Perennial plant growing to about 6½ ft (2 m). Has a fleshy taproot, hollow stem, compound leaves, and many white flowers in umbels.
Habitat & Cultivation
Native to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, asafoetida produces a gum obtained in summer from 4-year-old plants. The stems are cut off and successive slices are made through the roots. The gum wells up and is collected after it has hardened.
Asafoetida exudate contains 6–17% volatile oil, as well as resin and gum. The volatile oil contains disulphides (about 58%), which have an expectorant action. The oil also settles the digestion. Asafoetida resin contains sesquiterpenoid coumarins, including foetidin.
History & Folklore
In the 4th century BCE, Charaka Samhita, a Hindu medical treatise, proclaimed asafoetida the best remedy for clearing gas and bloating. The name devil’s dung notwithstanding, the plant is thought to have been the most popular spice in ancient Rome. Asafoetida is as persistent in aroma as garlic (Allium sativum), and is still used as a flavoring.
Medicinal Actions & Uses
In Middle Eastern and Indian herbal medicine, asafoetida is used for simple digestive problems such as gas, bloating, indigestion, and constipation. Asafoetida’s volatile oil, like that of garlic, has components that leave the body via the respiratory system and aid the coughing up of congested mucus. Asafoetida is taken (usually in tablet form) for bronchitis, bronchial asthma, whooping cough, and other chest problems. Asafoetida also lowers blood pressure and thins the blood. The herb has a reputation for helping in neurotic states.
F. silphion was used in ancient Rome as a contraceptive. It was overharvested and died out in about 300 ce. F. persica is used in the Middle East for rheumatic problems and backache. The central Asian F. sumbul is used as a nerve tonic. F. jaeschkeana has recently been investigated as a potential contraceptive. See also F. gummosa.
While safe in adults, asafoetida may be harmful to young babies.