The nature of henna: therapeutic and medicinal uses in Morocco (I)

The nature of henna: therapeutic and medicinal uses in Morocco (I)

Nature and traditional medicine

Today, if you travel in Morocco, you will recognize henna in packages available in stores, herbalist shops and grocery stores, mainly marketed for its cosmetic use for hair and body dyeing. Almost all henna sold in Morocco is in powder form, packaged in production centers or simply displayed in bulk sacks, to be sold by weight. It is also common to find its dried leaves, which are used in numerous health remedies. The use of henna goes back a long way in time and has been cultivated in a complex way in many different places. Possibly, you have never wondered about its origin, its preparation and use, or the meaning of the traditional uses that this universal plant has had from the past to the present.

diseases since ancient times. Despite the advances made by modern pharmacology and medicine, according to some studies, eighty percent of the world’s population benefits from the contributions of traditional medicine in terms of health care, especially in developing countries, due to the absence of a modern medical system. Therefore, traditional knowledge of medicinal plants and their use by the population are not only useful for the conservation of traditional knowledge and biodiversity, but also for primary health care and drug development. Interest in the use of herbal preparations is usually attributed to their good accessibility and the belief that most of them cause fewer adverse effects compared to conventional medicines Morocco Sahara Trips.

In Morocco, it is estimated that the percentage of the local population relying on traditional remedies is well over fifty percent. The Moroccan territory, due to its geographical situation, the variety of climate and soil composition, provides a very interesting source of plant biodiversity. In addition, the originality of the Moroccan flora stands out for its high percentage of endemism. This allows the population in general, and herbalists in particular, to have an extensive and rich traditional knowledge of the uses of medicinal plants.

The universality of henna

Henna is the common name for Lawsonia inermis, which belongs to the Lythraceae family. It is an untidy shrub that can reach a height of 3 to 6 meters. The stems are woody, branched and sometimes contain thorny tips. Its leaves are elongated and narrow, lance-shaped, opposite each other on the stem, and its flowers have a rather overpowering aroma. To grow, the plant usually needs a warm and very humid climate. Although this species is native to the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, and to South Asia and northern Australasia in semi-arid zones, its indigenous area is the tropical savannah and the tropical arid zone, where the highest dye content is produced in the shrub. Regarding the active ingredient of henna, numerous studies have shown that it is lawsonia (2-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone).

The henna plant is grown commercially in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Niger and Sudan. Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States are the main importers of this product. In the Indian subcontinent, henna is known as mehndi, one of the many names given to henna in other languages, implying that this plant had more than one point of discovery and origin.

In Morocco, henna is considered a magical plant and is used in numerous ceremonies and rituals of passage in the lives of Moroccans. Ceremonial henna painting is also considered sacred work and a form of worship in various cultures in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. More recently, this form of body art has become popular in Western countries, becoming the main focus of some beauty salons.

A nine-thousand-year-old history

Research on this ancient plant has confirmed that the paste made from henna leaves has been used since the Bronze Age to dye the skin, hair and nails, especially at times of celebration. In addition, the practice of dyeing hands and feet in antiquity has been documented from iconographic evidence in the female statuary of the Sumerian and Babylonian dynasties. Descriptions of the preparations made for brides, such as the dyeing of the palms of the hands and nails with henna, are part of very ancient texts.

In Egypt, the use of henna as a medicinal plant and for body painting is described in the Ebers Papyrus (1912), one of the oldest medical-pharmacological treatises (around 1500 BC). The text mentions seven different types of privet and describes where they were cultivated, their parts used and preparations with additional ingredients. On the other hand, a study on Royal Mummies also revealed that henna was used for mummification to rejuvenate the embalmed corpse by coloring the hair.

