Many prescriptions today are derived from plants that have been cultivated for centuries because of the medicine they contain.
Choosing plants for a garden can be a matter of asthetics, for consuming as food, or for their healing properties.
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History of Medicinal Wild Plants
Long before modern medicine, early settlers relied on nature and its plants to provide cures for common ailments, some of which science supports today.
To early settlers, God and His divine creations held all the answers for mankind. If one would listen, Nature had cures for any ill. Even without modern medicine, they had an advantage when using Nature as medicine—the keen power of observation.
Many of the medicinal properties attributed to wild plants were gleaned from simply observing their effects. Plants such as dandelion and sorrel were deemed spring tonics because of their high levels of vitamin C. They appeared to cure scurvy, caused by a winter drought on fresh vegetables.
Early Use of Medicinal Wild Plants
Medicinal wild plants were known for treating four broad categories of ailments: digestive, respiratory, skin, or women’s conditions. Some wild plants had general medicinal properties such as blood purifiers or liver tonics.
In order to know how to use a plant, folk medicine looked to God. A belief first published by German mystic Jakob Boehme, became the basis for use of medicinal wild plants. Known as the “doctrine of signatures,” the belief was that God marked plants with a sign that provided man with the key to its use.
A plant with large toothed-leaves like toothwort became a folk remedy for toothaches. Heal-all with its purple flowers appearing as a person opening his mouth became a cure for sore throats and fevers. Boehme provided numerous examples of plants resembling human and animal features.
Modern Use of Medicinal Plants
Today, use of medicinal plants is big business. According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition, dietary supplements are a huge industry, with Americans spending over $4 billion in 2005 only. Many take herbal supplements for a variety of reasons from depression to weight loss to menopausal issues.
Then as today, the value of wild plants and their medicinal properties is still respected and practiced. The difference today is scientific study and federal regulation. The question remains if the claims of these medicinal properties are true.
Scientific Proof of Medicinal Properties
It is widely known that Nature has supplied the derivatives for many modern pharmaceuticals. Rainforests alone provide the basis for over 25 percent of Western drugs and supplements. However, some folk medicine cures also have potential use that science bears out.
Wild mustard, for example, contains isothiocyanates, which are recognized by the National Cancer Institute as potential cancer-fighting drugs. The list goes on of plants with potential anticancer properties including common wild plants such as yucca and stinging nettle.
More common examples exist as well. Science has confirmed many folk remedies of purple coneflower or Echinacea. Salicyclic acid derived from willow bark is a precursor for formulation of aspirin.
Of course, not all uses for medicinal plants have been proven. As one noted botanist once said, “All plants are edible once.” Always use caution when investigating uses of medicinal wild plants. If in doubt, consult a doctor or a pharmacist.
The Practice of Plant Medicine
Plant medicine is a broad term used to describe various plant disciplines; identify the differences between herbal medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy and aromatherapy.
Plant medicine has been practiced by native tribes for centuries; ancient Egyptians were amongst for the first to record their use of plants in medicinal practices and the Ebers Papyrus of ancient Egypt records many uses of plant medicine. Other ancient civilizations, such as the Chinese and Indians, still practice ancient plant medicine today in the form of Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine.
Ancient use of plant medicine has progressed to evolve into many different plant disciplines; today, in addition to the traditional plant medicine of the ancient world, ‘new’ practices of naturopathy, homeopathy, aromatherapy and modern herbal medicine have developed with the help of modern day science. There is often confusion between the differences between these various practices of plant medicine.
The Definition of Herbal Medicine
The practice of herbal medicine uses the flowers, seeds, roots, bark, leaves or berries of the plant for medicinal purposes; herbal medicine can also be referred to as botanical medicine, herbalism or phytomedicine. Today, the modern practice of herbal medicine is becoming more accepted in the conventional medicine world as clinical research, analysis and quality control is capable of demonstrating the treatment value of herbal medicine.
