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ASAFETIDA (asa, Lat. form of Persian aza = mastic, and
fetidus, stinking, so called in distinction to asa dulcis, which was
a drug highly esteemed among the ancients as laser cyrenaicum,
and is supposed to have been a gummy exudation from Thapsis
garganica), a gum-resin obtained principally from the root of
Ferula fetida, and probably also from one or two other closely
allied species of umbelliferous plants. It is produced in eastern
Persia and Afghanistan, Herat and Kandahar being centres of
the trade. Ferula fetida grows to a height of from 5 to 6 ft., and
when the plant has attained the age of four years it is ready for
yielding asafetida. The stems are cut down close to the root,
and the juice flows out, at first of a milky appearance, but quickly
setting into a solid resinous mass. Fresh incisions are made as
long as the sap continues to flow, a period which varies according
to the size and strength of the plant. A freshly-exposed surface
of asafetida has a translucent, pearly-white appearance, but it
soon darkens in the air, becoming first pink and finally reddish-brown.
In taste it is acrid and bitter; but what peculiarly
characterizes it is the strong alliaceous odour it emits, from
which it has obtained the name asafetida, as well as its German
name Teufelsdreck (devil’s dung). Its odour is due to the presence
of organic sulphur compounds. Asafetida is found in commerce
in “lump” or in “tear,” the latter being the purer form.
Medicinally, asafetida is given in doses of 5 to 15 grains and acts
as a stimulant to the intestinal and respiratory tracts and to
the nervous system. An enema containing it is useful in relieving
flatus. It is sometimes useful in hysteria, which is essentially
a lack of inhibitory power, as its nasty properties induce sufficient
inhibitory power to render its readministration superfluous.
It may also be used in an effervescing draught in cases of
malingering, the drug “repeating” in the mouth and making
the malingering not worth while. The gum-resin is relished as a
condiment in India and Persia, and is in demand in France for
use in cookery. In the regions of its growth the whole plant is
used as a fresh vegetable, the inner portion of the full-grown stem
being regarded as a luxury.
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