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Old 08-20-05, 09:28 PM
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Unassuming herb is Star from Asia

Wilson Henry


The pegaga will be one of the many local herbs discussed at the Women’s Health and Asian Traditional Medicine Conference beginning Tuesday, writes WILSON HENRY.

The unassuming pegaga that has always been served with other herbs in the ulam spread is fast making news outside salad-eating circles.

Why, even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has heard about it. Several years ago, its staff conducted research on the herb whose Latin botanical name, Centella asiatica, means Star from Asia.

The herb will soon surface in the news when scientists, traditional healing practitioners, herbalists, doctors and researchers gather for the Women’s Health & Asian Traditional Medicine conference organised by the Journal of Tropical Medicinal Plants and Malaysian Herbal Corporation here.

The pegaga — one of the many herbs to be found in Malaysia’s ancient rainforests — is widely harvested locally for a variety of purposes.

Snob circles pay top market prices for extract of pegaga in tubes of anti-ageing cream.

Maybe we have always known that there was something more to this herb, which is scientifically and alternatively known as Hydrocotyle asiatica.

Locally, the Malays call the herb pegaga (left), the Chinese call it ching chow sui, and the Indians call it gotu kola or valarai.

For us, the pegaga is a home remedy that is either eaten or juiced and drunk, or applied externally as a paste to the skin or scalp.

"My mother, like most of her generation, knew about the benefits of pegaga and it was a featured item on our dining table," says Professor Dr Suhaila Mohamed from the Faculty of Food Science and Technology, Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Suhaila, who been researching herbs for the last 10 years, notes that in the local community, pegaga is used for post-natal care as well as to heal wounds since it has antiseptic properties.

"In the West, the pegaga herbal extract is also used in formulations for memory tablets," notes Suhaila.

Classified under the umbelliferae plant family, this tiny creeping herb is found in the tropics, the swampy areas of India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, south China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malay- sia, South Africa and even in parts of the southern United States.

The form and shape of the pegaga alters to accommodate its environment.

In water logged areas, it will adapt with floating leaves, while in dry locations it has small and thin leaves with many roots. It may grow in one’s backyard with bigger leaves that are juicier, and possibly composed with a rich blend of active ingredients.

Because of the size of its fan-shaped leaves, the pegaga was compared to the old British penny, and from it gets its common names: the Indian Pennywort, Marsh Penny and Water Pennywort.

Four thousand years ago in the ancient writings of Ayurveda, the pegaga was referred to as brahmi, and it helped the priestly class have a better memory for scholarly pursuits or to practise meditation in the Himalayas.

In Britain, homoeopaths find this herb beneficial and useful for brain and nervous system conditions.

It is said to be an excellent brain cell stimulant, overcomes mental and physical fatigue, and enhances and improves memory.

It is said to help children with Attention Deficit Disorder to focus, assist with sleep disorders and rebuild energy reserves, and provide stimulation for the central nervous system.

The World Health Organisation says this herb has real potential, and what research on the pegaga has uncovered is certainly astounding.

The asiaticoside component of the pegaga, which is a triterpene glycoside, has antibiotic properties used for the treatment of leprosy and tuberculosis in India.

The second component of the pegaga, a pair of chemicals which are saponin glycosides — brahmoside and brahminoside — have diuretic properties and, in large doses, sedative properties as well.

Pharmacologists will appreciate the final component — madecassoside, a glycoside that acts as a strong anti-inflammatory agent.

According to M. Rajen, the director of Malaysian Herbal Corporation, initial research on the pegaga’s effect on leprosy sores and ulcers revealed antibacterial effect.

But in later years, he notes, researchers discovered that the herb was able to speed up healing and relieve inflammation due to the reticuloendothelial system, which is involved in the formation and destruction of blood cells as well as inflammation and immune responses.

The efforts by cosmetic companies to use extracts of pegaga in anti-ageing formulations can be appreciated when you consider that it helps to improve connective tissue and is beneficial for those who suffer from varicose vein conditions.

This connective tissue repair can be used in the treatment of different skin conditions where there is scarring.

So the next time you walk past the wet market and notice that the pegaga is being sold for less than RM10 a kilogramme, just be impressed that this herb botanical fetches more over the Internet or overseas.

More information on the Women’s Health and Asian Traditional Medicine conference is available at www.
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