Herbal Medicine –
Looking back, moving forward!
One of the first things I learned about herbal medicine was the American Indian name for plantain --
“white man’s foot.” They saw that it grew
wherever white men walked.
The white settlers themselves called it “rabbit lettuce,” noticing that rabbits favored it. That name was passed down through country tradition from generations of people who were forced to live a more natural life than we do today.
My family always picked wild greens like winter cress, dandelions, and garlic for salads during the “starving time” every spring, when nothing cultivated was growing yet. Most country people did, then. Later we gathered lamb's-quarters, pigweed, and poke as potherbs, growing in our yard and garden. What a good way to invest in natural health!
BUYING HERBAL MEDICINE
While none of us today live as close to nature as the Native Americans or the early settlers, we can still benefit from herbal remedies. Alternative traditions around the world have kept natural compounds available, and with modern transportation and, especially, the Internet, it’s easy to obtain thousands of different powders, tinctures, extracts, and assorted other preparations.
In the West, too, an awakening has begun. Some remedies are commonly accepted, even by many conventional medical practitioners. Such herbal medicines as
, effective at clearing the mind and enhancing memory, and
for helping to build immunity, are widely used.
When you’re starting out, there’s a big advantage in selecting plants that are known to be edible:
they aren’t going to harm you, unless you’re allergic –
it’s a good, safe place to begin.
The same thing applies to cooking herbs used in herbal medicine. And you can make your own discoveries – maybe, after drinking sage tea, your allergies will abate, though no one mentioned it! Self-health is a very individual thing.
When you’re ready to go deeper, you can find a huge amount of information on the Internet. Start by doing a search such as “herbs blood pressure,” and you’ll find more entries than you have time to read! But look at the types of site, the caliber of the sources, and the extent to which they agree. Be careful of wild claims!
Personally, I tend to believe sites that have a position somewhere in the middle of the road between conventional and alternative, such as the University of Maryland, above – they aren’t likely to make extravagant claims for an herb.
If most sources agree about the uses of any herb, you can probably use it safely, as suggested, if none of the warnings apply to you. Consider also the dosage that is recommended, as a guide. Then, of course, you have to find a reliable vendor. Like any other worthwhile activity, it takes direction and patient learning.
GETTING HELP FROM PROFESSIONALS
If you can afford it, the ideal way to begin is to seek out a qualified alternative medical professional, such as a naturopathic doctor, or practitioner of Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine, and learn from them.
Some of them are also trained and licensed modern doctors, a very advantageous combination, since they will often begin with the mildest preparations possible, and increase strength only as needed. Why use a cannon to swat a fly?
These people understand the risks with certain natural remedies, and are prepared to offset them, since substances that are poisonous at times are healing to certain individuals at other times. That’s why the saying developed, “One man’s poison is another man’s cure.” It’s true even for ordinary food – for instance, shrimp can kill some people, while others thrive on it.
FINDING WILD HERBS
You can also find wild plants that are used in herbal medicine. What is vital is to start small – learn to recognize a single plant, growing wild. Then add another. What matters is being absolutely sure.
When I was in the Army, I remember talking to a nature-minded fellow-soldier from West Virginia about gathering wild food and herbal medicine (I was reading Euell Gibbons – see below). He interrupted me jokingly, saying, “I’m not sure natural is enough -- snakebite is natural, and so is a bump on the head. But they aren’t good for you!” I didn’t argue, because he was right! Be cautious – it’s your health.
There are a great number of books on herbal medicine, spread over the last 500 years in the West, and much longer in the East. One of the most respected in the West is A Modern Herbal, written by Maude Grieve in the 1930s, a classic, two-volume work dealing with properties and history of herbs in a highly educated manner. You probably wouldn’t want to sit down and read through it, but as a reference, you might want to own it.
Of course, there are many other books, older and more recent. The most valuable of these, to our way of thinking, are those written by people who are using herbal medicine right now, and integrating it with medical science.
Euell Gibbons is a good source for learning about wild plants. He wrote Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Stalking the Healthful Herbs, and other books oriented toward taking advantage of wild plants, and did much in the ’70s to raise awareness of the edible plants growing around us.
GROWING YOUR OWN
Common herbs like the sage and basil shown above are not hard to raise. I like sage especially, because it is bulletproof and very cold hardy. A 4'x8' mulched bed gives me fresh herb tea and material for herbal concoctions all winter long.
Through long cold periods, I cover it with a thick blanket at night, whenever it drops below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don't cover it and it gets damaged, you can still use it -- now it's dried sage. If a 4x8 bed is too large, because you want smaller quantities of herbs for cooking, remember that Square Foot Gardening is perfect for this. Or, maybe you would like to try growing them inside. If so, see Window Sill Gardening for some tips.
CHARTING YOUR OWN WAY
I have discovered remedies myself, occasionally, through simple observation and inner awareness, only to find them later in some herbal book. Train yourself… and keep your eyes open. You may discover natural medicine in your own backyard – the ancient Greeks treated wounds with bread mold, long before penicillin was discovered and isolated. And South Pacific islanders used banana peels on wounds, as an antibiotic.
Although the conservative element discourages this kind of “do-it-yourself” natural-health thinking, it’s not that hard to acquire a safe, rudimentary knowledge of medicinal herbs.
Most people would recognize dandelions growing in their yards. But this prevalent “weed” has many benefits. Its Latin name, taraxicum officinale, means “the official remedy for ailments,” and it isn’t harmful unless you eat too much of it. But then, that’s true of most foods – even if it's organic. Knowing something about dosage is always necessary.
It takes time (and patience) to learn about herbal medicine, but since it can help you live longer (and better), the investment is worth it!
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