The uses of henna endured over the centuries in different civilizations, like most medicinal plants. Due to the disinfectant power of its leaves, henna is related to a multitude of protection and purification rites. The expansion of henna was unstoppable, it reached Greece, Rome, Byzantium and the Orient and, before the arrival of Islam, it was already used in Arabia. Later, the Arab invasion of North Africa introduced some traditions and customs into the Maghreb, including the use of henna.

In the East, the use of this plant has never declined and has always been linked to the culture and religion of the different countries, mainly for its ceremonial uses for men and, to a greater extent, for women. In these places the main use of henna is body art and, in many countries where henna grows naturally, the tradition is to use this plant to dignify special occasions: either the celebration of a victory in battle, or the transition from one state to another in a person’s life: birth, circumcision, a birthday, a wedding, etc.

In the Iberian Peninsula the cultivation of privet was not successful, because its climate was not the most appropriate for the development of the plant. References to henna have been documented since the 11th century in agricultural treatises describing the planting and acclimatization of henna in the south of the Peninsula. The Hispanic manual of Al-Saqati, in the 11th century, describes the increase in the demand for henna with the expansion of Islam and, therefore, the need to import it from the East. Also in Spain, there are references to henna and the traditional use of red dyeing in Renaissance literature, especially in 17th century dictionaries, such as that of Covarrubias.

In Europe, henna was often linked to aesthetic movements and the arts in general. In particular, during the English Orientalism of the 19th century, the fashion of dyeing the hair began, as opposed to the English cultural tradition that considered red hair unattractive in order to denigrate the Irish. On the one hand, the Pre-Raphaelites were irrationally devoted to red hair and, on the other side of the English Channel, the Impressionists popularized the connection between henna-red hair and bohemian life. In recent times, henna pigment has seen significant use in paintings and body art designs in Western countries.

Varieties of Moroccan henna

Traditionally, henna has been cultivated in several regions of Morocco. In each of these regions, different qualities of the plant have been distinguished, depending on the characteristics of the soil. It is possible that some of these local varieties have not been classified by the scientific community, however, there are numerous studies focused on proving the purity and maximum quality of this plant in order to avoid adulterations and falsifications that can seriously damage health. In this context, the Moroccan poison center has reported several poisonings caused by adulterated henna. Morocco has therefore established a regulation focused on agricultural products of distinctive origin and quality.

The result of a study on the most used varieties has revealed that the outstanding morphological difference of Moroccan henna leaves, compared to other countries, could be explained by several factors related to the bioclimatic stage (semi-arid, arid, pre-Saharan), edaphic factors (shale, limestone, etc.), maturity stages, duration of sunshine, harvesting conditions and other ecological factors. In addition, according to the study, this difference could also be explained by genetic factors.

Without going too much into the different types of Lawsonia inermis in Morocco, it is interesting to know that the most consumed varieties in Morocco come from Alnif, Tafraoute Sidi Ali and Tazzarine. Here are other varieties whose names are toponyms indicating the places of production.

Henna dukkâliya refers to the region of Azemmour (Chiadma and Chtouka of the great province of Doukkala). The plant is cultivated in irrigated soil and its main destination was the Tnine souk of Chiadma-Chtouka.

The henna filaliya is cultivated in Alnif, in Tafilalt, and as we have already seen above, it is one of the most consumed in Morocco.

The sussiya henna is harvested in almost all parts of the Sus region, southern Morocco and, previously, in the Saguia el Hamra (Western Sahara).

It is called drawiya henna that comes from various localities of the Drâa valley: Assa, Foum Zguid, Tazzarine, etc. The powder obtained from this variety is considered the best quality in Morocco.

In the past, there was also a variety called henna twâtiya, coming from Inzegmir in Taouat, a district which, for this reason, bore the name of “Taouat El-Henna”. This henna was sold mainly in Sudan, Algeria or Fez, and very similar qualities exist in the Algerian Sahara.

