Whether we have a headache or high cholesterol, we’re used to popping synthetically manufactured pills to fix what ails us. It can be easy to forget that for most of human history, our remedies came from the plant world.
The ancients knew a thing or two about herbs. Not that they weren’t prone to superstition and theories unsupported by science; it was once believed, for instance, that if you had whooping cough you could be cured by placing a clove of garlic in your shoes. Nevertheless, people from times past were often both observant and surprisingly accurate about how herbs worked.
Many of the pharmaceuticals we use today have their roots, so to speak, in botany. Take digitalis, which is commonly used in the management of congestive heart failure. Although the drug is now synthetically produced, in its original form it came from the flowering plant known as foxglove. Opiates? They’re derived from the opium poppy. The active ingredient in the cancer drug Taxol comes from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, or Taxus brevifolia. Even plain old aspirin is plant-based, originating in a compound called salicin that comes from willows and was known since the days of ancient Greece to relieve pain and fever.
Like everything else in nature, plants aren’t entirely harmless. Consuming too much of an herb, or consuming it for too long a time, can bring unwanted side effects. More than a few plants – aconite, nightshade and the castor bean come to mind – are extremely poisonous. In short, just because they’re "natural" doesn’t mean herbs can be used with impunity.
My interest in herbs goes way back to the first garden I ever had. Once you’ve tried growing a few herbs, it’s hard not to become fascinated with their history and lore and to want to learn more about them. Although I use them mostly for culinary purposes, virtually every one of the herbs I grow has a variety of medicinal uses as well.
Oregano, which is pictured at the top of this post, is a good example. The flowering tops, I’ve read, can be distilled into a tea for relieving coughs, stomachaches, gallbladder disorders and general exhaustion, or drunk as a sedative to prevent seasickness. They also can be mashed up and applied externally to reduce swelling, rheumatism and stiffness of the neck. Chewing a leaf or two of oregano supposedly can temporarily ease the pain of a toothache.
Pictured to the right is coriander, or Coriandrum sativum. The seeds can be infused as a tea that acts as a digestive tonic and mild sedative. In traditional Indian medicine, a decoction of coriander seeds was thought to prevent smallpox. Another use for the seed is to slightly crush or bruise it and apply externally for joint pain and rheumatism.
Below is catnip, Nepeta cataria – and it’s not just for cats. Its most common medicinal use is as an infusion in tea for relieving colds, fevers, headaches and upset stomachs. It has some mild sedative qualities; the leaves and flowers also contain significant amounts of vitamin C. The leaves and flowering tops can be mashed up and applied to bruises.
To the right is bee balm, Monarda didyma. This herb is native to North America, where northeastern tribes often steeped the pleasantly scented leaves in a tea for treating colds and bronchial ailments. According to the history books, American colonists began drinking it as a tea in the late 1700s when the Boston Tea Party led to a general embargo on imported tea from Britain.
Those curving stalks in the picture below are garlic – not the cloves, which won’t be ready to harvest until late July or early August, but the stem and flower of the plant.
Garlic has traditionally been believed to offer protection against colds, dysentery, typhoid, worms and, of course, vampires. If you cut a garlic clove in half and apply it to your skin, it also supposedly relieves insect bites – a remedy I can’t say I’ve ever tried. More recently, this pungent member of the Allium family has shown some promise at helping to reduce blood pressure. These days you can buy garlic in pill form but there’s some doubt as to whether it confers the same benefit as the real thing.
Last but not least, here’s lavender, or Lavandula angustifolia, seen below. Its main reputation, aside from its famous scent, is as a calming herb. An infusion of the flowers supposedly relieves headaches and calms the nerves, and is sometimes used in a compress for treating headaches. It’s said that if you apply essential oil of lavender to your comb, it will help prevent head lice. Lavender also seems to have some insect repellent properties. In medieval times it was used both as a strewing herb and in nosegays that were carried around to ward off plague and pestilence.
Pills and capsules that come in a plastic bottle seem pretty dull compared to the romance of herbs. There are good reasons, of course, why most drugs these days come from a manufacturer – safety and uniformity, to name just a couple. It doesn’t hurt to remember, though, where the roots lie for so many of humanity’s common medicines and remedies.
– The Complete Book of Herbs: A Practical Guide to Growing and Using Herbs; Lesley Bremness, Viking Studio Books, 1988.
– Lost Country Life; Dorothy Hartley, Pantheon Books, 1977.
– Growing Herbs: Design, Planting, Harvesting, Using; Jessica Houdret, Anness Publishing Ltd., 1999.
– The Complete Herb Book; Jekka McVicar, Firefly Books Ltd., 2008.
– The Meaning of Herbs: Myth, Language and Lore; Gretchen Scoble and Ann Field, Chronicle Books LLC, 2001.
HealthBeat photos by Anne Polta