It is an herbaceous annual plant, which grows weakly erect and scrambling, with stalks about 10 to 50 cm long. Its pink 7 to 9 mm flowers appear from April to October in the northern hemisphere. They are two lipped and spurred, with sepals running a quarter the length of the petals. The fruit is an achene. It contains alkaloids, potassium salts, and tannins. It is also a major source of fumaric acid.
The "smoky" or "fumy" origin of its name comes from the translucent color of its flowers, giving them the appearance of smoke or of hanging in smoke, and the slightly gray-blue haze color of its foliage, also resembling smoke coming from the ground, especially after morning dew.
The plant was already called fūmus terrae (smoke of the earth) in the early 13th century, and two thousand years ago, Dioscorides wrote in De Materia Medica (Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς) and Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia that rubbing the eyes with the sap or latex of the plant causes tears, like acrid smoke (fūmus) does to the eyes. Its Greek name is kapnos (καπνός, for smoke) and the name fumewort now applies mostly to the genus Corydalis, especially the similar looking Corydalis solida (formerly Fumaria bulbosa), which was thought to belong to the same genus as fumitory.
It was traditionally thought to be good for the eyes, and to remove skin blemishes. In modern times herbalists use it to treat skin diseases, and conjunctivitis; as well as to cleanse the kidneys. However, Howard (1987) warns that fumitory is poisonous and should only be used "under the direction of a medical herbalist."
The plant contains isoquinoline alkaloids protopine and allocryptopine. Both protopine and allocryptopine increased CYP1A1 and CYP1A2 mRNA levels in human hepatocyte cells. The use of products containing protopine and/or allocryptopine may be considered safe in terms of possible induction of CYP1A enzymes.
- Fitter, Richard; Fitter, Alastair; Blamey, Marjorie (1974). The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe. London: Collins. p. 78. ISBN 0-00-219057-5.
- The Names of Plants, Fourth Edition, Gledhill, D. (1985–2008). The Names of Plants. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. p. 443. ISBN 978-0-521-86645-3.
- Howard, Michael. Traditional Folk Remedies (century, 1987). pp142-3.
- Vrba, J.; Vrublova, E.; Modriansky, M.; Ulrichova, J. (2011). "Protopine and allocryptopine increase mRNA levels of cytochromes P450 1A in human hepatocytes and HepG2 cells independently of AhR". Toxicology Letters 203 (2): 135–141. doi:10.1016/j.toxlet.2011.03.015. PMID 21419197.
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