By Rob Hawley
For The Taos News
Spanish: Lengua de vaca
Genus and species: Cynoglossum officinale
Lengua de vaca – or hound’s-tongue – is one of those plants almost everyone is familiar with, even if they don’t think they are. I say this because there are very few of us who have not had the seeds of this plant stuck in our socks, pants, dog’s fur or horse’s tail.
Hound’s-tongue was unknowingly imported to this continent from Europe as a hitchhiker, most likely in the wool of the Churro sheep brought by early Spanish explorers. In the past 400 years, it has spread throughout North and South America and can be found as far south as Tierra del Fuego and north into Alaska. Lengua de vaca is one of the most successful traveling plants on the planet. This is a biennial plant, growing from seed the first year, wintering over and blooming the second year to make many triangular-shaped seeds with tiny hooks that stick to almost everything. The first-year plant has long tongue-shaped leaves that turn red in the fall and look like a cow’s or dog’s tongue.
As medicine, hound’s-tongue contains two important properties. It is demulcent, having slippery mucus-like proteins that soothe irritated tissues and can be used as tea for sore throats or topically in salve for irritated skin. The second property is that lengua de vaca contains allantoin, a substance that reduces inflammation, helps to heal burns and accelerates tissue growth.
Finally, a warning. Lengua de vaca contains compounds called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). Some PAs can be toxic to the liver and are suspected to be cancer causing. There are more than 600 different PAs, some of which are very toxic and others not so toxic. Lengua de vaca has been used for thousands of years without report of toxicity, but the Food and Drug Administration recommends that any plant containing PAs not to be consumed internally.
Consult your health care practitioner about the use of herbs or supplements, especially if you are pregnant, taking prescription medication or administering herbs to children.
Hawley is the owner of Taos Herb Company. Reach Taos Herb Company at (575) 758-1991 or taosherb.com.