The Definition of Naturopathy
The practice of naturopathy, or naturopathic medicine, is used by doctors who teach the patient to improve the body’s ability to fight disease through a number of natural solutions; these solutions include diet, lifestyle, exercise and use of natural therapies. Naturopathy merges together traditional therapies with conventional scientific methods; natural and traditional therapies may include the use herbal extracts and homeopathy.
The Definition of Homeopathy
The practice of homeopathy works on the premise of treating ‘like with like’, that is, ingesting natural preparations that will cause a similar effect to the symptoms presented. Homeopathic remedies are heavily diluted and contain little, if any, pharmacologically active ingredients; a homeopathic doctor will also assess a patient’s mental and physical state before prescribing a remedy.
The Definition of Aromatherapy
The practice of modern day aromatherapy is relatively new; Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist, is accredited with ‘discovering’ modern day aromatherapy in 1928. Although ancient Egyptians and other ancient civilizations used aromatic oils made from plant substances for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, the oils used were not distilled by the same methods in which essential oils are used today.
Modern day aromatherapy uses essential oils of plants to treat a number of medicinal problems; essential oils are basically the ‘life blood’ of the plant and are extracted from the roots, flowers, leaves, berries and seeds in a variety of ways. Essential oils are chemically complex in their make-up; a qualified aromatherapist will have had substantial training in the use of essential oils.
The Effectiveness of Plant Medicine
Although there is much debate in the conventional scientific world as to whether the practices of herbal medicine, naturopathy, homeopathy and aromatherapy work, there are an increasing number of people returning to the practice of plant medicine. Indigenous people such as the Native Americans, the Maori and the Aborigines have used plants medicinally for centuries and are still using them today.
However plant medicine is used or practiced, and in whatever form, it is evident that the practice of plant medicine is increasing into today’s modern world; with relevant research, both conventional scientific medicine practices and traditional plant medicine have the opportunity to be used either together or exclusively of each other.
Common Annuals and Perennials
1. Garlic (Allium sativum)
It grows as a bulb and is an effective pest repellant along with its use in medicine. Peter Josling, who directs the Garlic Center in Great Britain, performed a study which showed garlic was able to prevent the common cold in almost two thirds of volunteers.
Some anecdotal reports also suggest garlic is able to lower blood pressure and act as an antioxidant. Topical garlic preparations, as well as cannabis, are being studied in an attempt to treat the antibiotic resistant staph infection known as MRSA.
2. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
It grows in the wild as a weed and can be as effective as some antidepressants in fighting depression, with lower side effects. Independent studies conducted by Klaus Linde at the Center for Complementary Medicine Research in Muncih, Germany showed similar outcomes with St. John’s Wort and commonly prescribed antidepressants after 12 weeks of daily use.
3. Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium)
It is commonly grown as an ornamental plant but has shown to be effective as a treatment for migraines because of its ability to restrict the release of serotonin. It acts in similar manner to acute migraine medicines as an anti-inflammatory agent which acts specifically on blood vessels located in the brain. Feverfew is taken as a daily supplement, however, and is not very effective for on-demand treatment of acute or rapid onset migraines.
4. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
It increases liver function. It has been used in Europe as an antidote to liver toxicity from mushrooms or alcohol. It can also be effective against hepatitis and may help to lower cholesterol.
5. Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
It is grown as an ornamental in practically any climate. It is a reseeding annual and will survive in areas of extreme climate changes and poor soil conditions. When the mature seed pods are scored with a knife, they will bleed a milky sap which is collected and dried.
This resulting material is rich in the analgesic morphine. As reported by M. D. Merlin of the University of Hawaii, use of opium from poppies dates back as far as 4,000 B.C.
6. Marijuana (Cannabis sativa)
Marijuana, although used throughout history as an intoxicant, also has a variety of health benefits which are being researched and proven effective outside of the United States.
Cannabis is able to control glaucoma, neuropathic pain, severe nausea and clinical depression. One compound found in cannabis, cannabidiol, inhibits the growth of cancer cells as reported by the Universita di Napoli e Universita di Salerno, Italy. Cannabis is a reseeding annual which grows similar to other invasive weeds, hence the nickname.
