If the startling results of a recent Austrian study are any indication, we should all get better acquainted with ashitaba.
In fact, we might even want to make a little room for this ancient Japanese plant beside the basil and lavender in the windowsill.
Ashitaba may have a bright future in Western households because the so-called "Tomorrow's Leaf" promises just that: A future.
In a paper published this month in the journal Nature, researchers at the University of Graz, suggest a key component of the plant — called 4,4′-dimethoxychalcone, or DMC — may act as an anti-aging mechanism.
In experiments, the substance was found to prolong the lives of worms and fruit flies by as much as 20 percent.
Keeping the cellular process tidy
Researchers suggest DMC acts as a kind of "cellular garbage collector." It basically speeds along the natural process by which frail and damaged cells are shed to be replaced by shiny new ones.
Normally, the crusty old cells are removed regularly through a process called autophagy. But as we age, the body's trash collector starts missing appointments, allowing the damaged cells to accumulate, opening the door for a wide range of diseases and disorders.
In the experiments, DMC kept the process whirring along.
So what exactly is this humble hero — and more importantly, why haven't we carpeted the planet with it yet?
Well, it's not much to look at, and its leaves are said to be rather bitter — but that likely just gives adds more cred for its centuries-long use as a traditional medicine.
Let's face it, practitioners of traditional medicine were probably the first to offer the cheerful slogan, "It tastes awful and it works."
And those ancient chemists stood by the myriad benefits of Angelica keiskei — the plant's botanical name — touting its powers of increasing breast milk flow, easing blood pressure and even calming the savage ulcer.
Samurai, too, were notorious nibblers— not so much for the plant's breast milk-boosting ways, but rather its reputation for adding years to one's life.
But does it really work? Or does it get a pass from traditional medicine because it tastes awful?
Keep in mind that Austrian researchers developed an intensive process to isolate the DMC, administering concentrated dosages to subjects. You're not likely to be overwhelm your anti-aging genes by chewing on a bale of ashitaba, or making it into a nice tea.
Also, although this was the first time DMC was tested on living animals, there's a wide chasm between worms and human beings. Countless promising experiments involving animals have crashed hard against the very different reality of human biology.
"The experiments indicate that the effects of DMC might be transferable to humans, although we have to be cautious and wait for real clinical trials," Frank Madeo, lead author of the study, tells Medical News Today.
Human testing, he adds, will follow, only after researchers see how DMC fares at torquing the hearts of mice.
Of course, that doesn't mean you can't get a headstart on what could well become the ultimate opiate for the age-obsessed masses — and grow your own little ashitaba garden.
"Angelicas [another name for the plant] like to be cold stratified," San Francisco Botanical Garden curator Don Mahoney tells Modern Farmer.
That means keeping the seeds outside at night, preferably in 30-degree temperatures, to help them germinate. As an alternative, Mahoney suggests, a couple of weeks in the fridge could kickstart the process.
"Nearly all of my last batch of seeds germinated," he explains.
From there, it's all in the hands of quality soil, while you gradually increase the pot size until the seedling are ready for the ground.
Ashitaba is partial to cool, damp conditions. So in the summer, it might seem like you messed up yet another gardening gambit. But then, when things cool down, "Tomorrow's Leaf" rises mightily to the occasion.
The plants generally grow to around four feet high. Not only that, but they have a remarkable knack for rejuvenating themselves — a leaf cut off in the morning will start growing back the next day.
As far as looks go, ashitaba, which is a relative of the carrot, isn't going to make your begonias blush. But its leaves, stems and yellow sap still course with nutrients. Even if the age-torquing upside doesn't work out, it still packs promise for ulcers and breast milk and even blood pressure.
At the very least, all that promise of extending life will be a nice conversation piece — even if all it ever ends up enlivening is your salad.
And remember: Even the samurai died of old age at some point.