The first part of a series on herbalism and folk medicine.
So many of us oppose GMOs, Big Pharma, pesticides being sprayed on our food, the poisoning of our air, water, soil and earth. We can’t stand the system, but we know we’d be screwed without it if we got sick. This is why discovering the long-lost art of plant medicine is so important. In search of alternatives, we have to rediscover what our ancestors knew so well: that pretty much every tree, bush, flower and herb we see around us can be used to heal various illnesses. These medicines still grow all around us to this day, on every continent on the planet, and learning how to use them is our birthright. Here’s a wonderful quote by one of my personal heroines, the famed herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy. She once wrote, with passion and conviction:
“Man can never excel Nature in medical manufacture, because she makes the best ones. There is a herb (or several) to cure or relieve every ailment of man and animal, bird and insect; and herbs applied in agricultural practice will even cure crops of their diseases.”
“The human race should make a study of herbs and not be content to remain ignorant of a medicine which is man’s rightful inheritance, and which has only become lost to men through their ignorance and laziness and their departure from natural living.”
The growing interest in herbalism is a positive step in the right direction for humanity, after so many years lost in the wilderness of empire and consumerism. It’s amazing to realize just how many common plants you can use for a wide variety of diseases, from eczema and depression to flu and gallstones.
The following plants and herbs should ideally be gathered fresh from the countryside or garden, although they can be dried and stored for when needed. The best time to pick them is in the early morning (after dew has evaporated) in spring or summer. Leaves should be gathered while young, and their stalks trimmed off. Flowers should also be picked when young and freshly open, before they are visited by bees and other insects. Seeds should be left on the plant to ripen before being taken (a sign that seeds are ripe is the yellowing of leaves). Roots and barks should be gathered in early Spring or Fall. Don’t pick anything that is wilted, eaten by insects, faded, old or mottled. Finally (although not easy nowadays) you must bear in mind any man-made toxins on the plants. If you can gather them from a place that is sure to be pesticide-free, do it there.
Deciding which remedies to include here was difficult, so I chose those which are easy to find wherever you are. If you can’t find a specific plant where you live, consider buying the seeds online or check out your local health food or Chinese medicine shop for powders, ointments or oils. A note on measurements: the exact amount isn’t quite as important in plant medicine as it is in toxic pharmaceutical drugs, so ‘traditional’ ways of describing measurements (spoonfuls, cupfuls, handfuls etc) are sufficient in herbalism. Nature is gentle, so just use your common sense (and the internet if you have any doubts). Because of the huge number of plants that deserve to be on this list, this will be a three-part series, published on True Activist weekly and in alphabetical order. This week, magical plants A-G.
(Asparagus Officinalis. Grows wild in some parts of Britain, common across Europe and Middle East, cultivated in USA)
Wild asparagus (in addition to being delicious) is also a medicinal plant. The shoots contain asparagin, which is the most powerful natural remedy there is for urinary problems. It will any help gall, kidney and bladder issues, as well as boosting the lymphatic system and curing jaundice . Simply eat a handful of the shoots raw as and when needed.
(Arctium Lappa/Arctium Minus. England, Europe, some parts of northern USA)
Usually thought to be little more than a persistent weed, Burdock is revered in herbal medicine. This spiky purple plant protects against cancer and detoxifies the body. The root, herb and seeds can be used (usually as an infusion) to aid digestion and settle the stomach, and it is a great blood purifier. The root specifically heals scurvy, boils and rheumatism. Bruises, swellings and ulcers can also be cured with burdock poultices, as well as eczema, acne, scoriosis, and other dry or flaky skin problems. This amazing plant is also an effective treatment for gout, diabetes, cystitis, loss of appetite, and when used along with dandelion root it gives the liver an extra boost.
(Castanea Vesca/Fagus Castanea. Europe, North America, UK)
The leaves of the sweet chestnut tree have a reputation powerful in treating violent and convulsive coughs, such as whooping cough, and other irritable respiratory organ conditions. They can also relieve fever. Simply brew them as an infusion and take as and when needed.
(Taraxacum officinale. Temperate parts of Northern hemisphere)
Another plant that most presume to be just another annoying weed, dandelions are full of healing properties, from roots to flowers. Their leaves and stems are filled with a creamy white juice, which acts as a magic medicine for a whole range of problems. Dandelion cleanses the blood by neutralizing the acids and is an excellent diuretic and kidney tonic. It is a powerful remedy for all kinds of liver disorders (especially jaundice), and the root has been known to cure gallstones, gout, rheumatism and dyspepsia. To aid these illnesses, you need to roast the roots (best collected at the end of the year) in the oven at a low temperature for several hours (until you can smell a nice aroma). You then crush them into a powder to drink with hot water, known as ‘Dandelion coffee’. Real coffee can be added to taste. Dandelion is also an effective treatment for bee stings, warts and blisters (simply apply juice until healed), and can even be taken to fight diabetes and obesity. Just six leaves eaten raw daily will make a huge difference, or an infusion if you prefer.
(Sambucus Nigra. Europe, Britain, some parts of Northern America)
Elder is a hedgerow shrub that is sacred to many, and has such a potent healing properties it’s been known to cure blindness (by repairing nerve damage, for example during a bomb blast). Every part of the bush can be used for many purposes, from bark to roots. Elder encourages perspiration and eliminates toxins, The root can be washed and soaked to treat all lymphatic ailments. The bark is a strong purgative and can be made into a tincture (more information here) to relieve asthma and croup. For epilepsy, elder bark can be dried and powdered (remove from the inner side, powdered and drunk with wine either daily to reduce fits, or every quarter hour when a fit is imminent). The leaves are full of medicinal properties and can be made into green elder ointment to treat bruises, sprains, itches, ringworm, haemorrhoids, and skin conditions. They can be used as an infusion. Elderflowers can be distilled or dried, the water used to treat eye problems. As an infusion, elderflowers are a gentle laxative. The tea can also be used to treat coughs, colds and flu, and it purifies the blood. Making a poultice from the flowers is an effective treatment for wounds, scalds and burns, and also cures chapped skin and chilblains. Elder has a reputation for being a fantastic aid to beautiful and healthy skin and hair.
(Foeniculum vulgare. India, Middle East and Europe)
Fennel water is used as an ingredient in common tonics to settle babies’ stomachs and relieve colic. The leaves, hearts, roots and seeds are all beneficial, used as distilled water or an essential oil, made from crushed leaves. Fennel is an anti-depressant and also boosts the flow of milk in breastfeeding mothers. It can aid a wide range of ailments: arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, wind, anxiety and melancholy, cellulite, nausea, indigestion, cramps, urinary tract infections, gum disease, and detoxification of the body. Fennel is believed to give long life when taken regularly (fennel tea bags are easy to find).
7. Golden Seal
(Hydrastis Canadensis. Eastern USA, Canada)
This bitter herb increases circulation to the uterus and has been used for centuries to ease labor pains and heavy periods (but don’t use for prolonged periods if you are pregnant, and avoid if you have diabetes, glaucoma or heart disease). Golden Seal acts as an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory to also treat indigestion, constipation and help to regulate periods. It stops colds and sore throats if taken when the first signs appear, and it can cure bronchitis, sore sinuses and respiratory conditions. An all-round wonder ‘drug’, Golden Seal can be taken dried and powdered, as a tincture or an infusion, to strengthen the immune and digestive systems for a whole range of ailments. Native Americans used it as a dye for their clothing, and as a remedy for bad digestion and sore eyes. The root of Golden Seal eases constipation, sickness and vomiting.