The Sweet Violet is a well known Spring flower, native to Europe; however, Violets also have many medicinal properties used to treat many common problems.
Violets are the traditional token of love. The scent of Violets was valued by both the ancient Greeks and the Romans, and the Violet flower was said to have been a sacred token to Aphrodite. Napoleon and the Empress Josephine also treated Violets as symbols of love and Josephine had Violets embroidered into her wedding dress; in addition, Josephine grew Violets on her French estate at Malmaison.
Violet flowers and leaves can be dried and used in scented potpourri; for culinary purposes, fresh flowers can be used in salads and crystallized violets are used to decorate cakes. Violets have powerful perfumery qualities and the fresh Violet flowers and leaves are used to make absolute perfume material.
9. Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Coriander is of the plant family Apiaceae (also known as the Umbelliferae plant family); it is often known by the synonym Chinese parsley. Coriander has been used for centuries and it is reported that coriander seeds were found in the Egyptian tomb of King Rameses II.
Ancient Greek physicians reputedly used coriander in healing; in the East, coriander has been used for its medicinal properties in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
Coriander is an aromatic, annual herb; it only grows up to three feet in height. It is a hairless plant with umbels of delicate white or pink flowers which blossom through June and July. Coriander also produces seeds which turn from green to brown and earns the plant the synonym coriander seed. Coriander is native to the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia, although it is now commonly found in southern Europe, North America, Russia, Romania and former Yugoslavia.
The herb basil is a member of the Lamiaceae plant family; there are many varieties of basil but the most common species of basil are sweet, or French, basil (Ocimum basilicum) and exotic basil (0cimum basilicum). These two species of basil are botanically the same in plant classification but there are subtle differences between the species. Other species of basil include Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), East Indian basil (Ocimum gratissimum), bush basil (Ocimum minimum) and hairy basil (ocimum canum).
Basil is a well known Mediterranean herb used in the kitchen to add flavor to many dishes; it is also used in expensive perfumes and soaps. Holy basil, the Indian species of basil, is considered to be a sacred herb and is offered to the god Vishnu; holy basil is often grown in gardens and outside of temples for protection and luck.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) used to be called all heal in medieval times; the root of Valerian has some of the most powerful healing properties for treating stress and was used in World War I to treat shell-shocked war casualties. In the West, the herb Valerian has also been used to treat insomnia, migraine, rheumatism, dysmenorrhoea and intestinal colic; in China, it is used in the treatment of back ache, bruises, menstrual difficulties and colds.
Common Valerian is also known as garden heliotrope and is a perennial herb growing up to five feet in height; it is a member of the Valerianaceae plant family. Valerian has pink, white or purple-white flowers and a hollow stem with dark leaves; the roots have a strong aroma and are short and thick. Valerian roots are commonly above ground.
Valerian is a native of Europe and some parts of Asia; it is now naturalized in North America. It grows both in partial sun and partial shade; Valerian attracts worms, so it is a beneficial herb in the garden. For medicinal use, the flowers should be cut back so that the roots absorb all the energy.
Valerian also produces an essential oil which is obtained by steam distillation of the rhizome roots; the essential oil is olive to brown in color and has a balsamic, musky aroma. There are over 150 species of the herb Valerian worldwide and essential oil varies depending upon which plant it was distilled from; for example, Eastern varieties are usually different to Western varieties.
12. Common Foxglove
Common foxglove has a long history of medicinal use in Europe and is a popular cottage garden flower; however, foxglove is also poisonous and should be used with care.
The earliest recorded name for the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes glofa, literally meaning the glove of the fox. However, one of its more common original names was Folksglove and it is associated with folk stories and legends of fairies who supposedly haunted the natural habit of the foxglove in wooded hollows. It is more commonly believed that the common Foxglove name refers to the shape of the foxglove flowers which mimic the finger of a glove.
