GĀV-ZABĀN (lit. ”ox-tongue,” in reference to the rough, tongue-shaped leaves of the plant), the popular designation for several medicinal species of the borage family (Boraginaceae).
The term gāv-zabān seems to be an old calque of Ar. lesān al-ṯawr, by which the earliest Arabic translator of Dioscorides (1st century C.E.), Eṣṭefan b. Basīl (Stephanos, son of Basileos; 3rd/9th century), has translated literally Dioscorides’ bouglosson (no. 101, p. 352; see also an improved version thereof in Ebn al-Bayṭār, IV, s.v. lesān al-ṯawr). Dioscorides’ bouglosson has usually been identified as Anchusa italica Retz. (= A. paniculata Ait., as in the edition of the old English translation  of Dioscorides, bk. iv, no. 128).
Medicinal uses. Dioscorides, in his short and vague description of bouglosson, mentioned (apparently by hearsay) only one medicinal virtue for it: A decoction thereof in wine “is thought to be a cause of mirth.” Galen (Jālīnūs, 2nd century C.E.; quoted by Ebn al-Bayṭār, ibid.), trying to elucidate Dioscorides’ statement, explained that the said euphoriant virtue results from the “hot and moist” nature of the plant. He also cited a new use for it: “When cooked with oxymel, it is good for coughs due to roughness in the throat and windpipe.” Later, certainly because of confusion with other similar boraginaceous plants popularly called lesān al-ṯawr (see below), additional medicinal properties, sometimes discordant or even conflicting, were ‘discovered’ and mentioned by physician-pharmacologists of the Islamic period. According to Ebn Māsūya/Māsawayh (d. 243/857; quoted by Ebn al-Bayṭār, ibid.), “It evacuates [excess] bile and atrabile; [consequently], if taken with Armenian bole, it is good for ḵafaqān [abnormal heart palpitation] caused by [excessive] bile.” Abū Manṣūr Mowaffaq Heravī ( 4th/10th century; q.v.), repeating these medical uses, explained that, “it is good against atrabile and for cause-less [sic] gloominess and sorrow” (p. 100). In the same century, Aḵawaynī Boḵārī (p. 242; q.v.), expatiated on the latter ailment, dealing with it as mālīḵūlīā (melancholia), which is “a senseless phobia” caused by “burnt atrabile lingering in the whole body or cerebral veins.” Among other compound medicines that he prescribed to cure this disorder was a decoction containing lesān al-ṯawr (p. 245). According to the “Ḵūz” (probably physicians associated with Gondēšāpūr medical center in Ḵūzestān), lesān al-ṯawr is “cold and moist, and its leaves, when burnt, are good for flaccidity of the tongue and gums, as well as for aphtha, especially in children’s mouths” (quoted by Rāzī, XXI/2, p. 447). Later authors have added almost nothing new to the above-mentioned medical uses, except for dosage and succedanea; see, e.g., Ebn Sīnā (I, bk. 2, pp. 352-53), Anṣārī Šīrāzī (729-806/1328-1403; p. 396; he is probably the first Persian physician to have used gāv-zabān as the Persian synonym for lesān al-ṯawr), and Tonokābonī (comp. 1080/1669-70; pp. 762-63). Incidentally, in connection with the euphoriant property of gāv-zabān, the latter claims that, “ten meṯqāls of a beverage made of gāv-zabān juice, apple juice, and mavīz (large dark brown raisins) juice cheers [the drinker] as much as one raṭl of wine.”
