Asafoetida, a plant resin so foul-smelling that it is often known as devil's dung, has a millenniums-old history as a herbal remedy, being used for applications as diverse as preventing flatulence and inducing abortions. Slaves in the early years of the United States wore asafoetida bags around their necks to ward off croup, whooping cough, diphtheria and measles. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, some people used it as a home remedy for the virus. New evidence suggests they may not have been that far off base.
Ferula assafoetida is a flowering plant native to the Mediterranean region. Although its odor is extremely bad in the raw state, when cooked it has a flavor reminiscent of fried onions and it is used as a spice in India and some other countries. It is now grown mainly in Iran, Afghanistan and China.
Chemists Yang-Chang Wu and Fang-Rong Chang of Kaohsiang Medical University in Taiwan and their colleagues extracted a variety of chemicals from the roots of the plant and reported in the Journal of Natural Products that at least four of them were more active against influenza viruses than prescription antiviral drugs such as amantadine.The chemicals, primarily members of a family of compounds called sesquiterpenes, might serve as lead candidates for development of new antiviral drugs, they said.
For something that smells a little better, you might want to try elderberries. Researchers at HerbalScience Group LLC in Naples, Fla., report in the current issue of the journal Phytochemistry that elderberry extract contains two chemicals, called flavonoids, that can block infection of cultured cells by the pandemic H1N1 virus. The chemicals bind directly to the virus, preventing it from entering cells. It is not clear, however, how that phenomenon could be used to block infections in real life.
-- Thomas H. Maugh II