Medicinal plants are more than simply objects with useful chemical and symbolic aspects. They are living organisms that are functionally embedded in the cultural fabric of social groups and institutions. They play an integral role in ideas of balance and cosmological order that often reflect sophisticated medical theories of the human body, the symptoms it experiences and their underlying causes.
Many different elements are involved in the complex of ideas and practice that comprises medicinal plant use. The exact constituents of a medicinal plant-related tradition vary from culture to culture to form a rich and diverse array of medical systems.
How Plants Cure
The prevailing scientific view is that all disease is caused on a molecular level. Similarly, a chemical drug produces its effect by entering a cell through a receptor (a chemical structure on the surface of the cell) that conforms to the shape of the drug molecule, like a lock and key.
In contrast though, medicinal plants, in many incidences and within various cultures, are described by their adherents as working on a higher physiological level. Astringents make muscle solids firm; diaphoretics promote perspiration by the skin, which makes them more versatile. A plant that increases the secretion of urine can also be used to treat kidney and bladder ailments or to eliminate body poisons. For example, tannins are compounds that bind with proteins in the skin and mucous membranes and convert them into insoluble, resistant tissues. So plants that are high in tannins may be used for a number of ailments such as; diarrhea, wounds, inflamed gums and hemorrhoids.
Medicinal plants commonly have several constituents working together catalytically to produce a combined effect which surpasses their individual activity. Modes of preparation and ingestion are also very important.
Common culinary plants that are medicinal plants
Onion (Allium sativum) and Garlic (Allium cepa)
In times gone by the onion was a basic food and medicine for the Greeks and Romans and the ancient Egyptians paid the pyramid builders with onions. The Egyptians regarded the onion bulb as a symbol of the universe and sacred to the mother-goddess, Isis. The consecutive onion skins about the centre corresponded to the concentric, layered spheres of Egyptian cosmology.
Firstly, one must never eat an onion that is going rotten, as onions absorb toxins and when going rotten they are full of them. It helps to hang an onion in a room where someone is sick as this will absorb toxins that are not visible to the eye.
It can be used as a poultice for septic sores, exterior inflammation on the skin, like boils and inflamed sores.
Onions stimulate the appetite, assist the digestion and alleviate coughs, sore throats and congested lungs caused by colds. An old cure for colds is to macerate an onion and mix it with three spoonfuls of honey. This is cooked for several minutes in water and then left to set. A teaspoon full is taken 3 or 4 times a day.
Garlic has long been a means of protection from evil spirits and in some cultures, like in Estonia, infants were supplied with amulets of garlic or it was placed under their pillows to fend of demons and witches.
The Garlic plant which was native to central Asia is used in China to treat high blood pressure and in India for abdominal tumours. The Jews used garlic cloves to treat melancholy and to expel worms while the Copts prescribed a garlic cure to cleanse the intestines and clear the head.
Today garlic is used not only to treat specific diseases but rather to enhance the body’s immune system and general state of being.
Garlic counters blood conditions that foster hardening of the arteries, heart attacks and strokes, as it contains alicin and other biochemicals which reduce low density cholesterol and the oxidation of other potentially harmful blood fats. It also promotes the regression of fatty deposits in the blood vessels and dissolves arteriosclerotic blockages in coronary arteries.
Garlic cleanses the blood by hindering the clumping of blood platelets, helping to dissolve existing blood clots and increasing both arterial dilation and capillary blood flow.
Diets rich in garlic are associated with low rates of cancer as garlic contains organic sulphur compounds which prevent carcinogenic chemicals from converting normal cells into cancer cells and may inhibit the growth of malignant cells.
The constituents of garlic break down dangerous nitrosamines in the stomach, colon and rectum and other chemicals which can cause cancers of the breast and esophagus.
The compounds of garlic also protect the cells against damage by heavy metals.
However garlic is not always beneficial — in large amounts it may produce anaemia, stomach inflammation and ulcers and suppression of testicular function.
Oats (Avena Sativa)
Oats are amongst the earliest grains to have been domesticated.
Oat groats (the kernels with the husks removed) and sprouts, contain amino acids, minerals, beta carotene, vitamins B2, K and E and they are also high in zinc content.
It is easily digested as a food in whatever form and is very suitable for children. It is highly recommended for diabetics and it eases inflammation of the mucous lining of the stomach as well as stomach ulcers, chronic diarrhea and constipation.
An oatmeal poultice helps soothe allergic skin conditions and a finely ground oatmeal face pack is an excellent skin cleanser and conditioner.
A tea made from oats is excellent for kidney ailments and is also a cure for liver complaints and dysentery as well as insomnia. It is beneficial too against colds of the throat and larynx, fever, loss of appetite and nervous exhaustion.
The boiled extract of oat straw strengthens the nervous system and is ideal for convalescing.
