The History Of Herbal Medicine A Capsule Summary

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Penelope Ody, in her book, The Complete Medicinal Herbal,1 has compiled a very nice summary on the origins of western herbalism, starting with ancient civilizations of Egypt, the Greeks, and Romans. She continues with Islamic influences from the Arab world, Ayurvedic medicine from ancient India (ajur meaning life and veda meaning knowledge, refers to "knowledge of how to live" and places emphasis on good health being the responsibility of the individual), and Tibetian herbalism. The legacy of Chinese herbal medicine and its basic principles of five elements (wood, water, metal, earth, and fire) is cited in great detail together with beautiful illustrations in color of Chinese herbs. She has a marvelous treatise on herbs and herbal medicine that came out in magnificently illustrated herbals during the dark ages in Europe. She ends her synopsis with North American Indian herbal traditions and practices and a nice summary on the use of herbs in modern medicine.

The use of herbs in modern medicine is well expressed in terms of home accessible homeopathic medicine (the use of herbal drugs to treat human disses). Don DeSander has prepared the following account based on his ow research and personal experience.

Research Project

It has long been known that Native Americans used the native plants surrounding them to treat everything from relieving headaches to curing snakebites. After the general population's 75-year hiatus from folk healing, medicinal herbs are once again gaining popularity in the treatment of disease and illness. However, because of our society's aesthetic influences, there is now more emphasis on the appearance of medicinal plants than before. By this I mean that homeopathy is being used in conjunction with home gardening and landscape design. Therefore, this research project focuses not only on the medicinal values of six herbs (Echinacea purpurea, Achillea millefolium, Verbascum thapsus, Nepeta cataria, Monarda didyma, and Geranium maculatum), but also, on creating a visually stimulating medicinal garden to display these native plants (Figures 4.1 through 4.4).

Figure Chinese Traditional Medicine
FIGURE 4.1 Making and planting a medicinal plants garden in Saginaw County, MI. Shown are purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) plants in the foreground. Planters are Donald and David DeSander (May, l997). (Photo by Don DeSander.)

Because my father owns a landscaping business, I felt this was the perfect project for me in order to broaden my knowledge of medicinal plants. Although I was being introduced to a field in which I had no previous knowledge, I always had a good sense of landscape design and experience with decorative plants on which to fall back. My plant selection was based on herbs used by Native Americans because their usage reflects my own feelings towards homeopathy,

FIGURE 4.2 A lakeside view of same medicinal plants garden shown in Figure 4.1. (Photo by Don DeSander.)
FIGURE 4.3 Flowers of the prairie coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, growing in the Gateway Garden and University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens (October, l996). (Photo by Don DeSander.)
FIGURE 4.4 Close-up view of a single flower of the prairie coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. (Photo by Don DeSander.)

namely, using one's natural surroundings to treat oneself rather than introducing foreign techniques or materials into the body.

All of my selected medicinal herbs have been used by Native Americans and are still being used by them today. They have used E. purpurea (purple coneflower) for everything from sore throats to snake bites.2 Being one of the most popular herbs in homeopathy, it is an immune system booster which has antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties.3 Although bitter tasting (as I can attest), Echinacea root is excellent for treating headaches, fevers, bladder infections, rheumatism, hemorrhoids, and numerous other wounds and illnesses.4 V. thapsus (mullein) was used to treat coughs, congestion, and tuberculosis. In addition, Native Americans smoked the flowers to counteract pulmonary diseases.5 The flowers of A. millefolium (yarrow) were used by the Great Lakes Ojibwa Amerinds to break fevers and a root decoction was used on skin "eruptions". Various other parts of this plant also are used for wounds, toothaches, diarrhea, gas, intestinal ailments, and even chapped hands.6 The Otsego Indians were noted for their use of M. didyma (Bergamot or Oswego tea). This pleasant tasting herb is still widely used in teas today. It is also recommended for coughs, sore throats, nausea, flatulence, and menstrual cramps.7 Although N. cataria (catnip) came from Europe, the Great Lakes Ojibwa used a decoction from this plant to cure fevers.8 The tops are also used in a tea as a sedative and to heal symptoms of colds, headaches, and indi-gestion.9 An infusion made from the G. maculatum (storksbill or wild geranium) roots was used by the Great Lakes Ojibwa to treat diarrhea and to help relieve mouth soreness.10

The three most common ways that I encountered for the extraction of these herbs' medicinal properties and administering them were through tinctures, teas, and decoctions. The recipes I used were a combination of those found in Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs and interviews with people who have had firsthand experience with these herbs.11

Of the three, tinctures are the most potent. I combined 4 oz (114.3 g) of powdered or finely cut Echinacea herb with 1 pt (0.48 l) of 100 proof (50% ethyl alcohol) spirits (vodka, brandy, or gin). I poured 1 pt (0.48 l) of vodka over 4 oz (114.3 g) of Echinacea root which I had powdered using liquid nitrogen. I then sealed the container and turned it on its side, rotating it daily for a 2-week period. After 2 weeks passed, I allowed the plant material to settle and then strained off the liquid into another clean container using a paper filter circle (32 cm diameter). I used this as a preventative measure for illnesses. I mixed 2 to 5 drops (2 to 5 ml) of the tincture with a cup (230 ml) of water both in the morning and at night throughout the winter months. To disguise the taste of Echinacea, I sometimes combined the dosage with orange juice. However, dealing with the taste was apparently worth it. The treatment succeeded as an immune system booster. I also avoided the flu that seemingly all my friends had developed.

Herbal teas are a fun and much better tasting way for me to extract the plants' medicinal constituents. The general recipe for teas is to use 1 oz (28.57 g) of dried tops (leaves, flowers, and stems) per 1 pt (0.48 l) of water or 2 oz (57.2 g) of fresh herbs per 1 pt (0.48 l) of water. Keep in mind that the herb will soak up approximately one quarter of the total water you use. Also, be sure to use distilled water (you don't want chlorine or other chemicals in your tea). I poured boiled hot water over the herb in a large pot, and then allowed the herb to steep for 15 min, but one can steep it for longer periods. The longer the infusion is under the hot water, the stronger the tea's potency. Meanwhile, I kept a tight lid on the pot because I didn't want any of the medicinal products to escape. If you can smell the aroma of the tea, then your tea is losing its potency. Finally, I strained the infusion into another container once again using a paper filter. The general dosage is a half-cup (115 ml) three times daily.

I found the process of making decoctions to be very similar to teas. In fact, the only difference between the two is that decoctions are used for tougher woody parts of herbs such as roots, bark, stems, and leaves too heavy for teas. I used the same ratio of plant material to water as I did for teas: 1 oz (28.5 g) of dried plant material for every pint (0.48 l) of distilled water. Using the same method as teas, I allow the herbs to simmer in hot water that is just below boiling (100°C or 212°F) for 30 min. Then, I separate the plant matter from the liquid and store it for use. Even the dosage is similar to that of teas: a half-cup (115 ml) three times daily. Once again, I found this form of treatment much more tasteful than tinctures as long as I didn't use any Echinacea in my decoction.

One of the primary goals of this project is simply to provide a general introduction into the realm of medicinal plants in preparation for further studies on the subject. But with homeopathy's resurgence, I feel this project is also important because it aims to show that healing with plants can be accessible and attractive to everyday gardeners. I particularly liked this project because of its combination of history, design, and the introduction to medicine that it offered. Hopefully, in the end, this research will offer a link between the past human knowledge of plants and contemporary society's stress on beauty to attract weekend gardeners to experiment with something old yet new.

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