DOKUDAMI- Traditional Herbal CURE-ALL that has Long Flourished in Japan`s Damp Shadowy Places- has been coming out of the dark in recent years!
By Avi Landau
By late May, the shadowy fringes of my front yard are carpeted with low lying, heart-shaped leaves, atop which have appeared little white, four- petalled flowers. At the center of each of these, sticks out what looks like a tiny ear of corn. My back yard, which is on the north side of the house and gets very little direct sunlight, is literally overcome by this same plant, which gives off a strong and distinctive odor when stepped on or touched ( a smell which has best been described as being similar to that of OZONE). This scent is SO potent that you still might catch a whiff of it on your hands after garden work – EVEN when you had been wearing gloves !
Though their flowers are certainly cute, and even beautiful at night when they seem to glow dimly in the the darkness and dance with the summer breezes and rains, I would never have given these weedlike plants, which grow so commonly in Japan`s shadowy areas, much thought. But I have found that more often than not, when Japanese friends step into the wilds of my front yard in this season, they look down and exclaim- DOKUDAMI ! – attesting to the fact that this is an extremely familiar and easilly recognizable plant of cultural significance.
In Japan and many other Asian countries ( especially China, Korea and Vietnam), DOKUDAMI has traditionally been, and is STILL used as an herbal medicine, a CURE-ALL of sorts, said to be good for almost anything that ails you. It has also been considered an elixir and beauty aid, as well. Because its powers and effects are believed to be numerous, in Japanese this plant has an alternate name- JU-YAKU (十薬 ), Which I guess could be translated as TEN MEDICINES IN ONE, which is also used as a seasonal keyword (for summer) in Haiku poetry. The plant is also used as a vegetable. In Vietnam, the leaves of the DOKUDAMI (giap ca) are added as a garnish to many dishes in the same way that basil or corriander are used. In Southern China DOKUDAMI is cultivated as a root vegetable, and even in Japan some people cook the roots or use the leaves for tempura.
Over the years I have asked my Japanese friends and acquaintances if and how they use DOKUDAMI ( this word derives from the characters DOKU, 毒, poison, and DAMI,to stop- thus, it is THE POISON STOPPING PLANT). I have stopped being surprised by hearing how many people have tried it. The most common way of using the plant for medicinal purposes these days is by drying the leaves (by hanging in a shady place or leaving them in the car! ) and brewing DOKUDAMI-CHA (dokudami-tea). Of course, this tea can also be bought at shops or ordered over the internet, but using the leaves from your own garden is much more economical, safer ( you know exactly what you`re drinking), and of course infinitely more fun. Besides containing plenty of essential vitamins and minerals, DOKUDAMI-CHA is said to have antimicrobial and disinfectant properties. Many Japanese also believe that it keeps the skin beautiful and slows down the effects of ageing.
Another way that people still use DOKUDAMI is to pick the leaves, crush them, and rub them into the nostrils to relieve congestion. Leaves are also rubbed on wounds to prevent infection (you might want to remember this for when your hiking and forget your First-Aid Kit).
As I have mentioned before , DOKUDAMI has been used historically for just about every kind of physical ailment. However, I think that in this day and age, we should still look to its name- THE POISON STOPPER – as a guide to how it should best be used. The Japanese government officially classifies DOKUDAMI as a detoxifier. With all the chemicals and other junk to which we are exposed to everyday, drinking DOKUDAMI TEA made from dried leaves from your own garden might be a good way of keeping your body LESS TOXIC. This is certainly cheaper than ordering expensive DOKUDAMI products (just check the internet), and it also a way to put this common plant , which is probably taking over your garden, to good use.
Whether you try out its medicinal and culinary uses or not, DOKUDAMI shows us once again that if we take the time to look carefully at the seemingly mundane little things around us, and then do a little research, we can often discover something amazing- or at least something to make everyday life a little more interesting !
Walking about Tsukuba in recent years I have been taken aback by how dokudami has come out of the dark. It seems to be growing just about everywhere- and in sunnier places, much more vigorously than in its traditional haunts- the damp and shadowy spaces.