A part of the Moroccan henna production was destined for the local population, the rest was exported to Algeria and other Muslim countries. Although this Moroccan production is important, it is possible to find in Morocco henna marketed from the Middle East, which in turn is imported from India. Special markets, known as “Suq el-Henna” still exist in the medinas of the big cities of Morocco, where you can find all kinds of medicinal and cosmetic plants.

Some medicinal uses of henna in Morocco

Henna medicine consists of the dried leaves of the plant and is used as a natural remedy or tincture, indications of use that are already recommended by the prophet in the Koran, the holy book of Muslims. In addition, there is a widespread belief that the plant possesses a powerful baraka and is capable of warding off all kinds of evils.

The extracts and components of henna possess numerous biological actions including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial effects. Throughout Morocco, henna is used in compound infusions, intended to combat numerous diseases such as ulcers, diarrhea or kidney stones. The bark of the shrub is valued for its efficacy in the treatment of liver enlargement and jaundice.

In addition, henna is considered an excellent cooling agent and is therefore often applied to scrapes and burns. It is also used as a home remedy to lower body temperature, while suffering from high fever, or to treat heat exhaustion. Henna powder moistened with a little water or vinegar to form a paste is applied to the forehead and temples to soothe headaches and migraines The nature of henna: therapeutic and medicinal uses in Morocco (I).

The medicinal uses of henna also include the treatment of various types of skin eruptions such as ringworm or athlete’s foot, among many others. Alone or mixed with cedar tar, henna is often used in poultices on eczema, fungal infections, boils, abscesses, chapped skin: for this purpose, henna powder is moistened to a sticking consistency and then applied. Sometimes, an ointment with henna and butter (or olive oil) is used for burns, a natural paste that is applied as a healing, for example, circumcision. It is astringent, antiseptic and helps bruises (sprains, dislocations or fractures). Another type of poultice to treat wounds, is the mixture of henna and powdered sugar agglutinated with a little water. On the other hand, the properties of henna favor protection against solar radiation, for which a macerate of the plant in cold water is prepared and spread on the face The nature of henna: therapeutic and medicinal uses in Morocco (I).

One of the most common applications of henna is on the hair. Its benefits against premature hair loss are well known, as it helps to maintain the pH balance of the scalp. In addition, it acts as an effective natural cure against dryness, dandruff and graying, in short, it contributes to the strengthening and quality of the hair. Regular use of henna seals and repairs the hair cuticle, which in turn prevents breakage and helps to enhance shine. Henna is also used as a conditioner and helps to make the hair silky and soft, nourishing it from the root The nature of henna: therapeutic and medicinal uses in Morocco (I).

This plant is effective in treating cracked nails. To achieve this benefit, there is a home remedy that consists of drinking the water in which the henna leaves were soaked overnight. This treatment should be continued for at least ten days to obtain good results The nature of henna: therapeutic and medicinal uses in Morocco (I).

The infusion of henna leaves is often used in eye drops as an ophthalmological remedy.

The prophylactic properties of henna are widely recognized, so its application on the skin as tattoos is highly recommended by physicians in times of epidemics. Perhaps now, in times of Covid-19, it would not hurt to have our hands smeared with henna The nature of henna: therapeutic and medicinal uses in Morocco (I).

Finally, the sticks of the plant (henna mesuak) are sometimes chewed to clean the teeth, replacing the most commonly used in Morocco, the mesuak of atil (Maerua crassifolia), which causes mouth staining.

With this brief review of the origins and therapeutic uses of a plant as versatile as Lawsonia inermis, we end the first part of the post, which has been designed to address the henna tradition as a whole. However, the wide use of this plant: cosmetic, therapeutic, purifying and ritual, forces us to leave for a second part the ethnographic tradition of henna and its symbolic and social meanings. And, perhaps for a third part, because the subject deserves a separate mention, the temporary henna-based tattoo. Henna is part of Moroccan culture as a talismanic element against evil. There are many family, religious and festive traditions linked to this plant that, little by little, we will get to know through Moroccan Routes.

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