Aralia is one of the genera from the numerous Araliaceae family, which has 50 different branches. The Aralia genus is quite prolific as well and includes 71 different types of plants, ranging from full-size trees to shrubs, and perennial herbs with rhizomes.
Commonly, the name aralia designates a small deciduous tree that can also be classified as a shrub, which grows upright and can reach a height of 6 m in some cases. It can be found in North-East Asia, mainly in Siberian Russia, Northern China, Korea and Japan. The variety that grows in Manchuria has been used for a long time as medicine, especially the roots, bark and flowers.
Due to its wide range, it has different names such as dureup namu in Korea or tara-no-ki in Japan. It is not cultivated often but can be planted in gardens solely because of its interesting look. It tolerates many conditions, including bad soils and full exposure to sun, but prefers shade and deep soils.
The exotic appearance of the plant is mainly caused by its very large leaves, which are over 100 cm long. These sometimes have thorns and can be concentrated towards the top of the tree, have long petioles and can be either duplicately or tripicately compound pinnate, while the edges of leaflets are serrated.
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Flowers also look very interesting, grouped at the top in a sizeable panicle up to 45 cm long. However, the individual flowers are small, with a faint yellow color. Fruits are also small and ripe in September - October, when they turn blue or black. They are round in shape and usually have a diameter of 3 to 5 mm.
Bark, roots, flowers.
Aralia has been used as medicine for a long time in the cultures of the Russian Far East. Natives still brew a tea from several parts of the herb and especially use it for nerve-related issues like head pain, depression, stress, fatigue, weakness but also to decrease the level of sugar in the blood.
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The roots of the Aralia elata variety are used by the Tungus tribe Nanai of the Russian Siberia to relieve toothache, stomatitis and liver problems and also as a tonic. The roots have also been used in the treatment of stomach pain by the Ainu, the old indigenous population of Japan.
Aralia elata only grows in the Far East and is an ancient ingredient in the medicine of China, Japan and Korea, as well as the Siberian and Manchu tribes. It was known for a long time that beverages prepared from aralia roots are an effective counter for cold, ﬂu, tonsillitis and stomatitis. Natives also used it to get rid of embarrassing bed-wetting and for its light diuretic properties.
These benefits were discovered by Russian scientists during their ethno-botanical research travels in the area and triggered significant modern investigations in the USSR period. They have noticed other traditional uses of aralia. Pain of the teeth, stomach and diabetes were treated using an extract from the plant's bark. Tungus tribal doctors also employed aralia roots to relieve toothache, as well as liver problems.
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Ancient Chinese medical practitioners believed that aralia could improve memory and appetite, increase lifespan and restore vitality. The Chinese used the herb in roughly the same manner as the Siberian tribesmen, by brewing the roots and bark for their action as a diuretic and against a wide range of diseases such as diabetes, neurasthenia, hepatitis, carcinoma, ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis, other inﬂammatory diseases and common cold.
Koreans used only the root bark, in the treatment of diabetes, ulcer, hepatitis, arthritis, chronic cough and even some forms of cancer. In Japan, the herb is rarely used for its medical benefits. It is however an ingredient in the local cuisine, the fresh shoots are known as taranome and eaten as a side-dish.
Modern research has confirmed many of the benefits of aralia. It appears to have numerous positive effects, it kills viruses and other pathogens, reduces inflammation, restores the function of the liver, reduces the level of sugar and fat in the blood stream, protects against allergies, shields the heart from damage, boosts hypoxia ability and can even fight cancer.
Like in the ancient usage, the roots and bark of aralia have proven to be the most valuable. Their content of bioactive compounds is very useful against stomach cramps, diabetes, hepatitis, neurasthenia and rheumatism, especially as an ad-hoc remedy while in the wild. Eating fresh shoots can be good for the heart and reduces the effects of aging. Tests on live rats in labs have revealed the saponins in aralia protect the myocardium and shield genetic cells from mutation.
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Aralia mandshurica has not been studied as well as other herbs but it is known to possess adaptogenic properties. While these effects are known, their action at a molecular level is not understood yet. Scientists have only managed to identify and isolate a number of compounds, so far 16 saponins have been revealed.
Every one of them has bioactive properties and triggers a response in our bodies. So far, aralia appears to be a textbook adaptogen, with the ability to restore the normal activity of some organs and functions without causing any damage to the healthy ones.
Incomplete research has not prevented some clinical trials and preliminary conclusions, which reveal many medicinal benefits of aralia and recommend the herb for further in-depth investigations. Several very promising directions have been identified so far.
One of the most important, also known from ancient tribal usage, is the tonic effect of aralia, which can boost physical activity, improve work rate, reduce fatigue and decrease the sensation of weakness. This herb can also boost the burn rate of sugar, which has the positive effect of reducing its level in the blood.
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It boosts the immune response, not only curing infections faster but preventing infestation completely. Its benefits on the nervous system were also prized by traditional doctors and shamans, who knew that the plant can improve learning and memory, relieve head ache and ensure better overall cognitive ability.
A very promising research direction for aralia is in the treatment of heart diseases because it seems to be able to reduce blood pressure only in cases of hypertension, with no effect on people with a normal pressure level. It also speeds up the burning of fat, which can be very valuable for obese people.
Aralia is a rich source for a number of extremely bioactive compounds. So far, 16 different saponins have been isolated from the herb. Most of them are aralosides, a type of triterpenoid saponins. The highest concentration is in the roots, which explains why this part was the most used by native tribes.
Aralosides can have effects on almost all parts of the human body. Some of them act as a tonic, increasing the activity of the central nervous system and eliminating stress. Others boost immunity, balance blood sugar levels and can protect tissues from various sources of harm, such as viruses or bad weather.
Since aralia (especially the thorny Manchurian variety) can decrease blood sugar levels, some people need to be careful. Patients who suffer from diabetes or hypoglycemia have to be wary, in particular if they take drugs or supplements that also reduce the glucose levels. It is advised to go to a doctor or pharmacist who can monitor the amount of blood sugar and change medication if needed.
In high doses, aralia can cause liver damage. People who already have liver problems have to be cautious, as well as patients who consume other foods that can damage the liver or dangerous drugs. Aralia can also be toxic in combination with other agents, especially medicines for weight loss, fat reduction, as well as those that can damage the liver.
As every other plant, aralia can cause allergies to a small number of people. It is better to avoid it if you are allergic to other plants from the Araliaceae family or if you are very sensitive to plants in general.