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Mother Nature Wins Again

Beautyberry and the deet

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Mother Nature Wins Again

Don't smear chemcial pesticides on your skin to ward off bugs. Simply find a bug-repellent beautyberry bush, you very own natural insect repellent.

Don’t smear chemical pesticides on your skin to ward off this summer’s West Nile threat. Simply find a bug-repellent beautyberry bush, and follow the natural methods that Northeastern Mississippi residents practised during the early 20th century.

Back then, people living in those parts crushed American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) leaves and placed them under the harnesses of their horses and mules. The friction of the harness against the plant’s leaves produced a repellent oil that kept biting insects away from their animals for hours. People in Mississippi then started rubbing this oil on themselves, too.

Luckily, local resident John Rives Crumpton passed on this native practice to his grandson Charles Bryson, who became a botanist at the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). Bryson revealed the beautyberry’s potential to his colleagues, and from there Grandpa’s household wisdom began its transformation into science.

Beautyberry’s Secrets Revealed

With a team of experts, USDA-ARS chemist Charles Cantrell put the beautyberry through complex laboratory processes that isolated five insect-repelling compounds. Their foremost discovery was the callicarpenal compound, a substance now poised to become the USDA-ARS’s next weapon in its war against the mosquito.

Having already developed DEET and their synthetic repellent SS220 (which repels mosquitoes as efficiently as DEET), the USDA-ARS’s artificial repellents may have met their match in Mother Nature.

“In laboratory tests, the isolated callicarpenal was as effective as SS220 in preventing mosquito bites,” Mr. Cantrell revealed.

To DEET or Not to DEET

Experts claim that DEET has safely prevented bug bites since its 1957 launch. Dr. Gideon Koren, lead author of a 2003 Canadian Medical Association article that reviewed DEET’s safety data declared, “The chemical’s safety record is almost unparalleled. Millions of people have used it with few adverse effects...not many chemicals have such huge safety data.”

Of course, tell that to the parents of a young girl who suffered severe burns when the solvent in the bug spray her mother applied ignited as she played around a campfire. Tell that to Duke University Medical Center researchers who found that DEET has led to brain cell death, increased muscle weakness, and impaired muscle coordination in rats after prolonged use. Tell that to Gulf War soldiers who, as a US Department of Defense study concluded, have faced everything from infertility to Gulf War syndrome after a chemical immunization cocktail that included DEET was administered to them.

Go Natural

Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Vanessa Lee recommends erring on the side of caution by trying the vast array of effective natural alternatives available. She states, “They reduce the risk of side effects associated with the use of chemical repellents, including those we already know of and those we don’t know of yet.”

Dr. Lee recommends taking 100 mg of vitamin B1 daily throughout mosquito season and finds that applying essential oils such as rosemary, soybean, castor, and eucalyptus can be effective when outdoors. In fact, a 2002 New England Journal of Medicine study proved lemon eucalyptus oil (also known as p-menthane-3,8-diol) to be as effective as a 10 percent concentration of DEET that provided three-hour protection.

Another natural option that was proven to be the best performing alternative to chemical repellents by the New England Journal of Medicine is a soy, coconut, and geranium oil-based product that keeps biting insects away for four to eight hours.

Natural products should always be applied frequently (every two hours), and for the best protection, Dr. Lee recommends choosing a product that contains multiple repellents to deter the vast array of mosquito breeds that exist.

Back In the Lab

The USDA-ARS’s next steps include testing the American beautyberry’s potential against ticks by evaluating the plant’s toxicity and observing how long the bush’s effects linger.

“After this,” Dr. Cantrell explains, “their biggest hurdle is finding a cheap callicarpenal source. The beautyberry is abundant in the southern US, but natural products can be very expensive to synthesize and isolate.”

Still, his optimism is obvious. Asked if he had ever personally used the beautyberry’s leaves to test its efficacy, he confirmed, “You bet…it works!”

All-natural bug repellents are readily available at your local health food store and natural health practitioners can provide safe options that meet your individual needs.

Do-It-Yourself Bug Repellent

You can plant the beautyberry bush in your own backyard. It is hardy only to Zone 6 (-23 C), though, so remember to bring it inside for the winter and you’ll be repellent-ready when mosquito season hits.

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