Acacia catechu
Catechu (Acacia catechu) Illustration - Köhlers Medizinal-Pflanzen (1897) (PD)

Catechu - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: er cha (used to refer to black catechu; pale catechu is inexistent in Traditional Chinese pharmacology)
Japanese: asen'yakunoki (used to refer to both pale and black catechu, although employed in reference to the latter more so than the former)
Korean: aseon-yag (used to refer exclusively to black catechu)
Hindi: kae kat'tha / khair (similar to Arabic) / kattha (used to refer to black catechu) / khaira cinaya (used to refer to pale catechu)
Sanskrit: balaputra (used to refer exclusively to black catechu)
Arabic: khair / khadira (used exclusively to refer to black catechu)
French: cachou de Pegu / cachou noir / cachou / cashou / catecu [all terms employed refer to black catechu] // cachou pale / extrait de brindille / gambir / gambier / extrait de gambier [all terms employed refer to pale catechu]
German: gerberakazie / katechubaum / indischer gummi
Spanish: catecu / catecu del blanca (referring to pale catechu)
Portuguese: seringueira
Italian: catecu / catecu blanco (referring to pale catechu)
English: catechu / pale catechu / black catechu / cutch tree / black cutch / cutch
Latin (esoteric): terra Japonica (lit. 'Japanese earth') / catechu nigrum
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Acacia catechu / Senegalia catechu [refers to black catechu; A. catechu and S. catechu being interchangeable nomenclatures] // Uncaria gambir / Uncaria gambir Sarawak [refers to pale catechu, which is a distinct species from A. catechu, and is not itself a 'catechu' by taxonomy, but is employed as such both in the general and medicinal sense]
Note: a number of plant species are referred to as 'catechu' and that even possesses it as a taxonomical name (i. e. Areca catechu). These are however unrelated to both black and pale catechu. For the sake of clarity, the only catechus referred to throughout the whole of this article shall be that of Acacia / Senegalia catechu and Uncaria gambir

Catechu - Botany And History

There are only two types of catechu within the context of its use in the field of alternative medicine, pale catechu and black catechu, both of which come from two distinct species of plants which are used interchangeably and that possesses near similar properties to one another. Senegalia / Acacia catechu is a relatively large deciduous thorny shrub which is found in large numbers throughout India, China, some areas of Japan, a select area in the Philippines and Malaysia, and well throughout the Indian Ocean and Micronesia. It is notable for its thorny branches and for its leaves, which strongly resemble a more clustered version of Moringa oleifera. Black catechu grows to about fifteen feet in length in the wild, or if left to its own devices, although some specimens can be kept to a more manageable length of some ten or so feet. The plant is notable for its bright yellow to sometimes ivory-white inflorescence which grows in axils from a break in the braches, just between two divergent branches with leaf-clusters, and for its pea-pod-like fruits which bear some six to ten seeds. [1]

As for pale catechu (Uncaria gambir) is a vine-like plant that grows to somewhat moderate to even sizeable lengths, and is a native of several parts of Asia, particularly China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is characterised by its woody structure, almost shrub-like in its thickness, although possessed of a surprising flexibility in spite of its resilience. It is also highly discernable for its broad, dark-green leaves of a somewhat glossy appearance and tough consistency, measuring about ten centimetres in length. It is most noticeable for its inflorescence, a compact head of clustered pink to pale-pink-hued florets which grow at the end of reduced braches often stemming from a similar main branch where the leaves grow. The vine is noted for possessing 'hook-like' appendages, really no more than withered branches which help the plant take hold of other vegetation to keep it upright. [2]

Both Senegalia / Acacia catechu and Uncaria gambir are wildcrafted, their leaves, branches, bark (in the case of Senegalia / Acacia catechu) and in some cases even their inflorescence are harvested and processed to create either black or pale catechu, depending upon the species of plant that the substance was sourced from.

The process of making catechu of either sort is very similar, although the constituent parts from which the substance (catechu powder) is derived varies upon the two distinct species. In the case of black catechu, it is the stems, bark, and wood of the plant which is slowly decocted in water - the subsequent decoction then being reduced after the plant matter has been pressed to extract all of the active substances, and the dark-brown paste-like liquid then subsequently sundried and later (when it has reached a powder-like consistency) packed for shipment and eventual use. In the case of high-quality black catechu, only the heartwood (the inner part of the tree itself) is made to undergo such processing, which yields a superior, fragrant, sweetish, slightly acerbic powder which is employed chiefly for medicinal uses. Lesser grade black catechu powders are often employed medicinally, generally as an adulterant to heartwood-grade black catechu, but more often as a traditional dyeing agent. [3]

In the case of pale catechu, it is the leaves of the vine (and on occasion, the whole plant itself, sans the inflorescence) are decocted via slow maceration over low heat. The leaves then render the liquid a pale-brown hue, somewhat lighter in shade than the dark-brown hue of black catechu. This liquid is then decocted further, until well evaporated, and the remaining 'scum', which is of a thick consistency, is then ladled out and spread into reed sheets to dry in the sun, or otherwise cooked until wholly dry and crumbly in texture. [4] In both the industrial and medical field, pale and black catechu is employed interchangeably, but never together. In the medical field however, black catechu is the preferred variety, not due to any superior medicinal property in itself, but chiefly due to its more agreeable flavour.

