If you’ve ever retreated from the heat of a blistering day, pried the cap from a frosted bottle of beer, and reveled in that first long, slightly bitter, thirst-vanquishing draught, you are acquainted with Humulus lupulus,
or hops. Since ancient times, hops have been tossed into fermented beverages to improve their flavor and prolong their shelf life. The first brewers relied on wild hops for their raw material; however, given humankind’s proclivity to inebriation, a thriving industry now revolves around hop cultivation and propagation.
It isn’t clear where the word “hops” originated. It may stem from the Anglo-Saxon term “hoppian,” meaning “to leap” – perhaps referring to the plant’s prodigious ability to creep and twine and intercalate itself onto and into any available upright structure. Hops owes this climbing prowess to its aggressive, mercurial growth habit (under ideal conditions a hop vine can add a meter to its length in one day) and to its rasp-like stems and tendrils. These characteristics reportedly earned the plant its specific name, lupulus
: the early Romans, upon observing wild hops’ unbridled subjugation of willows and other scrub plants, were reminded of wolves among sheep and dubbed this “wicked and pernicious weed” lupus salictarius
The bittering and preservative attributes of hops reside in their strobiles – the flowers of the female vine – which resemble small, pale-green, soft-sided pinecones. Hop strobiles are the repository for an impressive number of nutritional and pharmacologically active agents, including vitamin B6, manganese, choline, inositol, antioxidant flavonoids, tannins, alpha- and beta-bitter acids (humulone, lupulone, etc.), volatile compounds (humulene, myrcene, beta-caryophyllene, etc.), resins, oligomeric proanthocyanidins, and phenols (e.g., caffeic and chlorogenic acids). Many of these constituents give rise to hops’ diverse medicinal properties: anodyne (relieves pain), diuretic, febrifuge (breaks fevers), hypnotic, nervine (relaxes jangled nerves), sedative, soporific (induces sleep), tonic, anthelmintic (kills worms), anaphrodisiac (reduces libido) and stomachic (improves appetite and digestion).
Traditionally, hops have been used internally for a wide array of ailments, including headache, earache, toothache, muscular pain, arthritis, jaundice, worms, stomach ulcers, gonorrhea, poor circulation, poor appetite, gout, fluid retention and coughs. Hops’ bitter acids exert selective antibacterial and antifungal activities, a serendipitous characteristic that presumably enhances yeast multiplication while simultaneously suppressing the growth of undesirable microbes in brewing vats. This same attribute makes hops invaluable in poultices for ringworm, wounds and skin ulcers (particularly venous stasis ulcers of the lower extremities).
Where hops excel, however, is in calming jittery nerves and encouraging sleep. Indeed, the German Commission E has approved hops for treating nervousness and insomnia. If you’re an intractable insomniac who’s largely impervious to valerian, skullcap, passionflower, lavender, chamomile or kava kava, hops may be just what you need. A cup of hop tea or 1 to 2 ml of hop tincture or extract in a cup of warm water before bedtime can induce sleep when nothing else works. (If you can’t abide the bitter taste of hop tea, a hop-stuffed pillow is a popular folk remedy for insomnia.)
Hops are a delicate, evanescent herb, so use fresh or well-preserved strobiles when preparing infusions and tinctures. If the strobiles in your favorite herbalist’s bins are brown, look elsewhere. The same precaution applies to pellets, if you buy your hops in that form. (Freezing or vacuum packing your fresh or pelleted hops will significantly prolong their usefulness.)
If you suffer from depression, use hops with caution; their calming effect could conceivably worsen your condition. If hops are used in excess, their estrogenic effects could suppress the male libido…although you wouldn’t guess it from observing the behavior of beer drinkers at a bar. As with all herbs, hops can be sensitizing for certain individuals. (Hop picker’s disease, a severe form of contact dermatitis caused by continuous exposure to hops’ abrasive stems and strobiles, is one example of a sensitivity reaction.)
If you’re interested in growing your own hops for brewing or medicinal use, this link
provides some good general information.
