josef george kamel, s.j. drawing of saint ignatius bean
Igasud [Strychnos ignatii Berg.] also known as katalonga, katbalonga, katbalongan, agwason, dankagi, gasud, kanlara. Faba Sancti Ignatii (Portuguese). Nux vomicae.
July is the month of St. Ignatius Loyola. This year is special because it is the 450th anniversary of his death; he died 31 July 1556. A medicinal plant was named after him known in the Visayas as igasud.
Before there was Prozac or Valium, there was igasud, listed in the ancient medicinal books as a remedy for emotional distress such as grief and anxiety, and the physical symptoms these cause like insomnia and bedwetting. It is also recommended in homeopathic medicine as a remedy for those afflicted with the “3 S’s … sitting, sighing, sobbing” sure sign of the broken hearted (drluc.com Homeopathic Remedies for the 21st century).
The Jesuits introduced the seed of this plant to Europe and gave it the name St. Ignatius bean. Franz Seidenschwarz describes the plant as “a large, woody vine with opposite leaves, white flowers and globose yellowish fruits.” The seed is used as a folk cure for stomach pain (Seidenschwarz, 1994. Plant world of the Philippines, p. 122). It is said that the plant was discovered in the Philippines whence it was disseminated throughout the medical world. The eminent Philippine historian Fr. Horacio dela Costa, S.J. suggests so; he writes: “Brother Kamel seems to have been the first to call the attention of European pharmacologists to the Saint Ignatius bean … one of the plants from which strychnine is derived. The ‘bean’ is really the seed of a vine known to the Visayans as igasud, and probably got its Spanish name from the Jesuits of Catbalogan, where it was common” (Dela Costa, 1961, Jesuits in the Philippines: 1581-1768 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press], p. 557).
However, Kamel’s notation that the term was from Portuguese (Lusitanis) suggests that the nut was discovered elsewhere. Spanish rather than the Portuguese Jesuits were assigned to the Philippines; if the Spanish Jesuits introduced the plant to the pharmacological world, why would Kamel ascribe the obviously Latin name to the Portuguese and not to the Spanish? Why then is the bean’s naming ascribed to the Portuguese?
It is possible that the bean may have indeed originated in the Philippines and was discovered by the Portuguese Jesuits through the lively Asian trade. They may have known the seed first before the plant. Prior to European colonization goods have been brought to and from the Philippines—to as far as the Middle East, thanks to the sailing prowess of Muslim traders from the Arabian peninsula. The loose ovate seeds of about 25 mm length, rather than the fruit, which contained about 10 to 15 tough seeds, were probably traded in the Asian market as medicine. Perhaps, the Jesuits were already familiar with the seed before they landed in the Philippines, where the botanist Kamel would learn about the plant from which this marvelous seed came. This would then be similar to the introduction of Jesuit bark or quinine to the European market. Powdered bark was first traded in the market and only subsequently did the tree from which it came became known to Europe. Jesuits are not even credited with introducing this medicine to Europe but they did have a lively trade in the bark, procuring it from their mission stations, so that they had a virtual monopoly of the trade, hence the name.
The active mood-changing ingredient, which makes the Ignatius bean still an important ingredient in homeopathic medicine is Strychnine, hence, the scientific name Strychnos Ignatii or iganita amara.
Now I wonder if the Jesuits of old used this wonder drug to arrive at consolation or whether they prescribed it to retreatants, who were in spiritual doldrums. Hard to know and hard to check this days because the bean has been eased out of the market by more efficient ways of extracting strychnine from other sources.