Safflower is an annual herb whose botanical name is Carthamus tinctorius. It is a member of the Asteraceae family. It has long, spiny leaves and yellow or reddish flowers on a stiff, upright stem. The seeds produce an edible oil. Safflower grows to a height of about 3 ft (1 m) in poor, dry soils in full sun. The origins of this plant are not clear, although some herbalists suggest the basin of the Euphrates River. Today safflower grows wild in Iran, northwest India, and North Africa. It has also spread to the Far East and North America. Safflower is cultivated extensively both as a herb and as a food crop.
Other names for safflower include false saffron, dyer's saffron, American saffron, bastard saffron, Mexican saffron, and zaffer. Despite these names, safflower is in no way related to true saffron, although it is sometimes used to adulterate that spice because true saffron is very expensive and safflower is relatively cheap. In Chinese medicine, safflower flower is called hong hua; in India it is known as koosumbha.
Safflower flower has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It is used to treat menstrual disorders. Safflower flower is an emmenagogue, meaning that it is given to bring on menstruation. Safflower is also used to treat menstrual pain, to firm up the uterus after childbirth, to ease stiffness and pain in the joints, and sometimes also to treat trauma to the abdomen. According to traditional Chinese usage, safflower flower is a blood regulator; that is, it invigorates and harmonizes the blood and dissolves blood clots. Safflower is said to have a warm nature and a pungent taste. Chinese practitioners use safflower oil in tui na massage.
Safflower flowers are also used to treat such childhood problems as measles, fevers, and skin rashes. Applied externally, safflower flower is used to cleanse wounds. Interestingly, on the other side of the world, North Americans used safflower flower in the nineteenth century in much the same way as the Chinese—to bring on menstruation and to treat measles. They also used it to induce sweating.
Safflower seeds can be pressed to produce an edible oil. The unpurified form of this oil is used as a laxative or purgative to cleanse the bowels. Processed safflower oil does not have laxative properties. The processed oil is used extensively in cooking and for making margarine and salad dressings. The oil is also used in paints and varnishes, and is burned for lighting where electricity is unavailable.
Safflower has other nonmedicinal uses. Its flowers produce a dye that in times past was used for dyeing silk yellow or red. Today, chemical dyes have largely replaced safflower dye. The flowers were also dried and ground together with finely powdered talc to produce cosmetic rouge.
Modern scientific research shows that safflower oil lowers serum cholesterol levels, making it useful in preventing heart disease. The claim has also been made that safflower flowers prevent coronary artery disease because they are a digestive bitter and assist in the digestion of oils. Infusions of safflower flowers are used to lower the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles during athletic competition. In addition, a compound has been isolated from safflower that stimulates the immune system in mice. Additional studies are ongoing to confirm this effect.
More recently, safflower has been identified as the source of several flavonoids with strong antioxidative activity.
Flavonoids are water-soluble plant pigments that help to lower inflammation as well as counteract the damaging effects of oxidation on body tissues. Quercetin, which is one of the flavonoids found in safflower, is a well-known antioxidant.
As of 2002, several groups of Asian researchers are studying the effectiveness of traditional herbal medicines containing safflower extract in treating bone disease. Although these studies are still in their early stages, preliminary findings indicate that safflower extract inhibits bone resorption and thus may be useful in treating diseases involving bone loss.
Many other medicinal claims have been made for safflower that are less well documented by modern scientists. These include claims that it reduces pain; has antibacterial action; reduces fever; reduces enlarged breasts; and can be used to purge the body of parasitic worms.
Harvesting safflower flowers requires some care. The flowers are picked just as they begin to wilt and can be used fresh or dried. If they are to be dried, they must be kept away from sunlight during the drying process or they will lose their distinctive reddish-yellow color. Dried flowers are not normally kept more than one year.
Safflower flowers can be used alone or in formulas. They can be prepared as dried powder, tinctures, or decoctions. Used alone, a common daily dosage is 3 g of decoction or 1 g of powder. A standard infusion of safflower flowers uses 4–8 oz of dried flowers. A common Chinese formula that uses safflower flower is pseudoginseng and dragon blood formula. This formula is used to treat traumatic injuries such as sprains or fractures that are accompanied by pain and swelling. The role of the safflower flower in this formula is to move congealed blood and reduce pain.
Because safflower flower brings on menstruation, it should not be used by pregnant women. Large doses can cause spontaneous abortion. In addition, because safflower may prolong blood clotting time, it should not be given to patients with peptic ulcers or hemorrhagic illnesses.
The unprocessed oil of safflower seed can cause severe diarrhea.
Safflower flower is often used in conjunction with other Chinese herbs with no reported interactions. As of 2002, there are no reported interactions of safflower extract or oil with standard pharmaceuticals. Its use in dissolving clots, however, suggests that it should not be taken with allopathic medications given to thin the blood.
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American Association of Oriental Medicine (AAOM). 909 22nd Street, Sacramento, CA 95816, (916) 451-6950 <http://www.aaom.org>.
Centre for International Ethnomedicinal Education and Research (CIEER). <www.cieer.org>.
Herbal Dave. http://www.herbaldave.com.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD