Betel vine (botanical name Piper betle) belongs to the Piperaceae family and is indigenous to Indonesia. Growing on other vines or leaning on nearby trees, these plants can often reach 15 meters in height.
Usually, a betel leaf, known as ‘paan’ in India, is anything between 5 cm and 8 cm in length and about 2 cm to 5 cm in width. The leaves of this herb are heart-shaped and intensely green and emit an odour when crushed. The stems of betel vine have a greenish-brown hue.
The plant family to which betel belongs – Piperaceae, also includes kava and pepper. This herb is esteemed for its therapeutic qualities as well as its gentle stimulant actions. The use of betel leaf is widespread in Asian countries. It is also used in other parts of the globe, especially by Asian emigrants, who refer to it as ‘paan’ or ‘quid’.
Betel leaf is generally chewed with or with no tobacco, which results in an addictive formulation that not only causes stimulation and euphoria, but is also detrimental for our health. People who chew betel leaves regularly have stained teeth, especially if they do not take proper dental care.
The betel vine is an evergreen plant as well as a perennial creeper. While the shiny leaves of this herb resemble the shape of the heart, its catkins are white hued. This herb has its origin in south and south-east Asia.
Betel leaves possess analgesic as well as cooling properties and are used for several purposes, including therapeutic. They are effective in alleviating headaches. These leaves also possess diuretic properties.
The leaves of betel vine are an effective remedy for boils. Warm a betel leaf till it becomes soft and then coat it with castor oil. Place the oil covered leaf on the boil or the inflamed part. Replace the oiled leaf at intervals of few hours with a new castor oil coated leaf. After some time, it will make the boil rupture and exude its purulent content. It is advisable that you apply the oil coated betel leaf to the boil at night and replace it in the morning, allowing it enough time to work.
Betel leaves are also an excellent remedy for nervous pains. They are effective for treating nervous fatigue and debility. You may also use a combination of some of betel leaf juice and honey (one teaspoon) in the form of a tonic. In addition, a mixture of betel leaf juice and milk is useful to relieve urination.
The leaves of betel vine are also helpful in treating pulmonary affection (a lung disease) in children and the aged people. To treat this condition, steep the betel leaves in mustard oil and warm the oil gently. Rub the warm oil on the chest to alleviate cough and help the patient to breathe normally.
Betel leaf is also useful for treating aching throat. It is also effective for treating arthritis inflammations and orchitis (a condition wherein the testes become inflamed). You may also use betel leaves to heal wounds. Take a few betel leaves and extract their juice. Apply the juice to the affected part and wrap up the wound with a betel leaf and bandage the wound.
You will be surprised to notice that the wound will cure within two days of applying betel juice. Most importantly, often applying the juice just once is enough to heal the wound.
Betel leaf is beneficial for nursing mothers, as it aids in augmenting breast milk secretion. In order to obtain this benefit, lactating women need to apply betel leaves coated with oil to their breast.
Betel leaf paste
A paste prepared with betel leaves is used in the form of gargles for treating sore throat and diphtheria. In addition, betel leaf paste is also applied externally to the throat to cure problems related to it. This herbal paste is also effective for treating back pain, breast inflammation and other conditions. It is important to note that betel leaf paste is also used to treat erectile dysfunction. Men suffering from this problem may apply the paste on the penis for effective results.
Betel leaf powder
Dried betel leaves are pulverized to obtain the powdered form, which is used orally for treating a number of conditions, including problems related to the mouth, digestive disorders and reduced peristalsis (the progressive wave of tightening and loosening of a tubular muscular system, especially in the digestive tract).
Powdered betel leaf is also effective in treating problems related to the throat and the respiratory tract. It also works to reinforce the body, especially the cardiovascular system. In addition, betel leaf powder is also used in the form of an aphrodisiac as well as to maintain the normal temperature of the body.
Habitat and cultivation
Betel leaf is mainly cultivated in different South and Southeast Asian countries. As the betel vine is a creeper, it is essential to grow the plant beside a suitable tree or set up a long pole near the plant for support. Betel vines need to be grown on an elevated land and in an exceptionally fertile soil. Alkaline and saline soils as well as water logging are harmful for the betel vine. Betel vines have excellent growth if grown in areas where rainfall is well distributed throughout the year.
