Harmal (Peganum harmala) is a plant of the family Nitrariaceae, native from the eastern Mediterranean region east to India. It is also known as Syrian Rue, an innacurate name, since it is not in the rue (Ruta, Rutaceae) family.
It is a perennial plant which can grow to about 0.8 m tall, but normally it is found to be about 0.3 m tall. The roots of the plant can reach a depth of up to 6.1 m, if the soil it is growing in is very dry.
Peganum harmala was first planted in the United States in 1928 in the state of New Mexico by a farmer wanting to manufacture the dye "Turkish Red" from its seeds. Since then it has spread invasively to Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas and Washington. "Because it is so drought tolerant, African rue can displace the native saltbushes and grasses growing in the salt-desert shrub lands of the Western U.S."
In Turkey Peganum harmala is called yüzerlik or üzerlik. Dried capsules from this plant are strung and hung in homes or vehicles to protect against "the evil eye."
In Iran, dried capsules (known in Persian as اسپند espænd or اسفنددانه esfænd-dāneh) - mixed with other ingredients - are burnt so as to produce a light, distinctly scented smoke or incense. It is used as an air as well as mind purifier - perhaps linked to its entheogenic properties - and mostly as a charm against "the evil eye". This Persian practice dates to pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian times.
In Iran, Iraq, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the seeds of Aspand (Peganum harmala, also called Esfand, Espand, Esphand, and Harmal) are onto red hot charcoal charcoal, where they explode with little popping noises, releasing a fragrant smoke that is wafted around the head of those afflicted by or exposed to the gaze of strangers. As this is done, an ancient Zoroastrian prayer is recited against Bla Band. This prayer is said by Muslims as well as by Zoroastrians in the region where Aspand is utilized against the evil eye. Some sources say that the popping of the seeds relates to the breaking of the curse or the popping of the evil eye itself (although this is not consistent with the idea that a particular person is casting the spell, since no one's eyes are expected to explode as a result of this ritual). In Iran at least, this ritual is sometimes performed in traditional restaurants, where customers are exposed to the eyes of strangers. Dried aspand capsules are also used for protection against the evil eye in parts of Turkey.
It has been used as an entheogen in the Middle East, and in modern Western culture, it is often used as an analogue of Banisteriopsis caapi to create an ad hoc Ayahuasca, the South American mixture of phytoindoles including DMT with β-carbolines. Syrian Rue however has distinct aspects from caapi and a unique entheogenic signature.
A red dye, "Turkey Red," from the seeds is often used in Western Asia to dye carpets. It is also used to dye wool. When the seeds are extracted with water, a yellow fluorescent dye is obtained. If they are extracted with alcohol, a red dye is obtained. The stems, roots and seeds can be used to make inks, stains and tattoos.
In Yemen it was used to treat depression, and it has been established in the laboratory that harmaline (an active ingredient in Peganum harmala is a central nervous system stimulant and a "reversible inhibitor of MAO-A (RIMA), in other words, that it is an antidepressant.
Smoke from the seeds kills algae, bacteria, intestinal parasites and molds.Peganum harmala has "antibacterial activity. It is fairly effective against protozoans including malaria. It is given in a decoction for laryngitis.
It is also used as an anthelmintic (to expel parasitic worms). Reportedly the ancient Greeks used powdered Peganum harmala seeds to get rid of tapeworms and to treat recurring fevers (possibly malaria).
Peganum harmala as well as harmine exhibit cytotoxicity with regards to HL60 and K562 leukemia cell lines. Ground Peganum harmala seeds have been used occasionally to treat skin cancer and subcutaneous cancers traditionally in Morocco. Seed extracts also show effectiveness against various tumor cell lines both in vitro and in vivo.
The stems of the plant contain about 0.36% alkaloids, the leaves about 0.52%, and the roots up to 2.5%.
Harmine and Harmaline are reversible inhibitors of MAO-A (RIMA).