Issue No.
180, April 2013 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Arum Palaestinum.

Of Black Lily and Green Leaves
By Riyam Kafri-AbuLaban
Cut the leaves right at the stem, slice in half and remove the main vein. Place in a strainer and wash repeatedly with water, squeezing the leaves between washes….


Arum Palaestinum, Black Lily, Loof Falasteeny, is a beautiful plant with bright-green leaves and a black calla lily flower that blooms in early spring in Palestine. This unassuming beauty is a busy manufacturing centre of antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-many-other-diseases compounds. It is known even to Israeli scientists as Palestinian Loof, and belongs to the plant family Aracea (a-RAY-see-eh), the genus Arum, and the species so appropriately known as Palaestinum. Reports of this particular plant flowering in California are found in the literature; usually it is reported to flower alongside its white calla lily cousin. But in Palestine, Loof blooms in shady warm areas, on its own. It is a culinary delicacy served in a variety of forms - sautéed in olive oil with onions, cooked in a tomato-based sauce with wheat flour or whole wheat bread - a delicacy enjoyed for years in the kitchens of those who appreciate it and know how to prepare it.

You must wash and squeeze the leaves to get rid of their bitter taste, which causes numbness in the mouth. A sign of a master chef is a Loof dish that does not numb one’s tongue. Some might prefer to boil the leaves and decant them several times to get rid of the toxins.

It is this exact toxicity that makes Loof an interesting plant to study for biological activity. It is odd that Palestine has not been flooded with scientists from all over the world clambering to study its wide variety of medicinal herbs. After all Palestine as a region holds 3 percent of the world’s biodiversity, including medicinal plants. Moreover, herbal medicine in Palestine forms an integral part of medical care and has been largely unchanged for many generations. All Palestinians are subject (throughout their lifespan) to all types of decoctions, macerations, and oil-based remedies. Mothers get their knowledge from their own mothers who have inherited this information from their own mothers, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, etc. For an upset stomach, drink sage tea; for a cold, make chamomile tea, quickly and hurriedly, and infuse with fresh honey from this year’s harvest. For beautiful hair, massage your head with olive oil before washing it. For beautiful skin, use sugar, lemon, and olive oil to scrub your face, the resulting glow competes with the best and, of course, most expensive spa treatments. And for anti-aging or anti-cancer effects, a Loof-based cream, or pill? Maybe?

Although Palestinian herbal medicine is deeply ingrained in the culture, a serious and central effort to document the ethnopharmacological knowledge and support it with a comprehensive natural-product-screening programme is still lacking. Many brave efforts of young scientists in various Palestinian universities exist, but a more central project is needed. Much like everything else, traditional medicinal plant knowledge is being hijacked by Israeli culture and scientists.

Pour a good amount of olive oil into a saucepan on medium heat. Chop an onion or two into fine squares; add to the warm oil, and sauté. Add your chopped Loof leaves and stir. Keep stirring until the onions are clear and barely visible, and your bright green leaves are dark and wilted.

Studies show that Loof has antioxidant activity. Chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and ageing are all associated with the presence of high levels of reactive oxygen species, in other words radicals. In general, radicals (as chemists like to call them, not to be confused with other types of radicals such as political ones) are reactive species that can pretty much eat through anything. They can attack proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, and cause both structural and functional changes. Radicals are serious troublemakers for those in search of eternal youth. They can break down skin tissue and cause wrinkles, age spots, and fine lines. So imagine if in Palestine we find the one plant that can seriously stop such damage, or, to be less vain and more humble, at least significantly slow it down. Radicals are also associated with cancer. Cancer, till this day, remains a shape-shifting disease. It has many causes that range from lifestyle, nutrition, age, weight, and genetics on the macro level, to the more precise causes, such as the uncontrolled cell proliferation - the inability of our cells to stop dividing. The presence of radicals that can cause genetic damage to our cells and render them unable to stop dividing is hypothesised to be a cause of cancer. Medicinal plants with antioxidant compounds that can neutralise these highly reactive species may be another mode of attack. It may be just another weapon that can help secure at least one victory in a battle in the war against one of the worst diseases in the history of modern medicine.

To serve this in a tomato sauce, peel your tomatoes, chop them into fine pieces, and gradually add them to the saucepan and stir. Then add water, a dash of salt and some pepper, and let the mixture simmer over low heat.

According to the literature, Loof has significant amounts of phenolic compounds. Phenolic compounds are a special family of alcohols that exhibit interesting biological activity. For example, they are responsible for the red colour in berries, which also exhibits antioxidant and anti-aging activity. Phenolic functionality has also been associated with other biological activities and has made excellent medicinal compound targets. The key feature of phenols is their acidic alcohol group, which is significantly more acidic than a regular alcohol (for example, ethanol). The presence of a benzene ring (a special unsaturated six-membered ring) causes this high acidity as well as the ability to react with radicals to form more stable compounds. We call benzene rings a conjugated pi system that is capable of resonance stabilisation. In other words, the presence of the benzene ring stabilises the compound and accounts for its ability to react in various ways.

Once the Loof stew is ready you can serve it with whole wheat bread for dipping, or with whole wheat maftool (couscous), or with bread crumbs covered with the stew.

As Loof flowers around this time of the year, we natural-product explorers feel a bit of hope, a tinge of potential, and a skip of the heartbeat as we macerate leaves in alcoholic and aqueous media. We hope that perhaps this time next year, we might hold in a test tube an extract that promises eternal youth, or eternal life, or a treatment for cancer. We hope that Palestinian research will blossom into efforts to document a long history of herbal medicine and further support what is recognised to be folk knowledge with scientific results that can not only preserve this tradition and protect it from theft but will also provide a basis for serious research efforts, achievements, and publications. The importance of research-active academics cannot be highlighted enough. Not only will it provide working opportunities for many highly educated Palestinians but it will ultimately make us better teachers.

You may choose to garnish the stew with lemon… Bon Appetite!

Dr. Riyam Kafri-AbuLaban is an assistant professor of organic chemistry at Al Quds Bard College based at Al Quds University-Abu Dis. She teaches organic chemistry, writing, and First Year Seminar (a great books class). She co-writes and co-manages The Big Olive: The Tales of Two Professors in Palestine (http://thebigolive.tumblr.com). She is married to Ahmed AbuLaban, and both are on the fearless frontlines of parenthood with the lovely toddler twins Basil and Taima. Riyam can be reached at rkafri@gmail.com


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