To your good health. Skoal! Sources
Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, 2nd Edition: Hops. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000
Back in the mid-1970s, while hawking a popular breakfast cereal on TV, Euell Gibbons uttered a phrase that secured his place as a consummate wild-food expert and launched an entire generation of would-be foragers and simplers:
“Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”
I can’t say I’ve dined on many conifers – although I’ve downed my share of pine-nut stew and absorbed a bottle or two of spruce-tip beer – so I can’t confirm whether it’s possible (or even desirable) to satisfy your appetite with pine parts. However, I can
attest to the medicinal value of the family Pinaceae,
which includes pines, cedars, hemlocks, larches, spruces and firs.
During my brief stint as a timber faller, I learned that dried, powdered pitch provides excellent hemostasis for lacerations, and I once chewed and swallowed a few Ponderosa pine needles to relieve a nasty case of heartburn. (It’s amazing what you’ll do when you’re grubbing out a fire line and the volcanic remains of an army-surplus C-ration are seething in your gullet.)
As a class, the conifers share many medicinal uses. When applied externally, preparations of bark, pitch or sap alleviate a wide array of dermatologic ills, including abrasions, lacerations, burns, bruises, psoriasis, athlete’s foot and rashes due to prickly heat, chapped skin or allergic dermatitis. Native Americans used infusions of leaf tips and bark to treat coughs, colds, fevers, headaches, earaches, sore throats, heart problems, lung congestion, tuberculosis, ulcers, arthritis, indigestion, sexually transmitted diseases and cancer. Various conifer species have been employed as washes for making infants thrive, as contraceptives following childbirth, and as laxatives, diuretics, eyewashes, blood purifiers and abortifacients. Young aboriginal women used leaf-tip or bud infusions as a beauty wash, and drinking the tea was reputed to keep adolescent girls youthful. Conifers were also believed to confer protection from sorcerers – although they apparently didn’t protect young men from the wiles of their female companions.
While modern research hasn’t yet confirmed Pinaceae’s
myriad beneficial properties, several studies hint that a thousand years’ worth of empirical data is probably based in fact. For example, arabinogalactan from larch trees has demonstrated immunostimulatory properties in a handful of clinical trials. A study published in the September 2010 issue of Nutrition Journal
showed that larch arabinogalactan, when compared to placebo, increased the antibody response in healthy volunteers who were injected with pneumococcal vaccine. And a January 2011 Current Eye Research
study revealed that larch arabinogalactan stimulated proliferation and reorganization of injured corneal cells, suggesting that it might be valuable for treating certain human eye disorders; interestingly, the larch extract exerted this healing effect without the toxic side effects associated with chemicals that are currently used in many eye medications.
Other attributes of the Pinaceae
family have garnered some interest in the scientific community, too. For instance, the same proanthocyanidins that protect conifers from fungal infections (cedar’s resistance to rot is legendary) could serve as the basis for potent antifungals in human medicine. In addition, these compounds have demonstrated powerful antioxidant, immunomodulatory and cardioprotective properties in cell culture and animal studies.
All things considered, Mr. Gibbons may have been onto something 40 years ago – although he was simply standing on the shoulders of others who had gone before him. Once again, the admonition to “let food be thy medicine” seems apropos. Sources
- JK Udani, BB Singh, et al. Proprietary arabinogalactan extract increases antibody response to the pneumonia vaccine: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, pilot study in healthy volunteers. Nutr J. 2010;9:32
- S Burgalassi, N Nicosia, et al. Arabinogalactan as Active Compound in the Management of Corneal Wounds: In Vitro Toxicity and In Vivo Investigations on Rabbits. Curr Eye Res. 2011;36(1):21-28
“Living forever upon the roof” might sound like a catchy title for a Broadway musical or romance novel, but it’s actually the English translation of “Sempervivum tectorum,”
the scientific name for one of about 40 species of rosette-forming succulents colloquially known as “hen-and-chicks.” The Sempervivum
genus is familiar to anyone who’s ever needed a tough, xeric filler for a rock garden, gravel patch or unused terra cotta pot. Sempervivum
is utterly carefree; the only thing that will kill these plants is too much attention.
However, the unassuming nature of houseleeks (another of Sempervivum’s
familiar names) belies their fascinating history and understates their medicinal value. In ancient times, houseleeks were credited with the power to ward off witches, and when planted upon a home’s roof they conferred prosperity and safety to those who dwelled within. The Roman emperor Charlemagne commanded his subjects to plant houseleeks on their roofs to prevent lightning strikes, a practice that probably stemmed from the ancients’ belief that houseleeks were earthly manifestations of Jupiter and Thor, the Roman and Norse gods of thunder. Indeed, regional labels for houseleeks still include Jupiter’s beard, Thor’s beard, and Donnersbart (thunderbeard). Even today, many roofs in Wales are adorned with houseleeks.
According to the Physicians Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, Sempervivum’s
fresh leaves and juice house a variety of pharmacologically active constituents, including tannins, mucilage, isoflavonoids, and various fruit acids (malic, isocitric, and succinic). Leaves should be collected prior to flowering, as once the distinctive, upright peduncle rises above a mother rosette its salutary properties diminish. This botanical feat is the “last hurrah” for a mature rosette; it dies shortly after dispersing its many-seeded, star-shaped fruit. Fortuitously, Sempervivum’s
growth habit provides many “satellite” rosettes that eventually fill the void left by the departed parent. Herbalists who wish to propagate Sempervivum
crush the fruit, separate the seeds, and stratify them before growing them out on a coarse cactus mix. (Keep in mind that Sempervivum
doesn’t breed true, so you may get some odd-looking progeny if you have more than one variety growing in your neighborhood.) Sempervivum’s
leaves can be macerated or bruised and applied as a poultice, and individual leaves make handy little “spot” bandages. Entire plants can be crushed, pounded or pressed to collect the juice – a labor-intensive process – or you can steep 15-20 grams of fresh leaves in a quart of boiling water for 10 minutes to prepare an infusion. Infusions and decoctions
are generally used internally, while the juice – either full-strength or diluted – is used externally. Sempervivum’s
anti-inflammatory, cooling, and astringent properties have been exploited by humankind for centuries. A plucked leaf’s chewed or crushed edge will bring immediate relief to insect bites and stings. A bruised leaf secured to a toe or finger with a Band-Aid or strip of tape is reputed to be a good remedy for corns and warts, and soaking your feet in dilute juice is a wonderful way to end a harrying day. Gargles and mouthwashes, prepared from equal parts of water and juice and sweetened with a drop or two of honey, assuage sore throats and mouth ulcers. Undiluted Sempervivum
juice makes an excellent drop for a hot toddler’s ear. Poultices and compresses prepared from crushed leaves or a cloth soaked in dilute juice have been used to treat burns, skin ulcers, abrasions, rashes, ringworm, impetigo and superficial bruises.
has been taken internally for a multitude of ailments, including diarrhea, dysentery, menstrual cramps, fever, amenorrhea, tonsillitis, headache, worm infestation, and poor hearing. Dioscorides claimed Sempervivum
improved poor eyesight, Pliny believed it cured insomnia, and Culpeper recommended it for gout. Modern research suggests Sempervivum
exerts liver-protective and antioxidant effects.
The most convenient way to take Sempervivum
is as an infusion: drink one cup every three hours as needed. (When taken internally, undiluted juice in large doses acts as a purgative.) Keep unused infusions, decoctions and juice refrigerated; it isn’t clear how long these preparations remain viable, so it’s best to discard them after one week. Semper vivos! Sources
Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, Second Edition: Houseleek. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000
Alchemilla vulgaris—the “vulgar alchemist”—seems a harsh handle for a plant whose common name, Lady’s mantle, derives from its similarity to the scalloped folds of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. Perhaps the early botanists who classified Lady’s mantle were more taken with the herb’s reputed magical properties, or they may have been enamored of its ability to gather dew within its furrowed leaves and seemingly transform it into diamonds. Ancient wizards, in their quest for the secrets they believed would transmute base metals into gold, used “celestial water” captured from Alchemilla leaves to catalyze their magical formulas.
Irrespective of its origins or mystical attributes, Lady’s mantle is among the most attractive and hardy of herbs. Representatives of Alchemilla (there are about 300 species) are equally at home on high, mist-draped mountaintops, on moist grasslands above the Arctic Circle, or tucked into flower beds across suburban America. Indeed, owing to its popularity as an ornamental bedding plant, much of Alchemilla’s medicinal history has slipped into obscurity.
Rich in tannins, glycosides, and salicylates, Lady’s mantle is a first-class botanical astringent. Seventeenth-century herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper called Lady’s mantle “one of the most singular wound herbs,” referring to its ability, when applied as a poultice, to staunch bleeding from injuries and assuage the heat in inflamed ulcers. Alchemilla is used as a douche for leucorrhea, and it can be taken internally to deal with heavy menstrual flow. Since Lady’s mantle also acts as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic, emmenagogue, and vulnerary, it has been used for sore throats, laryngitis, toothache pain, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, hemorrhoids, and itching and ulcerations of the female genital tract. The German Commission E approves Lady’s mantle for stemming the diarrhea associated with acute gastroenteritis (stomach flu).
Use 3 to 9 grams of the leaves, flowers, or rhizomes to make a decoction; prepare an infusion by pouring a cup of boiling water over 2 to 3 teaspoons of dried the dried herb; or take 10 to 30 drops of the tincture 3 to 4 times daily. Pregnant women should not use Lady’s mantle, as it could stimulate uterine contractions.
Lady’s mantle is a fairly carefree plant and will fare well in just about any type of soil in a sunny or partially shaded location. It isn’t particularly drought-tolerant, though, so give it a good drink once or twice weekly. The plants should be sheared back after their chartreuse flowers have bloomed to revitalize the leaves and prevent reseeding—although a broad expanse of Alchemilla could be just the thing for an aspiring wizard.
If you take your time and allow your senses to awaken, a springtime stroll through the woods can be every bit as enlightening as a visit to your local library (and a hundred times more productive than spending an afternoon surfing the Internet): fiddleheads unfurl from the duff beneath your feet, tree frogs creak from hidden runnels, flickers plumb nearby stumps for grubs, geese chuckle overhead…
…and—at least in the undisturbed meadows of the American West—a profusion of delicate, yellow flowers nod tentatively in the gentle breezes that meander along the forest floor.
Early each spring, glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum
) chase the vanishing snow from moist, open or semi-open areas at middle to alpine elevations from southwestern Canada to New Mexico. These are perennial plants with deep, bulb-like corms, a pair of narrow, bright green leaves, and a solitary blossom atop a leafless stem. Their six lemon-yellow petals are strongly recurved, and—depending on the subspecies—the stamens are white, yellow, brown, or purplish.
Glacier lilies (some people prefer a less boreal-sounding name, such as dogtooth violet or fawn lily) provide forage for deer, elk, bears, and rodents. Several Native American tribes consumed glacier lily corms, which are edible raw but are sweeter (and easier on the digestive tract) when they're cooked. The corms were also dried and used in trade. The stems and leaves of glacier lilies are also edible, but the corms are more flavorful and nutritious.
Montana tribes mashed or chewed the roots of glacier lilies and applied them to boils and skin sores, and the Okanagan-Colville Indians used the corms to treat colds and other upper respiratory infections. Eclectic physicians of the 19th century prescribed a related species, E. americanum
, for tuberculosis-related lymph node swelling and to relieve peripheral edema, hiccups, hemoptysis (couging blood), and vomiting. (Interestingly, too many fresh corms can actually trigger vomiting.)
While the diminutive and evanescent glacier lily may not hold a prominent place in your herbal armamentarium, it’s another of those useful and oh, so attractive botanicals that should be tucked into that corner of your brain reserved for “rarities.” Sources
- Personal Notes, Stephen Christensen
- Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Glacier Lily, Yellow Fawn Lily. Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. Houghton Mifflin, 2002
If you asked a dozen people to list their top three favorite herbs, you’d probably see lavender cited on all twelve lists. If there’s such a thing as an herbal archetype, it has to be lavender. Nearly everyone is familiar with lavender’s tall, stately flower spikes and its unique, calming aroma. However, not everyone is aware of lavender’s medicinal properties or its contribution to herbal lore.