The common foxglove is a member of the Figwort plant family and should not be confused with other foxglove family members such as the yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) and the Grecian foxglove (Digitalis lanata).The common foxglove is a biennial or perennial plant which grows to a height of up to six feet; it is known for its bell shaped flowers, traditionally purple/pink in color, but now found in other colors, due to cross-hybridization.
The common foxglove flowers between June and August and is native to Europe, where it has grown for centuries. It is found in country cottage gardens (alongside hollyhocks, old fashioned roses and fragrant climbing plants) wooded hollows and forests; foxgloves spread to America in the 18th century when their medicinal properties became known. In Europe, common foxgloves are known for attracting bumble bees and in America they are known for attracting hummingbirds.
It is the leaves of the foxglove which are medicinally used, despite being highly poisonous; common foxglove is extremely useful in treating heart conditions.
In homeopathy, common foxglove is also used for depression, migraine and insomnia. However, it is extremely important to take note of the following cautions when using common foxglove medicinally.
13. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
The plant is widespread and familiar, with flower stalks growing about knee-high, topped by an umbel of small white blossoms that resemble wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne’s lace, but are less lacy, more densely compact, and slightly grayish in hue. At the peak of flowering, the blooms have tiny yellow stamens that usually go unnoticed but exude a delectable honey-like aroma when held close to the nose.
The basal leaves, which sprout directly from the ground when the plant is young, are long, narrow, and feathery, its leaflets dividing into smaller and smaller components so that the effect is wholly one of grace and softness. One “pets” a patch of yarrow leaves just for the gentle pleasure of its touch. The leaves that sprout from the flower stems are similar in shape but smaller and said to be less potent medicinally than the basal leaves and flowers.
Yarrow is common in dry fields, and while it can be found in gardens, herbalist Matthew Wood says it is more effective medicinally when harvested from poor, dry, rocky soils. He attributes yarrow’s action in the body to its ability to open up the venous circulation, decongesting the capillaries to remove heat and tenderness.
Most wild yarrow has white flowers, although there are popular cultivars in yellow, magenta, and other hues. Some herbalists use yellow yarrow, but most stick to the white.
Energetically, yarrow is known as a protective plant. Take a drop of tincture before having x-rays to protect against radiation, or burn dried yarrow in ceremony where protection is desired. Famously, yarrow stalks were used to throw the I Ching in ancient China.
1. Willow (Salix spp.)
Willow is a species of deciduous trees and shrubs which contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. In the 5th century, Hippocrates included the willow bark as a relief for fever in his writings on medicine.
2. Mimosa (Mimosa tenuiflora)
Mimosa is an effective treatment for a variety of emergency skin injuries. It initially produces analgesic properties which last for a few hours. It contains novel tannins and minerals that have protective qualities, as well as assisting in the rebuilding of skin cells.
In a 1997 report titled “Pharmochemistry of New Compounds from South American Plants”, Anton, et al. reported a preparation of powder was used successfully in the response to a natural gas explosion in San Juanico, Mexico where thousands of burn victims were treated. In most cases injuries to the skin were fully healed in weeks.
3. Cinchona bark, (Cinchona spp.)
It is the major source of quinine which at one time was the only treatment against malaria. Bolivians had been using the bark traditionally for generations but was first discovered by Europeans during the 17th century. The source for the malaria transmission by mosquito was not discovered until 1898 by Sir Ronald Ross and, until then, the illness remained largely a mystery. It took almost two hundred years after the health effects were discovered to isolate the active ingredient, quinine.
Throughout this time, enormous sums were paid for treatment. Due to xenophobic natives and a series of unfortunate events, Europeans were only able to obtain the bark from Bolivia. In 1860 a British botanist named Clements Markham was finally able to cultivate cinchona trees from about three hundred stolen seeds, thereby creating a supply within the means of every citizen.
These are just a few of the many plants that contain substances used in medicine.
Chemical compounds vary from plant to plant even within species, and identification can be tricky. For this reason it is absolutely necessary to consult a professional if you think a medicinal plants would be appropriate for your own treatment. Always consult your doctor before taking any new medicine.