Daun Sirih – Betel Leaf

Commonly called Betel Leaf, the word more properly refers to the complete ‘chew’ consisting of a slice of the Areca palm nut, a pinch of lime powder, wrapped in a single leaf and chewed. This produces the characteristic ‘beetroot-juice-colored’ staining of lips, gums, and spittle, ultimately permanently blackening teeth, while lime erodes dental mass.

Its botanical name – Piper betle identifies it as belonging to the pepper family – its appearance and growth habit strongly resembling the pepper vine; Piper nigrum. The essential oil found in the leaf ‘arakene’ has similar properties to cocaine – acting as a mild stimulant.

A popular local jamu (traditional medicine) comprising juice of the leaf, turmeric juice (curcuma), lime juice, ginger juice (Zingiber officinale), sweetened with gula merah (red palm sugar) or honey is often found here. I have taken it myself (though my supply line is often interrupted) and have found that after a week I am much ‘brighter-eyed and bushy-tailed’. It is a deliciously refreshing drink, especially when chilled, and makes a great start to the day.

A handful of leaves, chopped and boiled for five minutes, is said to be good for clearing/cleaning the skin. Unfortunately, it tastes vile! The jamu is a much better way to ingest it. I deduce from this that a mixture of juice from the leaves with a little honey, smeared on the skin, would be most beneficial for the skin eruptions that plague many teenagers.

Analysis of the leaves has shown it to contain: moisture 85.4 per cent, protein 3.1 per cent, fat 0.8 per cent, minerals 2.3 per cent, fiber 2.3 per cent and carbohydrates 6.1 per cent per 100 grams. Its minerals and vitamin contents are calcium, carotene, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin C. The leaves also contain tannins, sugar and diastases, and an essential oil. This oil is a light yellow aromatic liquid with a sharp burning taste. It contains a phenol called chavicol which has powerful antiseptic properties.

Betel leaf has been used for more than 2,000 years as an aromatic stimulant and anti-flatulent. It is useful in arresting secretion or bleeding and is an aphrodisiac. Its leaf is used in several common household remedies:

Scanty/Obstructed Urination
Betel leaf juice has diuretic properties. Its juice, mixed with dilute milk and sweetened slightly, helps in promoting urination.

Nervous Debility
Betel leaves help in treating nervous pains, nervous exhaustion and debility. The juice of a few betel leaves, with a teaspoon of honey, is a good tonic. A teaspoon may be taken twice a day.

The betel leaf has analgesic and cooling properties. It can be applied externally with beneficial results over the painful area to relieve intense headache.
Respiratory Disorders
Betel leaves are useful in lung afflictions in childhood and old age. The leaves, soaked in mustard oil and warmed, may be applied to the chest to relieve cough and difficulty in breathing.

Sore Throat
Local external application of the leaves is effective in treating sore throat. The crushed berry may be mixed with honey and taken to relieve coughing.

A hot poultice of betel leaf juice mixed with bland oil and rubbed on the inflamed area benefits arthritis, lumbago and other inflammatory conditions.

Betel leaves can be used to heal wounds. The juice of a few leaves should be extracted and applied to the wound. A betel leaf should then be wrapped over and bandaged. A single application will heal the wound within 2 days.

Gently warm a leaf till it is softened, then coat with a layer of castor oil. Spread the leaf over the boil, replacing it every few hours. After a few applications, the boil will rupture, draining all the purulent matter.

Problems with Breast Milk Secretion
Applying leaves smeared with oil on the breasts promotes secretion of milk during lactation.

Ayurvedic physicians prescribed the chew due to its deodorant, aphrodisiac, and invigorating properties. It came to form a part of the ritual with which a new wife welcomed her husband. (? The ‘bushy-tailed’ effect)

Piper betle is a slender, aromatic creeper, rooting adventitiously at the nodes. (Roots like Ivy directly to wall or support.) The plant has alternate, heart-shaped, smooth, shining, dark green leaves, minute flowers and one-seeded spherical small berries. Native to central and eastern Malaysia, it spread at a very early date throughout tropical Asia; later to Madagascar and East Africa. It is also widely cultivated in India.

Very easy to propagate – it may often be found growing wild. A request to your local staff usually results in a suitable piece, otherwise look in the local market. Once established, it grows as quickly as any of the common Ivies, needing cutting back from time to time for control. Plant close to a wall as an attractive and useful background foliage plant.

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