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Gotu Kola: An Inimitably Weird and Exciting Story (Part 1)

Centella asiatica



Centella asiatica is far more than a plant used for sweet drinks and salads. The C. asiatica/human relationship is an ancient and reticulate journey bridging cultures separated by chasms of faith, language, and vast distances the world over. The fact that many of these cultures use the plant medicinally for similar things (for stomach complaints, to combat anxiety, and as a wound healer) is something that budding ethnobotanists (of a pharmacological ilk) may be rightly tempted to hang a doctoral-thesis-or-two on. Still, as with all non-linear journeys, Gotu Kola, as the Sri Lankans call it, has been known to take a strange turn here and there. 

Gotu Kola was involved in one of the weirder and more confounding botanical mysteries you are likely to encounter. The story is filled with so much drama and intrigue, one would rationally assume it was a 19th century homeopathic medicine show invention (what modern peddlers might call "branding"); I certainly did. The story involves a leprosy-gnarled doctor, an exotic island, and a Dupont-affiliated French sugar-cane plantation that may have been involved in torturous human trafficking (more on that later). 

So, yeah; get ready for the beginning of a twisted one. Here we explore the inimitably weird and exciting story of Gotu Kola

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Constantly moist and shady areas of the tropics.

Culinary Uses

The leaves are eaten raw or cooked. The plant is made into a sweet drink. 


A giant in the Ayurvedic medicinal plant pantheon, Gotu Kola is/was used in INDIA as a sedative and brain tonic; it is used in other cultures as a stress relieverantibiotic, blood detoxifier, laxative, diuretic (of course), increaser of menstrual blood flow, anti-leprosy drug, and topical agent for ulcerative skin conditions (especially syphilitic ulcers) [4], and surgical cuts [2].

9,200 miles (14,804 kilometers) away...

A topical ointment of the plant is made by crushing the fresh leaves in with lard in SOUTH AMERICA[4]. 

6,530 miles (10,510 kilometers) away)...

In ETHIOPIA, the dried Gotu Kola root is mixed with water when needed to fight abdominal pain (busino) [13].

3,430 miles (5,520 kilometers) away...

In BANGLADESH, Gotu Kola is mainly used to treat abdominal pain and a wide range of stomach ailments [14]. 

380 miles (610 kilometers) away...

The MISHING TRIBE OF ASSAM use the herb to treat amoebic dysentery and liver problems.

1,980 miles (3,190 kilometers) away...

In VIETNAM, Gotu Kola is a diuretic, fever reducer, antibiotic, treatment for bleeding gums, liver tonic, increaser of breastmilk, and a treatment for nosebleeds [17].

680 miles (1,100 kilometers) away...

In THAILAND the plant is eaten raw to stop diarrhea [16]; this certainly can be considered a stomach ailment

6,220 miles (10,000 kilometers) away...

In TONGA the leaves are macerated into a poultice, presumably, to be used as a topical treatment for skin lesions [18]. 

6,600 miles (10,600 kilometers) away...

In SOUTHWEST CHINA, among the Lahu, the whole herb is mashed and used as a poultice to treat psoriasis [19]... which produces skin lesions.

5,940 miles (9,560 kilometers) away...

In LONDON, a decoction of the leaves is used to cure children of fever and bowel complaints. The excerpt below is a preparation taken from the 1880 book, New Commercial Plants: With Directions on How to Grow them to the Best Advantage, by Thomas Christy.





Pharmaceutical effects

Gotu Kola has shown promise in treating varicose veins, and in healing wounds; it also has shown to significantly suppress the startle response, which is used as evidence toward its possible use as an anti-anxiety medicine (a use in the Ayurvedic system) [12]. 

C. asiatica ethanol leaf extract has shown to neutralize oxidants (reactive compounds that thieve electrons giving rise to cancer promoting free radicals), increase glutathione (an anti-oxidant) activity, and increase regulated cancer cell death (apoptosis); this makes C. asiatica a potentially therapeutic agent to fight cancer [22].

C. asiatica has shown strong antibacterial activity by the way it manipulates the way pathogenic bacteria are able to sense each other in space [24].