Catechu - Herbal Uses

Both pale and black catechu was once employed in nearly every area where it grew as an early organic or natural dye. The dyeing process was done either through soaking yarn or un-dyed woven fabric into the by-product of catechu powder production, or, alternatively, by mixing catechu powder with water and subsequently allowing the textiles or fibres that needed dyeing to macerate in the solution. For a more stable dyeing and a faster dye which results in more vibrant or deeper colouration, the fibres or textiles may even be decocted in the catechu-liquid under low heat for anywhere from a few hours to as long as half a day. Both pale and black catechu stains textiles a deep yellowish-brown to slightly red-brown hue (khaki fabrics were originally dyed with catechu, and the name 'khaki' itself is a derivative of the Hindi-Arabic name for the plant), although with the addition of mordants such as copper or iron yields hues of a slightly different variation, and repeated dyeing in the substance renders a very deep brown hue that borders on black. [5]

Because catechu contains concentrated amounts of tannins and catechins (a class of compounds named after the two plants, and which occurs naturally in other herbs such as tea, cacao, and coffee), it has been employed as a tanning compound throughout much of Asia, particularly in China, Indo-China, India and Japan long before the arrival of Europeans, and perhaps even before the majority of the Western world discovered their own methods of hide tanning. Tanning using catechu does not at all differ from the tanning methods employed by the Ancient Greek and that of the Early Romans, and may have even been influenced (or has influenced) the tanning methods of the Middle East. Depending on the country and the traditional method preferred by the tannery, the hides were either left to macerate in a solution of water and catechu powder, or was otherwise boiled under very low heat in said solution and regularly stirred by wooden rods until the tanning process had been completed. While this method of tanning may date back to the Han Dynasty, a strong possibility of earlier usage is perfectly plausible, although its introduction to the European consciousness did not come about until well into the 19th century, and even then, it was considered somewhat 'inferior' to the dyeing processes of the West which employed oak galls, unbeknownst to many Europeans that the famed leather of the Middle East (i. e. morocco) undergoes a similar tanning process (although it does not always employ catechu as a tanning agent) chiefly due to the fact that the hides tended to have an off smell that bordered on near-unbearable before the curing process set wholly, and the smell subsequently subsides.

When catechu later replaced oak extracts as the primary tanning choice of the West (this mainly due to its now easy viability, and largely due to its vastly superior affordability), it came to be known as 'cutch' (pale catechu was referred to as 'gambir' or 'gambier') and was employed alongside the more run-of-the-mill tanning methods of the West until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, where tanning was divided between the traditional and modernist schools, the former employing the time-tested methods sourced from organic compounds, while the latter preferring the faster synthetics. Other industrial uses of cutch include its employment in the preservation of ropes and fishing nets made from natural fibre - often dipped into the refuse of tanneries and allowed to hang and dry. In the days of sailing ships (and long before the advent of synthetic fibres that now constitute the bulk of modern sails), soaking canvas in catechu decoctions were considered a mainstay of general boat management, although the practice was only commonplace for ships such as junks and sampans. The practice later caught on with other, larger ships, but was a staple for nearly any sailing ship which has had significant contact and dealings with the Orient.

Outside of its industrial applications, both pale and black catechu have a long-standing history of being medicinal compounds, although the general (Western) preference veers towards the latter more so than the former, chiefly due to black catechu's sweeter (and subsequently, more palatable) taste. Both black and pale catechu were highly popular remedies during the height of the Victorian Era until well into the zenith of the Edwardian Era, where it was employed as a remedy for everything from nosebleeds, swollen and bleeding gums, gingivitis, halitosis, and toothaches. Its medicinal employment however dates back to an earlier source, that being the Hindi system of medicine known as Ayurveda, which prescribes black catechu (specifically) as a digestif, an antipyretic, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anthelminthic, and anti-dyslipidemic substance. Modern research into the medicinal properties and benefits of catechu have yielded surprising revelations on the substance's hypoglycaemic, antimicrobial, hepato-protective, and anti-oxidative, and anti-stress properties - all of which have been related to it in ancient herbals and traditional practices long before the advent of modern medicine. [6]

