Centella asiatica, or Indian pennywort/gotu kola, is an herbaceous tropical plant used in Asian traditional folk medicine since ancient times and also valued as a highly nutritious food.
Centella asiatica is an herbaceous, perennial, crawling plant, found throughout many tropical regions of the world. This herb is best known, along with ginseng and goldenseal, for its role in Chinese herbal medicine as a miracle ‘elixirs of life’; a potion that promotes longevity. On the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asian countries, Centella asiatica is eaten as a leafy vegetable, and is thought to be extremely nutritious. It also has many uses in Ancient Ayurvedic medicine and is regarded as a brain tonic or memory enhancer.
Commonly known as Indian Pennywort, gotu kola, or spadeleaf in the U.S, this herb is usually found in swampy moist habitats, along marshy riverbanks, by reservoirs, ponds, and irrigated lawns. This herb is thought to have originated from India, although it is now commonly found in Madagascar, China, South Africa, the southeastern United States, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico. In South and Central America, Indian pennywort is known as hierba de clavo or sombrerito.
The Medicinal Properties of Indian Pennywort: The numerous medicinal uses of Indian pennywort can be traced back to before 1200 BC, when a herb known as mandukpani was mentioned in the sanskrit text of Susruta. Some believed that the name mandukpani actually referred to brahmi, (Bacopa monniera) a herb much revered in traditional Indian folk medicine. Modern studies in phytochemistry and the medicinal applications of both herbs have determined that mandupani and Indian pennywort are one and the same.
- This herb is used in Ayurvedic medicine for blood disorders, bronchitis, fever, leucoderma, asthma, insanity and infections associated with enlargement of the spleen.
- In Unani or Yunani medicine, Indian pennywort is a treatment for asthma, bronchitis and also headache, anorexia, singultus and urinary tract infections.
- In Brazil this plant is an herbal remedy for tuberculosis, sores and cancer of the uterus.
- In the Philippines, juice extracted from the leaves of Indian pennywort is said to aid wound healing and burns.
In 1887 it was reported that Centella asiatica was a reliable treatment for leprosy. Clinical trials conducted in 1957 found that although C. asiatica could aid in skin lesion healing, it was not effective against leprosy. According to research in recent years, a compound known as asiaticoside, a type of triterpenoid, attacks the bacterium in leprous lesions. Although, asiaticoside is also a carcinogenic.
Nowadays extracts of C. asiatica is added to various ointments and topical skin creams to aid the relief of vein problems, such as varicose veins; also stretch marks and hemorrhoids. This herb is also known to have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
Indian pennywort or gotu kola is known in the west for its purported use as a longevity promoter. Those promoting the herb have often cited the life of Li Ching-Yuen. Yuen was a Chinese herbalist and martial arts expert who, according to government records, lived to be 197 years old. Yuen is said to have spent the first 100 years of his life living on nothing but herbs, including ginseng, gotu kola, and also rice wine. So far there has been no scientific evidence to prove the longevity theory. Moreover, gotu kola contains some toxic compounds, namely an alkaloid called hydrocotylin, and is poisonous to some animals. Therefore, it is considered safe for humans to eat the leaves, but not to consume the leaf juice in large amounts.
Culinary Uses: Indian pennywort leaves have a sweet, yet sour flavor, often found in Asian cuisine. The leaves can be bought fresh, or ground, in Asian grocery stores. Although, this herb may not necessarily be labeled with its English name, so it is useful to know its Asian names. Aside from the name gotu kola, is also known as hai hobo in Thai, pegagan in Indonesian, hang kor chow in Chinese and nuoc rau ma in Vietnamese. There is also a canned sweetened soft drink made from gotu kola from Vietnam. In India gotu kola, or brahmi as it is known, is eaten raw or cooked in curries; added to chutneys and also mixed with wheat flour to make chapatis.
Indian Pennywort and its Nutrition: This herb is rich in antioxidants, including beta-carotene and also B complex vitamins. 100g has 2.0g of fiber, 1.6g of protein and only 32 calories; also, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, ascorbic acid, oleic acid and linoleic acid. A compound found in the leaves of this herb known as vellarine is responsible for its slightly bitter taste, and also makes it aromatic. Primary image, flickr.com; Dhammika Heenpella.
Image credit; flickr.com, Clay Irving.