Lavender’s virtues have been recorded by various peoples for at least three millennia. The ancient Greeks, who called lavender nardus
after the Syrian city of Naarda, used liberal quantities of the plant in their purifying baths. (Indeed, lavender’s generic name is believed to have stemmed from the Latin root lavare,
which means “to wash.”) Lavender was employed in Egyptian mummification rituals and was prized by the Phoenicians and Arabians for its perfume. As one of the herbs used to prepare the holy essence in biblical temples, lavender figures prominently in the Song of Solomon: “nard
and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices…”
The medicinal properties attributed to lavender are so diverse as to tempt the urban herbalist to plant only a few clumps of Lavandula
to meet any possible contingency. As an aromatherapeutic agent, lavender is reputed to relieve stress, abort migraines, allay anxiety, reduce agitation in demented persons, and cure insomnia. Lavender flower tea is used for treating insomnia, restlessness, and stomach irritation. When applied topically, lavender has been used to eradicate bacteria and fungi, re-grow lost hair, heal rashes, clear away acne, and assuage burns. (One well-worn tale relates the early twentieth-century travails of René-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist who plunged his burned hand into a vat of lavender oil following a laboratory accident. The remarkable pain relief and rapid healing that resulted from this seemingly rash act led the scientist to further inquiry, which eventually launched the modern discipline of aromatherapy.)
Although most herbalists will attest to the safety of lavender oil—many say it’s the only essential oil you should apply full-strength to your skin—lavender oil can cause irritation, contact dermatitis, and photosensitivity when used at any concentration by allergic or sensitive individuals, and the likelihood for such problems increases even in non-sensitive people when the oil isn’t diluted. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends adding 2 to 4 drops of lavender essential oil to a couple cups of boiling water for inhalation therapy, and mixing 1 to 4 drops of lavender oil with a tablespoon of base oil (almond, olive, sunflower, jojoba, etc.) for topical use. However, you can place a few drops of lavender essential oil directly on an infuser, pillow, handkerchief, sachet, or even a shirt sleeve if you’d like to employ it as an aromatherapeutic agent. And lavender is available in a wide array of ready-made products, including soaps, bath gels, perfumes, lotions, wands, shampoos, mists, teas, tinctures, and extracts.
Many authorities advise against the internal use of lavender essential oil, reporting that it is potentially toxic at any dose. In contrast, The Complete German Commission E Monograph
cites several “approved” uses for lavender oil, including those that entail internal doses of 1 to 4 drops (up to 80 mg) daily. Similarly, lavender’s safety during pregnancy and lactation is a matter of controversy: some sources cite concerns about lavender's propensity for triggering uterine contractions (particularly during the first trimester) while others claim lavender actually relaxes
As with all herbs, a few commonsense precautions should be observed when using lavender. Obviously, if you’re allergic to lavender, you shouldn’t use any preparation that contains its flowers or oils. To avoid sensitization, don’t apply undiluted lavender oil to an open wound or broken skin. If you use other supplements or take prescription medications—particularly those that are sedating—use lavender with caution. Finally, if you’re pregnant, consult your obstetrician or midwife before adding lavender to your daily routine. Sources
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Lavender
- Aromatherapy Workbook. Marcel Lavabre, 1990. Healing Arts Press
- Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998
Red clover (Trifolium pratense
) is a source of many nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, chromium, phosphorus, potassium, thiamin, vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and niacin—which explains why this legume enjoys wide use as livestock fodder.
Humans, too, find red clover a tasty and nutritious addition to their menus (after all, it’s a member of the pea family). Red clover blossoms can be scattered, crouton-like, over a salad, and its leaves can be lightly steamed and served as a side dish. (Red clover is also the source of a popular and flavorful honey.)
And, if its dietary attributes don’t provide an adequate excuse to grow a clump or two of red clover in your yard, keep in mind that generations of physicians and native healers have used this herb for treating whooping cough, bronchitis, asthma, menopausal symptoms, premenstrual syndrome, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, prostate enlargement, and even cancer. Red Clover’s Distinguished History
Way back in 1890, before the age of high-powered drugs and similarly potent patent attorneys, Parke-Davis (now a subsidiary of Pfizer) introduced Syrup Trifolium, a formulation of red clover, prickly ash, burdock root, poke root, Oregon grape, and potassium iodide. Syrup Trifolium was marketed as a blood purifier and—for a brief time—found some utility in cancer therapy.