C. asiatica may biochemically protect neurons in the brain in a way that may warrant its future use as a preventative medication for the progression of Alzheimer's disease [25].


A Highly Improbable Story and A Dark Mystery

 The following story has been compiled from the many archaic resources below including #6).

The following story has been compiled from the many archaic resources below including #6).

Butter your popcorn, traveller. We are about to enter a dark forest full of intrigue; this is how the use of C. asiatica to treat leprosy came to be. It all started with a desperate doctor... a doctor named Boileau. 

I shirtlessly pluck this golden harp and gently cast your minds back to the 1800's.

Disfigured by the ravages of the most infamous of biblical scourges, Dr. Boileau had worked tirelessly, for years, on the French island of Mauritius to find a cure for leprosy. Running short on time and desperate for answers, Boileau received word of a miraculous plant called Chinchunchilly in the Americas that had the ability to cure himself—and his many patients—of their affliction.

Many letters and inquiries later, however, Dr. Boileau was unable to procure this would-be cure. It seems no merchant or apothecary trading in the southern Americas had ever heard of Chinchunchilly. Perhaps this plant was a mere invention... a miracle cure with a conditional identity depending only on the degree of cruelty of the merchant? 

 Boileau limped into his garden and struggled to maintain composure. Resting momentarily on his gnarled and knotted cane, thinking of a gentle way to break the hope of his ailing patients, he spotted a plant in his yard... a plant that that seemed to resemble Chinchunchilly... or at least the image of Chinchunchilly living in his mind.

Did it? Yes. YES! It did!  Perhaps it was a sign?! This plant, perhaps, this Bevilaqua could be used to ease this bane of living. 

Dr. Boileau first tested himself with the Bevilaqua plant in small, yet, steadily increasing doses. To his astonishment, his health began to improve in kind. His voice, normally shredded, regained clarity. His lesion-pocked hide became soft and supple again. His feet, once rotting silhouettes of their former shapes, had regained their composition. No levee could contain Boileau's excitement now. 

He immediately began treatment on his 57 patients, and soon, all 57 of his long-suffering kindred souls were pulled back from the border between life and death; every single one. What was once a dark forest of moaning and disease-knotted humanity, started to bloom with life once again. Fortune had finally smiled on the island of Mauritius.

Growing eager to exile leprosy from his island—maybe the World— for good, Dr. Boileau increased his own dosage many fold to 3 grams Bevilaqua. Perhaps, he thought, the threshold to a cure would then be crossed. Dr. Boileau, in all his well-intentioned hubris, was mistaken.

Boileau's muscles began quaking and suddenly began seizing in stone grips of agony that caused him to shriek sounds devoid of all humanity. Between shocks of anguish, his breathing became labored and his heart jumbled in his chest as if it were a failing combustion engine... sputtering. Blood oozed from his nose as Boileau laid languid in a sweat soaked canvas gown. Later that day, as a gush of blood lazily poured from his anus, those in his presence knew; Dr. Boileau was dying. 

Yet, by some miracle and number of days, Boileau turned the corner. Life had returned to his waiting corpse. He had lived another three years in obscurity having found the proper dosage of Centella asiatica to effectively treat leprosy and saved the lives of 57 patients who once awaited their own reapers. 

Years later, an apothecary toiling through case studies found Boileau's harrowing and heroic account. The man, named only Lepine, determined that "Bevilaqua" could only be Hydrocotyle asiática, a non-toxic and ubiquitous edible plant occurring in throughout the tropics of the world. 

Now, there are many problems with this story. Why would Lepine identify the plant as an edible species if 3 grams nearly killed Dr. Boileau? Why do these people only have one name? What is Dr. Boileau a doctor of? Why would a doctor of medicine use plant vernacular names instead of binomials and chose a medicine based on cosmetics alone? 


Surprisingly, the answer to the latter question is, yes, they seem to have been real people, however, Dr. Boileau and Lepine may not have been who they seemed to be.



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Gotu Kola can be used in phytoremediation to scavenge red soil of excess iron [23].


