Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden
Asafoetida or asafetida, Ferula assa-foetida (syn. Ferula scorodosma), is also called devil’s dung and food-of-the-gods.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Encyclopedia it is “probably the most foul-smelling of all herbs” (Plants for a Future describes the smell as “like stale fish”), which accounts for the first two common names. The third may refer to its use in Hindu cooking instead of onions and garlic – where food is cooked which is to be used as puja (an offering to the gods), onions and garlic may not be used, but a little asafoetida (called hing) is added instead, which once cooked apparently tastes quite similar to the banned alliums.
Asafoetida is a half-hardy perennial which reaches a height of 6’6″ (2m) and a spread of 5′ (1.5m). Soil type is unimportant, so long as it is well drained and not shaded.
Collecting the resin from the root for medicinal use involves scraping, slicing and scraping again. Although I’ve given information about the plant, since it is so foul-smelling and so difficult to extract the active portion, you may wish instead to buy your hing ready prepared. It is sold in airtight containers so as to prevent the smell escaping (!) in many Asian grocers. If you can’t find it, you may be able to find a supplier by asking at a Hare Krishna temple, if there is one in your area (they use it as a substitute for onions and garlic, for religious reasons). You can then add it to a curry or other meal, and take your medicine that way!
So what is asafoetida used for? Like many of the herbs I’ve covered so far, it has many uses, but the one that is most interesting is its use against pandemic flu. It was used in 1918 to fight Spanish flu, and now scientists are testing it against H1N1. Poorer countries were worried that they would not be able to obtain sufficient supplies of the antivirals Tamiflu and so on, so they started looking into other possibilities. A research team at Kaohsiung Medical University, Taiwan headed by Yang-Chang Wu has discovered that asafoetida contains compounds which kill the virus in test tubes. Further work is needed before it is certain that it will work as effectively in the human body.
Other uses for asafoetida include treating chest infections, whooping cough, asthma and bronchitis, flatulence (“wind” or “gas“) and lowering blood pressure.