In 1898, red clover was listed in King’s American Dispensatory,
the bible of Eclectic Physicians. Even before then, the Eclectics used red clover blossoms as an alterative and blood purifier, and its inclusion in their Trifolium Compound was the basis for another anti-cancer preparation, the Hoxsey Formula.
In his book, The Green Pharmacy,
Dr. James Duke (one of the world’s leading authorities on herbal healing traditions) touted red clover as a cancer preventative and a treatment for menopausal symptoms, menstrual cramps, and even as an aid to smoking cessation. Evidence of Red Clover’s Benefits Is Controversial…but Intriguing
Research has revealed that red clover is a rich source of isoflavones, or “phytoestrogens,” a class of organic compounds with antioxidant and estrogenic properties. These compounds hold promise for a variety of reasons, but, as of 2008, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine maintained there was insufficient evidence to show that red clover is effective for treating any health condition.
Be that as it may, studies suggest that red clover could be of use in several situations: Cardiovascular
: Red clover’s isoflavones have evoked an increase in HDL cholesterol—the good cholesterol—in some clinical trials, but not in others. In addition, red clover may improve arterial compliance, or elasticity, and its coumarin acts as a mild anticoagulant, or “blood thinner.” All of these properties could prove beneficial for people at risk for heart disease. PMS and Menopause
: Isoflavones bind to estrogen receptors on human cells, providing a weak estrogenic effect in situations where natural estrogen levels have fallen. This has obvious implications for women who suffer from menopausal symptoms (hot flashes, vaginal dryness, moodiness, etc.). Even more compelling is the evidence that phytoestrogens—by blocking the effects of circulating estrogens—exert a protective effect in individuals with estrogen-sensitive tumors (breast, ovarian, prostate, uterine, etc.) However, there is insufficient data to recommend the use of red clover or any phytoestrogen-containing plant in these patients. Osteoporosis
: Estrogen stimulation is important for maintaining bone mass in elderly women. With the decline in estrogen levels that occurs during menopause, isoflavones could slow bone loss by attaching to cellular receptors in bone. Preliminary evidence shows potential benefit, but, again, the data is insufficient. Cancer
: Some studies have suggested that red clover isoflavones inhibit cancer cell growth and/or interfere with angiogenesis (a tumor’s ability to establish a blood supply). However, since isoflavones also exert a weak estrogenic effect, some scientists fear they might actually contribute to the development and growth of estrogen-sensitive cancers. Given the recent evidence of phytoestrogens’ protective effect in estrogen-dependent malignancies, this issue is far from settled.
Red clover appears to be safe for most adults. Individuals who are at risk for or who have been diagnosed with estrogen-sensitive cancers should avoid red clover until more is known about its effects in these settings. In addition, people who take warfarin or other blood thinners should consult their physicians before taking red clover.
- Treating Cancer with Herbs, an Integrative Approach. Michael Tierra.Lotus Press, 2003. Pg 240
- The Green Pharmacy. James A. Duke. Rodale Press, 1997. Pp 325, 328, 399-400
- Tice J, et al. Phytoestrogen supplements for the treatment of hot flashes: the Isoflavone Clover Extract (ICE) study. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2003;290(2):207–214)
- Chedraui P, et al. Effect of Trifolium pratense-derived isoflavones on the lipid profile of postmenopausal women with increased body mass index. Gynecol Endocrinol. 2008;24(11):620-4
- Mueller M, Jungbauer A. Red clover extract: a putative source for simultaneous treatment of menopausal disorders and the metabolic syndrome. Menopause. 2008;15(6):1120-31
- Occhiuto F, et al. Effects of phytoestrogenic isoflavones from red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) on experimental osteoporosis. Phytother Res. 2007;21(2):130-4
- Powles T, et al. Red clover isoflavones are safe and well tolerated in women with a family history of breast cancer. Menopause Int. 2008;14(1):6-12
Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest once believed that sleeping beneath a Western Red Cedar would evoke vivid dreams. During their purifying rituals, people of the First Nations drank infusions made from red cedar boughs. Having trekked through fragrant groves of these noble conifers – and having spent a few nights sharing transpired air with them – I’d have to say those early Americans were on to something.