Too much consumption of oat derivatives may cause headaches and as a general cure uncooked oat flakes should be taken in moderate amounts.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
For over 2,000 years fennel has been an important culinary and medicinal herb. The Greeks wore wreaths of the herb and athletes ate the seeds as a health food and to control weight. The Romans ascribed twenty-two medicinal uses to fennel, one of which, the treatment for eye ailments, is also found in Coptic medical prescriptions. The uses of fennel have remarkable historical continuity. The Romans claimed to have discovered fennel’s use as an eye cure by observing snakes who after shedding their skins, rubbed against fennel plants to improve their eyesight. A snakes eyes are milky and apparently blind when it sheds its skin and clear after rubbing against the fennel.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
The leaves are fine and feathery upon stalks that can grow up to 1.5 meters high. It has a very distinct smell when the leaves are crushed and it tastes like liquorice. The yellow flowers are small and borne in a distinctive umbrella-like shape and they radiate out from one point. The seeds are divided into small segments similar to the carrot family.
For medicinal purposes, the seeds or fruits are mainly used, but the bulb of this plant is very edible and a delicacy on many tables. It is also used to increase mother’s milk and against colic in infants and it is a very good diuretic — enhancing the renal excretion of water. Generally it is used for the relief of digestive disturbances. An infusion of the seeds taken at night is very helpful against insomnia as well.
Mild and gently calming, fennel makes an excellent tea for treating coughs, flatulence, abdominal cramps and colic in infants and children. Having expectorant, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties, fennel has been used to treat hoarseness, catarrh, halitosis, asthma, headaches, dizziness, depression and delayed menstruation.
A general dosage: 25 to 40 gm. of seeds to 1 litre of boiling water, or in tinctures 60 to 80gm. soaked for several days in 1 litre of wine.
Fennel is also used as an antidote to snake bites and is an insect repellent.
Fennel stimulates the digestion and cuts the taste of oily species of fish.
Basil (Ocimum Basilieum)
Basil is often referred to as sweet or garden basil, or more archaically as St Josephswort.
It has mildly sedative, antiseptic expectorant, anti-flatulent and laxative properties. For medicinal purposes only the freshly procured plant, gathered before flowering, should be used. When dried the pungent leaves have a peppery taste.
When taken as a tea, basil alleviates stomach spasms and cramps, chronic gastritis, indigestion and constipation. Basil tea has also been used as a blood purifier and to stimulate lactation in nursing mothers. As a gargle, the tea is used to treat thrush and inflammations of the throat.
A tincture of the camphoraceous oil is applied by brush or in a compress to injuries and badly healing wounds or suppurations. It may also be rubbed on the temples to relieve headaches.
The freshly crushed leaves taken as a snuff or in a facial steam bath are used for headaches and colds.
As a digestive tonic the fresh herb or seeds are cooked in white wine with a little honey, and this will also reduce fevers.
And of course most of us are familiar with the extensive use it has in cooking.
Medicinal Properties of Common Weeds
These weeds are all beneficial in a culinary way and are beneficial to our health. Unfortunately these days we are accustomed to the limited vegetables that are produced at our supermarkets and many of these ‘weeds’ are never added to our food intake. Adding them during their season will add to our health as well.
Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella Bursa-pastoris)
Shepherd’s purse is a small, annual, evergreen plant with a rosette of slightly hairy leaves at its base. Arrow-shaped stem leaves have clusters of small white inconspicuous flowers at the top and triangular seed pods, which resemble old fashioned purses — hence the name.
It is a very common weed found in gardens, fields, waste ground and along roadsides. The whole plant, excluding the root, should be collected in the spring and summer and then bundled and dried in a shady place. The peppery young leaves can be used in spring salads or cooked with vegetables.
Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella Bursa-pastoris)
Although originally a native of the Mediterranean , shepherd’s purse is distributed today throughout the world. The plant was used medicinally by the Greeks and Romans to cure hernias, pustules and wounds. It was also used to induce abortions, expel gall, and when applied in the form of an enema, for sciatica.
Shepherd’s purse contains vitamin K which promote the clotting of blood in addition to blood-stanching peptide. The fresh juice or an infusion of the plant is effective in treating heavy menstrual bleeding and a ball of cotton saturated with the juice inserted into the nostrils helps stop nose bleeds. The plant or its juice may be used as a compress on cuts and wounds.
However its blood stanching effectiveness is inconsistent because of the variable presence of the active principle. It has been suggested that menstrual disorders are not alleviated by shepherd’s purse, but by a fungus which parasitizes it.
Shepherd’s purse tea improves the circulation by regulating the working of weakened hearts, especially in the elderly, regardless of whether blood pressure is high or low.
