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_ Whether you’re a “simpler” who gathers medicinal plants for your own use or a full-time practitioner of the herbal arts, one of the principal pleasures of herbalism is the opportunity to mingle with living organisms that not only contribute to our well-being; they’re often quite pleasing to the eye. Indeed, many wild plants that humans originally gathered for their healing or nutritional properties were eventually toted into our gardens, where we could enjoy their aesthetic attributes, as well.

Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorum), also known as Chinese or Japanese bell-flower, is a worthy representative of an eclectic group of medicinal-cum-ornamental herbs.

Once native to eastern Asia, balloon flower is now cultivated throughout the world’s temperate regions. Most people are familiar with this hardy plant’s blossoms, which form inflated, balloon-shaped orbs just before they burst forth into five-petaled, heavily-veined, sky-blue flowers. (Strains with white or pink flowers are also fairly common, and cultivars with shorter stems have been developed to restrain balloon flower’s tendency to collapse and sprawl.)

However, balloon flower does more than just grace the sunny edges of our flowerbeds. It has been a part of the Chinese herbal pharmacopeia for at least two millennia, having been mentioned in the Shen Nong Canon of Herbs during the Han Dynasty (circa 200 BC). It is still a constituent of patented remedies in Japan and China, where it is marketed as Platycodi Stop Cough Tablets, and balloon flower’s medicinal and ornamental attributes have been commemorated on postage stamps in several countries.

In his book, The Way of Herbs, Dr. Michael Tierra cites balloon flower root’s value as "...a tonic expectorant useful for treating asthma, cough, sore throat, and lung and bronchial congestion. It is useful as a strong expectorant and helps to counteract pneumonia and clear infected mucus from the lungs.”

In addition to alleviating respiratory complaints, Chinese physicians use Radix Platycodi (balloon flower root) to treat stomatitis (oral inflammation), peptic ulcers, and chronic inflammatory diseases.   

A World Health Organization monograph lists triterpene saponins – including platycodigenin and polygalacic acid – as the chief constituents of balloon flower root. The WHO document also helps to dispel the notion that balloon flower’s root is poisonous – a concern that is paradoxically (and inexplicably) voiced in many manuscripts that extol the virtues of Radix Platycodi. The root contains hemolytic sapogenins that are apparently either inactivated in the intestinal tract or poorly absorbed into the bloodstream. In any event, Radix Platycodi formulations are only toxic if they’re injected – an unlikely possibility for any right-thinking individual (although there seems to be any number of foolhardy folks who insist on proving that Darwin was correct in his assumptions).

Balloon flower root can be taken either as a tea or a tincture. If preparing a tea, place 1-2 grams of dried, powdered root in one cup of boiling water and steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Use 10 to 30 drops of the tincture in a cup of water or juice up to four times daily.  

You may have to locate a Chinese physician to track down Platycodi Stop Cough Tablets (online sources may also be available).

Even if you never use balloon flower for its salutary properties, plant one near your garden gate or at the foot of your porch (it thrives in USDA zones 4-9); its puffy flowers are delightful!

(All images Copyright Stephen A. Christensen, MD)

Some herbs are just plain tough. Through adaptation or good fortune, they've acquired traits that allow them to thrive in challenging settings. Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is just such a plant. However, unlike many hardy members of the plant kingdom, whose austere natures are advertised with spiny exteriors or whose Spartan personalities are concealed beneath cheerless bark, Balsamroot’s tenacity is belied by a flashy display of sunflower-like blooms and fuzzy, blade-shaped leaves.

Balsamroot can usually be found growing in stands along sere hillsides or roadbanks, but solitary plants are occasionally seen punctuating otherwise drab expanses of dry meadowlands. A single large specimen might produce several dozen bright yellow flowers in late spring; later in the year the broad, arrowhead-shaped leaves distinguish these plants. Balsamroot closely resembles – and sometimes mingles with – Mules-Ears (Wyethia spp.), but the flowering stems of Mules-Ears typically bear leaves, while those of Balsamroot do not. And none of the members of Wyethia possess the robust, deep (up to three meters), resinous root that gives Balsamroot its name and many of its medicinal characteristics (though both the root and aerial parts of this plant have healing properties).