Catechu powder may be partaken of in whole form (although it is worth noting that if one employs pale catechu, the substance will have a very acerbic, astringent flavour which is not at all palatable, although somewhat tolerable in small doses), or otherwise diluted in liquid and drunk prior to meals to stimulate the appetite, or after meals to help aid digestion and enhance the body's capacity to absorb and synthesise nutrients. [7] Taken internally in small doses once or twice daily, it can help with the management of diabetes and high blood pressure. Minute or weak solutions of catechu can be drunk as a remedy for dysentery, diarrhoea, and asthma, while stronger solutions have been given (generally during ancient times) as a remedy for whooping cough, boils, ulcers, and even leprosy and ague (an early name for any sort of malarial fever). [8] Very strong infusions of the powder or decoctions of the bark or vines of either catechu plants were also employed as an anthelmintic, and was believed to rid the body of intestinal parasites without the adverse effects found in other anthelmintic substances (i. e. wormwood). [9] A solution of catechu powder in water also makes for an excellent oral mouthwash, or, if employed in whole powder form, as a good alternative (or additive) to regular detergent-based synthetic toothpastes, as is known to improve oral and dental health, prevent and combat halitosis, as well as remedy gingivitis and toothaches. When employed as a gargle, it can even cure strep and sore throat. A thick paste made from catechu powder, when applied topically is known to cure many types of fungal and bacterial skin infections. [10] During ancient times it was among the most reliable remedies for leprosy, shingles, severe psoriasis, and eczema and was even believed to treat animal bites if rubbed unto the affected area.

The anti-inflammatory action of catechu may be used to its best advantage if the bark or powdered extract is allowed to macerate in an oil along with other analgesic herbs and spices. This maceration, used as-is sans any additives can even be employed in much the same vein as oil of cloves, for the management of toothaches and the treatment of external ulcers, pustules, boils, and mouth sores. This oil may also be employed as an antimicrobial, antifungal and haemostatic agent, with very little adverse reactions. [11] Since the 18th century, tinctures of catechu and alcoholic extracts or solutions of the compound have also been made available - these largely taken internally in highly diluted forms or otherwise generally employed as additives to other herbal preparations. Black catechu powder has even been employed as a type of food-dye, and, in recent times, has been used to create black-hued vodka and other queer-hued spirits.

Other miscellaneous uses of catechus that veer towards the industrial include the employment of the wood of the black catechu as a fuel, either in whole, unprocessed form, or as charcoal. The wood from black catechu is also used in carpentry, marquetry, and general arts and crafts, and is prized for its hardness as well as its aesthetically pleasing qualities. The leaves of the pale catechu on the other hand are often employed as an ingredient in quid chewing, often paired with the areca nut (Areca catechu, a distinct specie of plant not at all related to Acacia / Senegalia catechu), or tobacco leaves, sometimes even accompanied by black catechu powder (resulting in a product called gutka or gutkha. It is generally used as an alternative to betel leaves (Piper betel), or as an accompaniment to the leaves. [12] The habit of chewing pale catechu leaves with either lime or opium dates back to China, and while it is said that the act provides medicinal benefits it is more detrimental than it is beneficial to one's health, chiefly due to the areca nut and tobacco. If concocted sans those two plant compounds however, catechu quid can be beneficial for oral health and hygiene.

Catechu - Esoteric Uses

In spite of its long history of usage, there is very little recorded esoteric use for either black or pale catechu, although both play a very strong role in the mores and customs of the Southeast and in India as well as some parts of the Middle-East as a gesture of hospitality and peace in the form of paan or any of its regional derivatives (in some respects similar to the chanupa or pipe of peace of the American First Peoples). Catechu is said by some to possess aphrodisiac qualities, and may be employed esoterically in the creation of lust and love potions, or in fixing spells, although no known magickal correspondence confirms such use or much less records it. Catechu may have had some esoteric use given the length of time it was employed by various civilisations, although if such uses did exist, they are now perhaps largely forgotten.

Catechu - Contraindications And Safety

While both black and pale catechu have very little to almost no adverse effects when consumed moderately, even on a daily basis, pregnant and nursing women are advised to avoid it during the interim of pregnancy and nursing. Individuals who are under blood-pressure lowering medication are advised to avoid or limit their intake of supplements or products containing catechu as it may complicate their condition. Likewise, individuals who are set for surgery are adjured to avoid the intake of catechu a full month to at least two weeks prior to surgery lest complications arise. As a general rule of thumb, children under the age of ten should not be given catechu, and even then, the help and guidance of an expertly trained herbalist is a must when medicating using catechu on very young children.














Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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