniel S.M., Brewing controversies: Darwinian perspective on the adaptive and maladaptive effects of caffeine and ethanol as dietary autonomic modulators. Med Hypotheses. 2007;68(1):31-6.