By Fekadu Fullas, RPh, Ph.D.
Known by the common local name tena’adam, Ruta chalepenesis is a shrubby plant that is cultivated in the highlands of Ethiopia. It also grows in the Mediterranean region, the Middle East and the Canary Islands. Descriptive of the smell and taste of the plant, “Ruta” is an old Latin name for rue, which literally means bitterness or unpleasantness. This bitterness arises from the rutin constituent of the plant. The specific epithet “chalepensis’ is derived from name of the Syrian town of Chalep, which today is called Haleb or Aleppo. Herb of Grace and Garden Rue are the common English names for tena’adam. R. chalepensis is usually confused with a closely related species, Ruta graveolens. The latter is not known to grow in Ethiopia. It originated in Europe, and is cultivated in many parts of the world. However, the two species share many similar chemical constituents and morphological features. In folk medicine, they also have many intersecting uses.
R. chalepensis is sold under the Arabic names fidjeli and fidjla in drug markets of Algiers (Algeria) and under the names ruta and rutsa in Rabat (Morocco) drug markets. It is also known by the names Syrian rue, Allepo rue and Rue d’Alep. Interestingly, another plant Peganum harmala is also sold in these markets under the same name, Syrian rue.
The Syrian rue Connection
Common names can sometimes be misleading. For example, the name Syrian rue (Persian rue, wild rue) is used to refer to both R. chalepensis (family: Rutaceae) and Peganum harmala (family: Zygophyllaceae), which are two entirely different plants. The latter is also called African rue, which has hallucinogenic and intoxicant alkaloids. It is said the hallucinogenic seed alkaloids of P. harlmala inspired the concept of “flying carpets.”
Culinary and Medicinal Uses of Tena’adam
In Ethiopia, the leaves are used to flavor sour milk and cheese. They are also used to flavor “kuti” which is used as a hot beverage brewed from coffee leaves. The fruits are used as ingredients of the local “berbere” spice mix. The volatile aromatic constituents may be responsible for the flavor of the plant.
The Amharic name tena’adam literally means Health of Adam, thus signifying the medicinal applications of the plant. In Ethiopian folk medicine, it is used to treat colicky babies, diarrhea, earache, heart pain, hemorrhoids, influenza symptoms and intestinal disorders. The dried and ground fruits are boiled and taken by mouth for diarrhea. The juice from the crushed leaves is mixed with water and administered to colicky babies. The ground plant material is made into an ointment to be used for hemorrhoids. The boiled plant is used to treat influenza symptoms.
In north Africa, an infusion of tena’adam is used for colds, earaches and intestinal problems. Due to its strong smell, the fresh plant is used as a scorpion repellant. In Algiers, the infusion of the plant is used as nose drops to treat vomiting and fevers in children.
The oil, on repeated application, can cause blisters and reddening of the skin. When taken in large doses, it can lead to toxic effects, such as abortion in pregnant women, confusion, convulsive twitches, severe epigastric pain, gastroenteritis and vomiting. The medicinal use of the plant seems to be restricted due to these very secondary effects.
There is a mention in the common literature that rutin, a constituent of Tena’adam, may have anti-spasmodic activity, perhaps explaining its traditional use in Ethiopia for colicky babies. As mentioned above, the use of the plant for cold, earache and intestinal problems in north Africa seems to parallel its similar use in Ethiopia. It should be stressed, however, that the medical claims accorded to tena’adam have not been confirmed by well-structured and controlled scientific studies.
Asfaw N, Demissew S. Aromatic Plants of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa (Ethiopia): Shama Books; 2009; pp 162- 64
Boulos L. Medicinal Plants of North Africa. Michigan (USA): Reference Publications, Inc.; 1983; p 158.
Fullas F. Spice Plants in Ethiopia: Their Culinary and Medicinal Applications. Sioux City (USA); 2003; pp 133-7.
Jansen PCM. Spices, Condiments and Medicinal Plants in Ethiopia, their Taxonomy and Agricultural Significance. Wageningan; PUDOC; 1981; pp 104-11.
The author can be reached at FeFuBal@aol.com
By Fekadu Fullas, RPh, Ph.D.