If you have a bent for chemistry, you might be interested in some of the compounds that are believed to confer Balsamroot’s salutary powers. According to Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, both the stems and roots of Balsamroot contain an array of flavonoids, including 7-methyl-ether and 6-hydroxykaempferol, inulin, glycans, resins and terebinthine principles (mainly in the root), and caffeic acids similar to those found in Echinacea.

Balsamroot flowers are browsed by deer and other wildlife, and nearly all parts of the plant have been consumed by various Native American tribes: the flower stems can be peeled and eaten, the seeds are nutritious and oil-rich, and the root can be steamed and eaten or dried and pounded into flour or used as a coffee substitute.

When taken internally, Balsamroot acts as a disinfectant and expectorant. Like Echinacea, it may also stimulate white blood cell activity. Topically, Balsamroot serves to disinfect, reduce inflammation, and enhance healing.

Powdered Balsamroot leaves can be applied to the skin and covered with hot towels to heal burns and wounds, soothe eczema, and ease the pain associated with bruises and contusions. In a pinch, you can mash or chew the leaves, apply them to the injured area, and cover with another intact leaf. The powdered root makes a decent antifungal that can be applied as a poultice or salve to treat “ringworm,” jock itch, and athlete’s foot.

Balsamroot’s dried or fresh root can be used to produce a tincture which, when added to warm water, tea, or juice, helps soothe sore throats, loosen phlegm, and boost your immune system. And you can create a fairly decent cough medicine by adding 1 part of the root to 4 parts honey, bringing to a simmer, maintaining the heat for a couple of hours, and then straining into a jar. Label and store at room temperature; take a teaspoon or two every 2 to 4 hours as needed.

The next time you’re tooling through a dry Western canyon and your eye is drawn to a clump of bright, sunny flowers on a hillside, take comfort in knowing that Arrowleaf Balsamroot is there… for the lean times.

_You’ll probably have a hard time finding this one on the shelves of your favorite herbal apothecary, but you might serendipitously discover it in a shady corner of your yard or a hidden thicket somewhere close to home.

Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) is a shade-seeking, moisture-loving plant with palm-shaped, fernlike leaves, a long, succulent root, and delicate stems that bear rows of distinctive ¾ inch, inflated, heart-shaped flowers. There are several species of Dicentra, but many of them possess corms or tubers that aren't as readily accessible as the shallow rhizome produced by D. formosa. This rhizome contains an array of isoquinolone alkaloids – dicentrine, protopine, bulbocapnine, corydine, and isocorydine – several of which exhibit narcotic properties.
Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest have used bleeding heart for generations as a remedy for toothache and other types of pain. In years past, bleeding heart was widely employed for treating syphilis. Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, reports that a tincture of bleeding heart’s leaves or rhizome, when taken internally, helps calm frazzled nerves. When applied externally and covered with a moist, warm compress, it eases the pain of sprains, strains, and contusions. A few drops of the tincture on a cotton ball might just tide you over to the dental appointment you put off until that abscessed tusk finally erupted in your jaw.
Bleeding heart tincture can be prepared from the fresh or dried rhizome or from dried aerial parts. For internal use, take 10 to 20 drops of fresh root tincture, 15 to 30 drops of dried root tincture, or 30 to 50 drops of dried herb tincture up to three times daily. For external uses, apply as needed.
Pregnant or nursing mothers and individuals with liver disease should not take bleeding heart internally. If you use prescription medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking bleeding heart.

If you have to donate a urine sample to your employer from time to time, keep in mind that bleeding heart’s alkaloids can trigger a false positive opioid drug screen.

Happy New Year!

Lewis WH, Elvin-Lewis MPF. Medical botany: plants affecting human health. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2003:429

Moerman DE. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc.; 1998

Moore M. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books; 1993:81-82