Back in 2015, there was a plant that was rapidly gaining popularity in the Philippines because of its health benefits. Insulin plant, or Costus igneus, was being sold at garden centers and even by small roadside sellers at a hefty price tag, with big promises of lowering blood sugar naturally and safely.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Costus igneus is a herbaceous plant found in tropical regions. In India, the Philippines, Central America and the Caribbean, it is commonly known as insulin plant because of its anti-diabetic properties.
My husband Jemil Araos – a plant enthusiast and landscaper with a history of diabetes in his family – was intrigued. He bought one plant, learned how to propagate it, and in several months was able to multiply it into hundreds.
From One Plant to a Whole Plantation
“Insulin plant is prolific and grows easily,” Jemil says. “From that single plant, I propagated ten within one to two months. And from each of those ten plants, I propagated ten more in the following months, and so on.”
He was able to reach those numbers by growing his plants via three methods: plantlets, cuttings, and suckers. Near the top of each mature insulin plant, just below the cone-like head, you’ll find plantlets that you can cut off and replant in pots. The stem from which you removed the plantlets can then be chopped up into cuttings and replanted as well.
Alternatively, you can leave the stem alone and wait for it to sprout more plantlets. When using cuttings, make sure to place them horizontally under one to two inches of soil to encourage more offshoots to grow. Another way to strike cuttings is to lay them on damp sphagnum moss in a shady area. This only works if you are sure you can keep the sphagnum moss damp at all times.
As for the third method, check near the roots for suckers. Then carefully dig around the roots, cut off the suckers, and replant them in pots. Try and keep as many roots on the suckers as possible. Grow the suckers on in a shady spot keeping the potting mix damp but not wet.
Through these methods, Jemil was able to create a whole plantation within one to two years. He says insulin plants are so easy to propagate that you could just throw a plantlet or stem on the ground and it would flourish if the conditions are ideal.
Caring for Your Insulin Plants
Speaking of ideal conditions, pick a spot with partial sunlight for your insulin plants. Water them regularly, as they could quickly wilt if they’re always dry. That means constant watering during hot and dry months, and as needed during the rainy season.
Although insulin plants will wilt when conditions are dry, they won’t necessarily die when you don’t water them enough. Even if the stalks have dried up, the rhizomes will most likely still be alive (yes, they’re that hardy). Just water them diligently and they will sprout again.
Jemil fertilizes them once a month with concoctions that he mixes himself instead of chemical fertilizers. He prefers to grow his insulin plants using natural farming methods since these will be processed into food supplements that people are going to ingest.
Going Into Business
As his plants proliferated, Jemil continued his research on their health benefits and also gave some away to friends and relatives who had high blood sugar levels. Then positive feedback started to come in, and that was when he realized he was onto something.
He thought of going into business. After all, he had spent a lot of time and money on propagation and already had thousands of plants in his farm. So he began formulating products that he could market as anti-diabetic supplements. At the same time, he planned to sell plants, as they still carried a high price tag back then.
The first product he formulated was insulin plant juice. Insulin leaves, when eaten fresh or brewed into a tea, have a mild sour flavor, and Jemil wanted a product that tasted better and was more attractive to potential customers.
He mixed the leaf extract with calamansi juice (since he also farmed calamansi, a small citrus fruit native to the Philippines), along with turmeric which is also reputed to have anti-diabetic properties.
For his next product, he created a tea from dried insulin leaves mixed with turmeric, which he placed in tea bags. More products followed, including insulin plant coffee mix, two types of capsules: pure insulin leaf and insulin leaf blended with turmeric, and insulin plant liqueur.
In 2018, he formally registered his food supplement business under the name Lime Tree Farm Solutions and started marketing his insulin plant products in trade fairs under the brand I-Plus. He is very meticulous with the quality of these products – they are manufactured in a real pharmaceutical plant, not in our home kitchen.
At the same time, he took a lot of training courses offered by the government, including organic and natural farming, manufacturing and processing, and marketing and distribution. Right now, he is in the process of getting international organic certification for his products.
You’ll notice in the image above that the products carry the label “No Approved Therapeutic Claims”. That’s because studies into the benefits of the insulin plant are still ongoing, so suppliers like my husband must label their products thus in order to comply with local regulations.
It’s already been shown in controlled animal trials that dried and finely powdered leaves of the insulin plant dissolved in water were able to reduce blood sugar levels to normal but what still needs to be determined is the recommended dosage levels for human beings if prescribed by doctors.
But even respected organizations like the Defeat Diabetes Foundation are already recognizing the benefits of the insulin plant with statements like this:
So, the claims he makes about the benefits of the products are made with a great deal of confidence – and personal experience too. Around the time that he completed his product line, he was diagnosed with prediabetes and got to test his products on himself, with good results.
Though business hasn’t exactly been booming, especially when the pandemic hit, it has attracted a loyal following among customers who have found the supplements effective in regulating their blood sugar levels.
Still, Jemil stresses that these products are not an excuse to binge on chocolates and sweets, or to forget about healthy eating and living in general. To get excellent results, he recommends combining the supplements with a disciplined lifestyle and diet.
Advocacy, Not Just Business
Jemil got into the insulin plant business serendipitously – he was just a gardening enthusiast who chanced upon an interesting plant and played around with it. But it has since turned into a personal advocacy, not just work.
He knows firsthand how serious diabetes can be. His father had it, injected insulin for more than a decade, and died from diabetes complications years before Jemil found out that the plant existed. He sometimes wonders if it could have helped his father.
So he tries to encourage people who have high blood sugar levels to try it. Because insulin plant is so easy to propagate, its price has dropped considerably, which means anyone can afford it and make it flourish in their own garden.
It’s easy to prepare, too – just make a tea out of the leaves by boiling them in water, or chop them up and add to salads, as Jemil likes to do. But he also knows that there are people who have no time or inclination to plant and prep, and that is why he came up with these ready-to-consume products.
Editor’s note: Costus igneus is a synonym for Costus pictus and Costus cuspidatus. The plant has now been moved to the new genus Chamaecostus and these days is being labelled as Chamaecostus cuspidatus in many countries. Readers who may be interested to see more research on the insulin plant should therefore search for articles under all of these botanical names.
All images: © Jemil Araos