Betel vine has a preference for sunlight. However, the quality of leaves of plants grown in intermediate and wet zones is better compared to those produced by plants cultivated in arid areas. Moreover, it is essential to provide the plants with appropriate levels of shade and irrigation, if you want the plants to thrive well. You should also bear in mind that hot, dry winds are detrimental for betel vines and they slow down the growth of the plants.
Farmers cultivating betel in Bangladesh grow the plants in a specially arranged garden known as ‘barouj’. Bamboo sticks and dry coconut leaves are used for fencing the barouj, where the soil is tilled to make furrows, each about 10 meters to 15 meters long with 75 cm width and having an equal depth. The top soil is made fertile by incorporating manure, oil cakes and leaves along with wood ash. Cuttings from established vines are planted at the onset of the monsoon.
As mentioned earlier, this herb requires adequate shade as well as irrigation to thrive and the crop to be successful. In addition, betel requires a soil that is always moist, but excessive moisture in the soil is harmful for the crop. The plants should be watered frequently, but lightly. It is important to ensure that there is not water logging or standing water for over 30 minutes.
The farmers in Bangladesh and eastern India add wood ash and dried leaves to the furrows at intervals of 15 days, in addition to sprinkling cow dung slurry. It is also believed that applying various types of leaves to the soil every month enhances the growth of betel vines.
When the conditions are favourable, the growth is rapid and the vines attain a height of anything between 150 cm and 180 cm in three to six months from planting the stem cuttings. At the beginning of the harvesting season, the farmers manually pluck the leaves along with their petioles using their right thumb. Usually, the harvesting season is very brief and lasts for a fortnight to about a month.
The harvested betel leaves are packed in bundles and consumed in the domestic market. A large part of the harvest is also exported to different Asian countries, the Middle East, the United States and some regions of Europe. In Bangladesh, betel cultivation forms a vital part of rural economy.
Usually, betel vines are propagated by the stem cuttings from the established plants. The cuttings should be essentially taken from the vines that are high yielding and have comparatively larger and greener leaves. In addition, the cuttings should always be healthy. You can directly plant the cuttings in their permanent position in the fields, or grow them as rooted cuttings in polythene bags in a mixture of equal proportions of soil, sand, cow dung and coir dust.
Chemical analysis of betel leaf has revealed that it mainly contains betel oil, a volatile oil whose level varies in the leaves of plants grown in different countries. In addition, betel leaf encloses chavicol, two phenols and betel-phenols, also known as chavibetol. The presence of a chemical compound called cadinene has also been found in betel leaf.
Betel oil obtained from fresh leaves and having a clear yellow hue is considered to be of the most superior quality. In India, people generally chew betel leaves in the form of a masticatory to promote saliva secretion. It is used along with lime and scraped areca nut, which gives a warm, bitter and aromatic flavour.
In addition to the above-mentioned substances, betel leaf also encloses some amount of carbohydrates, fat, calcium, proteins, fiber, sugars, thiamine, niacin, carotene, riboflavin, tannins and essential oil.
Side effects and cautions
The rate of oral cancer is quite high in India and it is believed that chewing various preparations of betel leaf is responsible for this. However, it is yet to be ascertained whether the betel leaf itself or the accompanying areca nut or tobacco, used in some betel preparations are responsible for the elevated rate of oral cancer.
It has been found that oral as well as esophageal squamous cell cancer are related to chewing different betel preparations. In fact, it is only a few centuries back that people in India have started using tobacco, a very detrimental and addictive element, with betel leaf as a chewing mixture. Precisely speaking, people started using tobacco leaves in betel preparations from the colonial times.
Collection and harvesting
Betel leaves are harvested when the vine has achieved a height of about 1.2 meters to 1.8 meters. In the initial stage, the harvesters collect the mature betel leaves from the base of the main stem twice or thrice a week. Subsequently, they harvest betel leaves from the main stem as well as the lateral stems.
Betel leaves are harvested at intervals of two weeks for supplies to the domestic market, while they are harvested at intervals of three weeks for export. After harvesting, the leaves are packed into bundles, each bundle containing 40 leaves, and dispatched to the market. However, for export purposes, the leaves are bundled and packed in special baskets made from cane.