Identification. The plants sold by popular druggists as (gol-e) gāv-zabān have been variously identified, e.g.: Caccinia glauca Savi (now considered C. macranthera var. crassifolia, with yet another synonym, Borago crassifolia; Dymock et al., II, pp. 520-21; see Riedl, pp. 228-29; Echium amoenum Fisch. & Mey. (Hooper’s “flowers of borage”; Riedl, p. 115); Anchusa intalica Retz. (Schlimmer, s.v.; = A. azurea Mill. in Parsa, VIII, s.v.; = A. paniculata Ait. in the edition of Dioscorides’ English translation). The “genuine” Persian gāv-zabān, of which only the small azure flowers (gol-e gāv-zabān) are used (in an infusion or decoction) in Persia is most probably either Caccinia glauca or Anchusa intalica. The former grows in some localities in Gorgān, Gīlān, Azerbaijan, Arāk, Hamadān, Kermān, Kermānšāhān, Khorasan, Tehran, Qazvīn (for distributional details see Riedl, pp. 228-29); the latter grows on the Alborz slopes in Gīlān (where it is called gow-zūbōney and gūl-gowzūbōn; Pāyanda Langarūdī, p. 639), Māzandarān, Azerbaijan, Isfahan, Luristan, Kermānšāhān (called gāzowan and gāzerwān in Kurdish, Ṣafīzāda, pp. 114, 186), Hamadān, and Qazvīn (details in Riedl, p. 233).
In contemporary Persia, the infusion of gāv-zabān flowers is used mainly as a mild medicine against chill and catarrh and for soothing the resulting sore throat, cough, and chest ailment.
Another boragineous plant with similar habit and flowers but with different medicinal properties, namely, the borage (Bor[r]ago officinalis L.), also negligently called gāv-zabān, has been mistaken for the “genuine” one and marketed, perhaps fraud ulently, instead of it (see Jazāyerī’s recriminations in this regard, pp. 184-87).
Abū Manṣūr Mowaffaq Heravī, Kētāb al-abnīa ʿan haqāʾeq al-adwīa, ed. A. Bahamanyār and Ḥ. Maḥbūbī Ardakānī, Tehran, 1346 Š./1967.
Abū Bakr Rabīʿ b. Aḥmad Aḵawaynī Boḵārī, Hedāyat al-motaʿallemīn fi’l-ṭebb, ed. J. Matīnī, Mašhad, 1344 Š./1965.
ʿAlī b. Ḥosayn Anṣārī Šīrāzī, Eḵtīārāt-e badīʿī (qesmat-e mofradāt), ed. M.-T. Mīr, Tehran, 1371 Š./1992.
Dioscorides, La ‘Materia Medica’ de Dioscorides, ed. and tr. C. E. Dubler and E. Terés, 6 vols., Barcelona and Tetuan, 1952-57.
Idem, The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, tr. John Goodyer (1655), ed. R. T. Gunther, Oxford, 1934.
W. Dymock et al., Pharmacographia Indica , 3 vols., London etc., 1890-93.
Ebn al-Bayṭār, al-Jāmeʿ le mofradāt al-adwīa wa’l-aḡḏīa, 4 vols., Būlāq, 1291/1874.
Ebn Sīnā, al-Qānūn fi’l-ṭebb, 3 vols., Būlāq, 1294/1877.
D. Hooper, Useful Plants and Drugs of Iran and Iraq; with notes by H. Field, Chicago, 1937.
A. Parsa, Flore d’Iran VIII, Tehran, 1960.
Maḥmūd Pāyanda Langarūdī, Farhang-e Gīl o Deylam , Tehran, 1366 Š./1987.
Abū Bakr Moḥammad b. Zakarīyāʾ Rāzī, al-Hāwī XXI/2, Hyderabad (Deccan), 1388/1968.
Ṣ. Ṣafīzāda, Ṭebb-e sonnatī dar mīān-e kordān, Tehran, 1361 Š/1982.
H. Riedl, Boraginaceae (= K. H. Rechinger, ed., Flora Iranica, fasc. 48), Graz, 1967.
Moḥammad-Moʾmen Ḥosaynī Tonokābonī (Ḥakīm Moʾmen), Toḥfat al-moʾmenīn (Toḥfa-ye Ḥakīm Moʾmen), Tehran, 1360 Š./1981.
Originally Published: December 15, 2000
Last Updated: February 3, 2012
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Vol. X, Fasc. 4, pp. 339-340