I remember when I was a little boy back in Tokyo, Japan. My dad used to take me on various outings to interesting places in the city on his days off. One of his favorite light lunches was soba, or Japanese buckwheat noodles, and one of his favorite soba dishes was tororo soba, which consisted of a plate of soba noodles with a big slimy white mass heaped upon it. My dad told me that that slimy goo was grated, fresh yama imo, or mountain potato – it gave you extra “competition for survival power”, as the restaurant’s own PR put it. Years later, when I studied Chinese herbal medicine in acupuncture school, I learned that that same tuber or wild yam that the Japanese called yama imo, or the mountain potato, was called Shan Yao, or “Mountain Medicine” In Chinese; Chinese herbalists said that it was a valuable tonic for the Qi or vital energy of the spleen and kidneys. It was also a key tonic ingredient of Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, or the Six Flavor Rehmannia Pills, which is one of Chinese Medicine’s basic kidney tonics. Shan Yao, a long tuberous root, is a member of the Dioscorea family of wild yams, just like the Mexican Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) that gives us a plant based estrogen.
Fast forward to the early 1990’s after I got out of acupuncture school. One of my early trips to Romania sent me in pursuit of a certain wild yam that the Romanians called Untul Pamantului, which means, “Butter of the Earth”. The Romanians give it this name because, curiously enough, the long, tuberous root is slimy and greasy like butter when you break it or cut it open. When hearing of this, I immediately thought of the slimy yama imo or mountain potato that my dad used to relish on his buckwheat noodles. Sure enough, my subsequent research on the plant revealed to me that it was also a member of the same Dioscorea family of wild yams, but not, unlike yama imo or Shan Yao, or the Mexican Wild Yam, of the Dioscorea genus itself. It had a different botanical name – Tamus communis, or the Common Tamus root. Another interesting property that Untul Pamantului had was that, if you broke it open and smeared its slimy or greasy surface on the skin, your skin started to itch and burn; this would draw an increased blood supply to the affected area, a property that herbalists call rubefacient. And this was how most people used this Romanian variety of wild yam – rub a tincture of the fresh root on the skin, and the topical irritation it provided would draw extra blood, with its metabolic heat and other vital principles, to the area to relieve aches and pains and speed healing, as a kind of herbal Ben Gay, if you will.
I had been introduced to Untul Pamantului a little while back by a Romanian-American friend of mine, who showed me how to prepare a tincture from the grated fresh root by soaking it in tuica, or Romanian plum brandy; if plum brandy should be unavailable, vodka or any other 80 proof spirits should work just as well. Soak one kilogram of the grated fresh root in one liter of 80 proof alcohol for a couple of weeks, and the tincture is done. But instead of using the tincture as an external rubefacient and antirheumatic liniment, my friend introduced me to a whole new way to use it, which he said was much better and more efficacious than the topical application. When taken daily on an empty stomach in teaspoon sized doses, the tincture not only had anti-rheumatic properties, but it would slowly start to rejuvenate your entire body from the inside out. And so, he was claiming that this mysterious Romanian wild yam was actually something like what Indian Ayurvedic medicine calls a rasayana, or a rejuvenative tonic.
As a testament to its power and effectiveness in this capacity, he told me the story of one of his uncles, who I will call Uncle Nicolae, who, he claims, was the one who first discovered the internal use of Untul Pamantului. Uncle Nicolae, he told me, at almost 70 years of age, was old and decrepit, his body virtually crippled from chronic arthritis. He prayed to God to be shown something, anything, that would provide him with relief. In response to his prayers, says Uncle Nicolae, an angel of the Lord appeared before him and told him to go up to the top of the hill and dig up the wild yam, the Untul Pamantului that was growing there; the angel also gave him instructions on how to prepare the tincture of the fresh root, and how to take it internally for rejuvenation. Uncle Nicolae did as the angel instructed and sure enough, bit by bit, the crippling arthritis started to dissolve and fade away; he became once again sprightly and light of step. He also started to feel way more energetic, with more energy than he had felt in years; he started to pester his wife so much with his amorous activities at night that she almost divorced him. Feeling all this newfound energy, Uncle Nicolae decided to return to his old occupation of being a well digger to pick up some badly needed spare cash.
On subsequent visits to Romania I had the good fortune to be introduced to Uncle Nicolae by my Romanian-American friend. The three of us even had the opportunity to go up to the top of the hill near his humble cottage in the sub-Carpathian zone of Romania to dig up some Untul Pamantului. Frankly, at little more than half his age, I had a lot of difficulty keeping up with Uncle Nicolae as he darted here and there, thrusting his shovel into pay dirt as he dug up one root after another. Believe me, I was entirely worn out when we finally came down the hill after sweating it out in the mid-morning sun. I bought some of the Untul Pamantului he dug up, and the rest he went down into town to sell. And so, I then started to take more seriously what I had previously considered to be merely a fanciful tale, as tall as the hills of the sub-Carpathians. I also discovered, through experimentation, that there were other ways to prepare and take this Romanian wild yam than simply preparing an alcoholic tincture of the fresh root; the dried root could be boiled in herbal decoctions as well.
