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Mucuna is a group of approximately 100 species of climbing legumes. A legume is a plant, such as beans or peas, that produces seed pods that split when mature. Mucuna species tend to be shrub-like vines native to most tropical forests and woodlands across the globe.
Although there are a large number of recorded species, very few have been extensively studied. Many species have traditionally been used for their medicinal properties, with records dating back to ancient times, particularly in parts of China and India. The beans, or seeds, of some species are cooked and used as a food source, and also dried and used as jewelry by a wide variety of indigenous peoples.
The actual number of mucuna species is a subject of debate within the scientific community. This is because the group is so widespread that some scientists believe many varieties identified as new species are simply pre-existing species that have some localized variation resulting from its adapting to local conditions. Some scientists also believe that some varieties are not new species but merely hybrid or cross-breed varieties.
The majority of mucuna species produce seeds adapted to dispersal via water as well as conventional dispersal methods. The seeds fall from the pods when dried and are often carried out to sea via streams and rivers. The seeds are still viable after they wash ashore and are able to germinate; these are commonly known as sea beans. This method of dispersal accounts for the huge geographic range of mucuna varieties, makes it difficult to identify a species' country of origin and gives rise to the scientific argument regarding misidentification. Unlike most other legumes, the majority of mucuna species are pollinated by bats.
The most extensively studied mucuna species is mucuna puriens, which is a rapidly climbing vine native to China and parts of India. This species produces masses of downward-hanging, double-curved pods that are covered in thousands of tiny hairs. The hairs are capable of penetrating skin and causing a painful stinging sensation and redness. If the hairs enter the human eye, severe pain and irritation will occur.
Mucuna puriens has been used for many centuries as a food source, as a medicine and, ground, as a coffee alternative. Mucuna puriens is still used in modern times by herbalists and indigenous peoples to treat a wide array of ailments, and to improve physical performance and general and mental health. Different parts of the plant, including the leaves, hairs, roots and beans, have different properties and are used to treat different ailments. It is important to note that these plants should only be prepared for consumption by an expert, because they are particularly potent and can cause potentially serious side effects if not correctly prepared or if too much is taken. If properly prepared, this species can be an aid to increasing muscle mass and is widely marketed in the form of powders, pills and drinks to the body-building market.
This species contains large quantities of L-Dopa, which can be changed to dopamine in the brain and is an alternative to synthetic L-Dopa. L-Dopa is used to treat the characteristic spasms and tremors of Parkinson's disease, which is a result of a lack of dopamine in the brain. Natural L-Dopa from mucuna puriens is a viable alternative for many people, especially in the early stages of the disease, and has none of the side effects associated with synthetic L-Dopa. Mucuna puriens preparations are also thought to improve short-term memory, confusion and concentration.