Red cedars (Thuja plicata) played an important role in the natives’ material world, too. Cedar timber and bark were used to construct housing, and they were crafted into totem poles, masks, water vessels, canoes, instruments, utensils, and ceremonial items. The roots and bark of red cedars were woven into cordage, baskets, textiles, and even jewelry.
In addition (since familiarity with the natural world was deeper then, and nothing was ever wasted), the essences of red cedar were inculcated in native healers’ medicinal lore.
Natives knew that mature, fallen cedars could rest upon the forest floor for generations without rotting, a property they attributed to the spiritual nature of the tree. Modern science holds that this durability stems from a trienolone called thujaplicin, an antifungal that is unequalled in the natural world (it also happens to be a potent antibacterial and antioxidant). Red cedars are also rich in flavonols, procyanidins, quercitin, kaempferol, volatile oils, and catechins (the same stuff that gives green tea its good name).
Native healers used red cedar for treating fevers, sore throats, coughs, colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculous infections, diarrhea, boils, heart and kidney problems, menstrual disorders, ringworm and other fungal skin infections, toothaches, arthritis, sore muscles, vaginitis, and bladder irritation. Eclectic physicians and herbalists in America and Europe have exploited Western Red and Northern White Cedar for many of the same maladies, as well as prostate problems, incontinence, and syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Modern research confirms the antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, and antioxidant activities of thujaplicin, as well as the immune-stimulating effects of various red cedar extracts. Red cedar enhances phagocytic activity in human granulocytes (a special class of white blood cells), which is important for fighting off bacterial and fungal infections.
Like all good medications, red cedar has side effects. Because it stimulates uterine contractions, pregnant women should not use red cedar externally, internally, or in aromatherapy. Red cedar can be highly immunogenic, and allergies to the tree’s oils, extracts, tinctures, salves, infusions, and decoctions are fairly common. Skin irritation caused by red cedar oil can be reminiscent of poison ivy dermatitis (loggers are quite familiar with this particular aspect of “cedar poisoning”). Apply the oil to a very small area and observe for a couple of days to determine how you’ll respond to it, and never slather red cedar oil over broad areas of your pelt.
The Western Red Cedar is one of my favorite evergreen trees. Its longevity, durability, visual appeal, and aroma make it valuable in industry, in the rural landscape, and in the forest canopy. Its diverse healing properties are on a par with some of the most respected medicinal plants.
And, on a warm summer evening, spreading your bedroll beneath the arched branches of a cedar could transport you to a world you haven’t visited for a long, long time.
If you’re a devotee of broad, manicured lawns, you’re probably not a fan of wild violets. Joyfully living up to their moniker (“Johnny-jump-ups”) the multicolored blossoms of Viola tricolor
erupt with utter abandon in driveways, meadows, pastures, and waste areas from early spring until late fall. And they’re more than happy to punctuate – if not overrun – that close-cropped expanse of turf you toil over every summer weekend.
But violets are more than just troublesome weeds. Of the 400 to 500 species of Viola
scattered across the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, most have benefited mankind in one way or another. (If you’ve ever tucked a flat of domesticated pansies into a flowerbed, you’ve rubbed knuckles with violets, so you’ve at least profited from their cheerful appearance.)
Violets are good food. Their steamed leaves and flower buds, rich in beta-carotene, make an excellent potherb. When added to soups, violet blossoms act as a thickening agent, much like okra (but with less slimy results, in my opinion). Violet-leaf tea is soothing and calming. When used as a salad garnish, violet blossoms add a touch of whimsy as well as nutrition.
Violets have a long and respected history as medicinals. One common name for wild violets, “heartsease,” alludes to the herb’s reputation for decreasing blood pressure and alleviating cardiac congestion (there’s also the more romantic slant: an infusion of wild violets will ease a broken heart). Viola
species have been touted for epilepsy, asthma, headaches, skin problems (including psoriasis
, cradle cap, and acne), sore throats, fever, and coughs. Their anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties make violets useful for relieving arthritis, cystitis, and kidney stones, and their flavonoids help support blood vessels
. The roots of violets are laxative and emetic (should you ever need either of those services). More than one tome has extolled violets as helpful for, or even curative of, cancer. In his books, The Way of Herbs
and Treating Cancer with Herbs, an Integrative Approach,
Dr. Michael Tierra reports that violet infusions and poultices, when taken internally or applied externally, help soften and disperse tumors of the breast, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract.