[1] Borror, D. J. (1960). Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (1st ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

[2] (2007) Centella asiatica (Linn.) Urban.. In: Indian Medicinal Plants. Springer, New York, NY

[3] Elpel, T. J. (2004). Botany in a day: Thomas J. Elpels herbal field guide to plant families. Pony, MT: HOPS Press.

[4] Christy, T. (1881). New commercial plants and drugs. London: Christy.

[5] Allgemeine homöopathische Zeitung. Leipzig: W. Schwabe [etc.].

[6] Russell, John Rutherfurd, 1816-1866, Richard Hughes, R. E. (Robert Ellis) Dudgeon, and J. J. (John James) Drysdale. The British Journal of Homoeopathy. London.

[7] Pardo de Tavera, T. H. 1857-1925. (1901). The medicinal plants of the Philippines. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston's son & co..

[8] Roose, R. (1890). Leprosy and its prevention: illustrated by Norwegian experience. London: H.K. Lewis.

[9] Spring, F. George. (1917). Vegetable culture in Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: Federated Malay States

[10] Jones, E. G. (1911). Cancer: its causes, symptoms & treatment, giving the results of over forty years' experience in the medical treatment of this disease. Boston, Mass: Therapeutic publishing company.

[11] The full name of Lepine was found elsewhere to be Mr. Jules Lepine.

[12] Gotu kola. (2012). Salem Health: Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 597-599.

[13] Tolossa, K., Debela, E., Athanasiadou, S., Tolera, A., Ganga, G., & Houdijk, J. G. (2013). Ethno-medicinal study of plants used for treatment of human and livestock ailments by traditional healers in South Omo, Southern Ethiopia. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 9(1), 32. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-9-32

[14] Kabir, M., Hasan, N., Rahman, M., Rahman, M., Khan, J., Hoque, N., . . . Rahmatullah, M. (2014). A survey of medicinal plants used by the Deb barma clan of the Tripura tribe of Moulvibazar district, Bangladesh. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 10(1), 19. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-10-19

[15] Sharma, U. K., & Pegu, S. (2011). Ethnobotany of religious and supernatural beliefs of the Mising tribes of Assam with special reference to the Dobur Uie. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 7(1), 16. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-16

[16] Anderson, E. F. (1986). Ethnobotany of hill tribes of northern thailand. II. Lahu medicinal plants. Economic Botany, 40(4), 442-450. doi:10.1007/bf02859657

[17] Ogle, B. M., Tuyet, H. T., Duyet, H. N., & Dung, N. N. (2003). Food, Feed or Medicine: The Multiple Functions of Edible Wild Plants in Vietnam. Economic Botany, 57(1), 103-117. doi:10.1663/0013-0001(2003)057[0103:ffomtm];2

[18] Weiner, M. A. (1971). Ethnomedicine in Tonga. Economic Botany, 25(4), 423-450. doi:10.1007/bf02985210

[19] Plants Used Medicinally by Folk Healers of the Lahu People from the Autonomous County of Jinping Miao, Yao, and Dai in Southwest China

[20] Christy, T. (1880). New commercial plants: with directions how to grow them to the best advantage. London: Christy & Co..

[21] Image was borrowed under Creative Commons licensure from here.

[22] Naidoo, Dhaneshree Bestinee, et al. "Centella asiatica modulates cancer cachexia associated inflammatory cytokines and cell death in leukaemic THP-1 cells and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC's)." BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 17, no. 1, 2017. Academic OneFile, Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.

[23] Bhat, I., Mauris, E., & Khanam, Z. (2016). Phytoremediation of Iron from red soil of tropical region by using Centella asiatica. International Journal of Phytoremediation, 00.

[24] Vasavi, Arun, & Rekha. (2016). Anti-quorum sensing activity of flavonoid-rich fraction from Centella asiatica L. against Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1. Journal of Microbiology, Immunology and Infection, 49(1), 8-15.

[25] Chen, Chien-Li, Tsai, Wen-Hao, Chen, Chun-Jen, & Pan, Tzu-Ming. (2016). Centella asiatica extract protects against amyloid β1–40-induced neurotoxicity in neuronal cells by activating the antioxidative defence system. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 6(4), 362-369.

[26] Image borrowed under Creative Commons licensure from here.