While in Romania, I have been able to locate information on Tamus communis that other Romanian herb researchers had found out about its constituents, which include vitalizing saponins quite similar to those found in Ginseng, as well as various phyto- or plant hormonal substances, which is not surprising, considering that it is a relative of the Mexican Wild Yam. In terms of Chinese herbal medicine, Untul Pamantului would be classified as an anti-rheumatic herb to dispel pathological wind-damp from the bones and joints, as well as a kidney yang tonic to vitalize and rejuvenate the genitourinary and endocrine systems. But, as with many other kidney yang tonics, a word of caution must be added, due to its hot and stimulating nature: those with chronic irritation or inflammation of the genitourinary passages could experience an aggravation of this irritation and inflammation with regular or continued use. Since this chronic genitourinary irritation and inflammation can also be hidden or latent, it may be wise to discontinue use of Untul Pamantului should these symptoms develop. In Ayurvedic terms, Untul Pamantului is a rasayana, or rejuvenative tonic, as well as a vajikarana, or virilific / aphrodisiac. It also dissolves and neutralizes ama or toxins, especially those of a cold, wet kapha (Phlegmatic) nature with regular use.
To be slowly rejuvenated and given increased sexual energy and vitality, from the inside out, the general treatment protocol is to take a teaspoon of the alcoholic tincture of the grated fresh root, prepared as described above, in the morning upon arising, on an empty stomach. Take just one teaspoonful per day in this manner – no more. You will probably start to feel its effects within a few days in improved energy and vitality, both sexual and otherwise. But men – before you rush out and buy your plane tickets for Romania to get some of the stuff, there are a few things you should keep in mind. The first one is that the season for digging up Untul Pamantului and selling it in Romania’s open air markets is in the colder months – in the fall after the autumn leaves have fallen, and in the early spring, before the spring leaves bud forth from the trees. That’s the season when plants store all their vital energy and nutrients mostly in their roots, including the Romanian wild yam. Untul Pamantului may be available from country herb sellers and at the local open air markets at other times of the year, but these seasons – in the late fall and early spring – are when it is most readily available. The second thing I’d like to remind you of is to check with your doctor and/or do your homework on the herb if you should have any special medical conditions, like a heart condition or a chronic kidney or urinary tract infection. If you’re taking any pharmaceutical drugs on a regular basis, please also consider the possibility of negative or problematic herb – drug interactions. In addition, its high saponin content might warrant caution if you are taking prescription blood thinners. As I said, check in with your doctor before taking it, or running off to Romania to get some.
Romanians who know about Untul Pamantului like to boast that it grows only in the sub-Carpathian zone of Romania. But on my herbal and healing journeys throughout the Balkans, I have seen the herb mentioned elsewhere as well. I was at a vegetarian restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey when I saw a book on local herbs lying around; I opened it up and found that one of the herbs discussed therein was Tamus communis – my old Romanian friend, Untul Pamantului. And if it is found in the hills around Istanbul, Turkey, my guess is that it probably grows in other parts of the Balkan peninsula as well, such as Bulgaria, or maybe also in Greece. This should provide those of you who are aspiring herbal explorers and adventurers out there to do a little “field research” and see what you can dig up.
Such was the sum total of my knowledge or and experience with Untul Pamantului, or Tamus communis, until the writing of this blog posting. Then, I decided to do a little google search on Tamus communis, and what I found was most enlightening. First of all, I found that the genus names Tamus and Dioscorea are basically synonymous and interchangeable; and so, the Latin botanical name for Untul Pamantului could also be rendered Dioscorea communis. As such, I also found out that this species of Tamus or Dioscorea was the only known European species of Dioscorea, and that it was originally considered to be native to England, although present all over the European continent. Although the French will often cook up the young shoots of this wild yam, which is also called Black Bryony, it is commonly considered to be toxic, due to its high saponin content. The constituents that seem to give the fresh root the ability to itch and irritate as a rubefacient are calcium oxalate and histamine-like substances; these rubefacient properties of the fresh root are helpful in treating chilblains by bringing blood flow to the affected area, which makes sense, and the high saponin content can also disperse ecchymoses, or “black and blue” bruise marks of extravasated blood, due to their hemolytic or blood thinning properties. So definitely, check in with your doctor before taking Untul Pamantului if you are on prescription blood thinners – or stay away from the Butter of the Earth. The alleged toxicity of the fresh root may be the main reason why Untul Pamantului is usually only used topically. Was Uncle Nicolae right in using small daily doses of the tincture of the fresh root as a rejuvenative tonic elixir? You decide. Many herbs that are toxic in large doses can be extremely beneficial or therapeutic when taken in small doses – that’s the whole principle behind homeopathy.
DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not meant to diagnose or treat any disease or medical condition. The reader assumes full personal responsibility and liability for the application of this information, and is advised to consult with a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his condition or symptoms persist or worsen.