As usual, a nod to the phytochemists helps round out this essay on medicinal herbs. The salubrious constituents of violets include mucilage, salicylates, aglycones, cytotoxic cyclotides (hence their antitumor activity), rutin, quercitin, kaempferol, apigenin, and carotenoids, to name a few.
So, the next time you feel compelled to launch a scorched-earth crusade against those diminutive purple-and-yellow-faced weeds in your lawn, sit down, kick off your shoes and socks, thread a few violets through your hair, turn your own face toward the sun, and let the lawn go.
- The Way of Herbs. Michael Tierra, L.Ac., O.M.D. Pocket Books, 1998
- Treating Cancer with Herbs, an Integrative Approach. Michael Tierra, L.Ac., N.D. Lotus Press, 2003
- The New Age Herbalist. Richard Mabey. Simon & Schuster, 1988
- Indian Herbalogy of North America. Alma R. Hutchens. Shambhala Publications, 1973
All images copyright 2012, Stephe
Scientists say that odors are potent memory cues, and I’m inclined to agree. Whenever I smell wild roses, I am transported to a place of chirring cicadas, laughing waters, and lurking trout…
Years ago, the banks of my favorite fly-fishing streams were festooned with rambling tangles of wood rose whose heady aroma enveloped me as I roll-casted toward the shadowy places where fish lived (or so I hoped). Even if the trout weren’t rising, I could linger for hours, hip deep in the roiling torrent, and inhale that ethereal fragrance.
I haven’t visited any of those watercourses for nearly three decades, except in my mind – and wild roses are my conduit.
Roses, whether wild or domesticated, are among the most popular flowers on the planet. After all, what would Valentine’s Day be (or first dates, or weddings, or golden anniversaries) without roses? What landscaper hasn’t draped an arbor or graced a sunny bed with a rose? Roses have secured an immutable foothold in the hearts of romantics and gardeners alike (I do recognize the redundancy in that statement), but a lot of rose-lovers aren’t aware that their beloved plants have uses beyond the amorous and ornamental.
At one time or another, probably all of the world’s 100 or so species of roses have been used medicinally. In America, the Costanoan Indians employed the hips of Rosa californica
for treating colds, sore throats, fever, indigestion, rheumatism, and kidney problems. Members of the Okanagan-Colville tribe drank rose tea when taking sweat baths. Various other Western tribes used rose flowers and hips to reduce pain, relieve “clogged stomach,” make body and hair washes, and subdue childhood fevers.
Rose-leaf poultices are suitable for bites, stings, skin ulcers, rashes, and puffy eyes; an infusion of rose stems makes an excellent spring tonic. (By the way, the roots of roses possess many of the same salutary properties as the stems, flowers, leaves, and hips, but I avoid digging up the roots of an herb unless that’s the place where the medicinal constituents are; once the roots are gone, so is the plant.) Rose hips have served as a rich source of vitamin C since time immemorial, but they’ve been commercially exploited for this purpose since the mid-20th century. And, since rose hips cling to their parent plants throughout the winter, they provide good forage for birds and other wildlife – as well as an occasional misplaced hunter or fisherman.
Although most of the herbal lore associated with roses is derived from wild varieties, garden roses, too, are endowed with medicinal properties. Rosa gallica,
a domesticated European red rose, is used as a nerve and heart tonic, and it is helpful for treating sore throats, earaches, headaches, uterine cramps, and mouth ulcers.
So, the next time you have swollen eyelids, a cold, or a few body aches – or if you’re just overworked and a bit stressed – brew up a cup of rose petal tea, ladle in a teaspoon of honey...
…and I’ll meet you on the river’s verge.
Images copyright Stephen A. Christensen, MD
- A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Steven Foster, Christopher Hobbs. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2002
- Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Michael Moore. Red Crane Books. 1993
- Edible and Useful Plants of California (California Natural History Guides). Berkeley. Charlotte Clarke. University of California Press. 1977