St. Thomas' Bean

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Names of St Thomas Bean, past and present

Filipino: gugo / bayogo / tamayan (other regional names exist)
English: St Thomas bean / matchbox bean / water vine
Latin: Entada phaseoloides (Linn.) Merr.

Background and History

The St Thomas bean is actually a large, woody, climbing vine that grows usually in the mountain provinces and lowland forests where it thrives in prolific number and used by locals chiefly for its medicinal and cosmetic properties. The St Thomas bean is characterised by its relatively large appearance, with mature plants usually seen climbing large trees, with its thick tendrils surrounding the bark of the 'host' tree. It is notable for its thick, dark brown bark which is often harvested by locals for its cosmetic uses.

It also possesses pods that contain circular seeds of a chocolate-brown hue, which is also used by locals medicinally. During blooming, the St Thomas bean will display a prolific number of yellow-white to pastel hued flowers alongside the dark-green foliage of its broad leaves. As it matures, the leaves of the St Thomas bean begins to grow very large, and then to curl unto itself, darken, and eventually shrivel, only to be replaced by young leaflets that possess a tough, leathery texture with the obverse of the leaves possessing a smooth, waxy feel. As with a wide variety of other folkloric herbs, every part of the St Thomas bean may be used therapeutically, with each constituent part possessing its own medicinal value and curative property.

General and Esoteric Uses

The use of the St Thomas bean as a medicinal herb outside of the Philippines is not known, as no extant records of its use in China, Indonesia, Korea, or any other Asian area other than in the various regions of the Philippines where it thrives has been recorded. One of the most common uses for St Thomas bean is in the employment of its bark as a natural saponificator, or 'soap'. As with many other primitive cultures, the local Filipino tribes have employed the use of the St Thomas bean as a soap since prior to the Spanish colonization. This is in light with many other cultures that have used natural soap-making plants such as soap nuts, soapwort, yucca root, and cassava root as soap prior to the invention of soap-proper from animal fat or tallow, and sodium potash, lime, or ashes. In this respect, the St Thomas bean may be considered a type of soapwort in a sense, although its use curtails the quick maceration of its thick, fibrous, dark-brown bark in warm water for 15 – 20 minutes prior to use. When employed as a soap and shampoo, one need only aggravate the bark by rubbing it vigorously between the fingers to generate lather. A decoction of St Thomas bean bark may also be employed to relieve discomforts brought about by skin allergies, rashes, and fungal infections . [1] In the Philippines, where it is called gugo, the bark is usually sold in street stalls near churches, or on the outside of marketplaces by natives and local shamans who peddle their wares. Because it is highly efficient in cleaning the hair and body without drying it out, as is the wont of chemical shampoos and soaps, it has even been marketed by many local companies in the form of ready-to-use gugo shampoos that already come readily prepared in bottles.

Aside from the use of its bark as a saponifying agent, its vines and its seeds can also be decocted, and the ensuing liquid cooled and used for soap making, either on its own, or mixed with other organic or synthetic materials as desired by the manufacturer. It should be noted that despite the fact that the ensuing soap from this plant is organic, one should avoid getting any of it into the eyes, as it may cause anything from mild irritation to conjunctivitis.

Aside from its use as a natural soap, the leaves of the St Thomas bean may also be employed as a vegetable. In some parts of the Dutch Indies, where the plant also thrives, it is employed not for soap making, but as a vegetable. The young leaves of the plant are consumed, in its raw or cooked form, as an edible vegetable. Care should be taken when attempting this feat however, as both the leaves and its seeds (which are also consumed as food, as side from being used as soap) contain mild toxins that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and numbness of limbs if consumed excessively. Despite its toxicity however, it can be used effectively as a medicine for jaundice and edema brought about my malnutrition, but only if employed sparingly. For this purpose, the seeds are ground into a powder and mixed with either potable water or goat's milk mixed with whole eggs, to be consumed once a day . [2]

The seeds of the St Thomas bean may also be used as an emetic, and, in some places in South Africa where the plant is considered a vegetable, the seeds are even employed as a teething implement. When decocted, the ensuing liquid from the seeds can be used to treat cerebral hemorrhaging, while dried, powdered seeds mixed with the dried vine may be employed as a quick remedy for sprains, contusions, and rheumatism. Fresh seeds may also be pounded into a paste-like consistency and mixed with oil . [3] This can be used as a remedy for colic when applied as a poultice onto the affected area and may even act as a counterirritant, useful for relieving swellings. The seeds may even be dried and powdered to a very fine consistency and mixed with powdered tobacco, or used by itself solely as snuff.

When pressed or ground mechanically (whether by modern or primitive means) it yields fatty, yellow-hued oil that can be used as an illuminant for lamps, torches, and other primitive implements of illumination . [4]

More basic uses that can be derived from the plant involve its bark being employed as material for cordage, and its woody parts and vines being used as tinder. As stated earlier, St Thomas bean contains a mild poison which can be dangerous if consumed in excess. This is also employed, usually by natives as a poison used to paralyse fish. It is usually done by powdering both roots and seeds of the plant and scattering it about a school of fish prior to casting one's nets. Due to its poisonous nature, extreme care must be taken when using this plant medicinally, with use being at best limited to no more than the practical and the cosmetic.

References & Further Reading

[1-2] http://www.filipinoherbshealingwonders.filipinovegetarianrecipe.com/gugo.htm
[3-4] http://www.stuartxchange.org/Gogo.html

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, © herbs-info.com 2012

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