The tea is prepared by pouring a cup of boiling water over 1 – 2 teaspoons of the dried herb. After 10 minutes the liquid is drained. One or two cupfuls are taken a day.
Shepherd’s purse has diuretic and stimulant properties and has been used in remedies for catarrh, liver and gall ailments, diarrhea, stomach ulcers, diabetes, hemorrhoids, bleeding of the uterus, hemorrhages and ulcers of the bladder and ureter.
The tea is a spring tonic and can be used as a gargle and mouth and throat disinfectant. When prepared with Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) the tea has been used as a remedy for colds, gout and rheumatism.
Its medicinal properties are immense — though a ‘weed’ it is very beneficial in so many ways.
It was believed that in order to be effective, the plants had to be picked with only one hand.
In Medieval Europe in order to stimulate teething in children the dried pods were sewn in a red linen patch and hung around the infant’s neck. After all the teeth had appeared the amulet was thrown into running water.
Common Dock (Rumex Lanceolatus)
This herbaceous plant has wonderful large green, smooth leaves that look very similar to spinach leaves and is a great favourite with the porcupine. The leaves are slightly wavy on the edges, borne on tall stalks that can grow up to 30 or 40 cm. This plant produces clusters of pale yellow flowers which eventually turn into pale brown little fruits with dark brown seeds. There are two types of common dock — the Rumex Crispus and the Rumex Lanceolatus — but both are coveted by the porcupine and have equal healing properties.
It is widely distributed along rivers, dams and various wet places and this naturalised exotic weed has become common in many parts of the world.
Traditionally, the roots are mainly used for internal parasites (tapeworm and roundworm) and the whole plant is widely also used for vascular diseases and internal bleeding. Externally it gets applied to abscesses, boils and tumours.
The roots and leaves are boiled in water, or at times in milk and taken as an infusion, but for external topical uses the roots and leaves get pounded and then applied like a poultice.
The laxative effect of common dock is due to chrysophanol and related glycosides. The oxalic acid is toxic in high concentrations but is medically used as a haemostatic agent.
Common Dock (Rumex Lanceolatus)
Plantain (Plantage lanceolata)
Plantago lanceolata and P. major — also known as Ribwort — are well known and validated as some of the most versatile plants of the world. They can be found everywhere growing as naturalized exotics, or weeds, along the road and borders of cultivated lands. They originated in Europe, northern and central Asia, but have become naturalized in just about every country on the planet. How it landed up in South Africa is unclear, but judging from the long list of ailments it is used for, it probably came in as a medicinal plant. It was certainly carried far and wide by word of mouth!
Plantain (Plantage lanceolata)
The leaves are edible and can be eaten fresh in salads. They are rich in mucilage, salicylic acid and astringent tannins, have a styptic, anti-inflammatory effect and are still used in home remedies today all over the world as diuretics and astringents. They are also rich in potassium and other chemicals with antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, capillary resistant and mildly laxative and diuretic effects.
The list of ailments treated with either an infusion of the leaves, or macerates, fluid extracts, syrups and juice made from the plant, include: asthma, bladder problems, bronchitis, colds, coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, emphysema, eye irritations, fevers, gastritis, gastro-enteritis hoarseness, hay fever, hypertension, inflammation of the mouth and throat, insect bites, irregular menstrual flow, intestinal complaints, kidney stones, rheumatism, skin diseases, sunburn, ulcers, wounds.
The fresh leaves are collected shortly before flowering and dried well. A tincture made from crushed leaves in alcohol serves as a remedy against toothache and a poultice made of the leaves is applied to bleeding wounds.
An infusion of the dried seeds is applied as a soothing eye lotion; it is used for dysentery, diarrhea or for intestinal worms in children as well. The roots are used to treat infertility problems.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
This plant is also known as holy thistle and has been used as a household remedy for mild digestive and chest ailments, oedema, jaundice, leucorrhoea and as a blood purifier.
An infusion of the fruits are effective in treating sciatica, spitting blood and coughing blood and vomiting in cases where these are symptoms of liver and spleen ailments.
They also stimulate the gall and soothe the pain in gallstone-colic.
The plant contains silymarin, which protects the liver from infections such as viral hepatitis and helps to regenerate damaged livers and stimulate the production of liver cells.
The mashed fruits are also effective in preventing liver damage from the ingestion of solvents and other toxins.
As a long term remedy, teas of the plant are beneficial for those with cirrhosis. Silymarin is poorly absorbed by the digestive system so the drug is most effective taken through the skin. The concentrated doses necessary in a tea, however, produce no adverse reactions.
As a treatment for ulcers of the limbs and varicose veins, the pulverized fruits are applied in a compress.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officianale)
This wonderful plant was often referred to as the shepherd’s clock as it opens at five o’clock in the morning and closes in the evening and it is said that if the seeds of the puff balls fly off when there is no wind it is a sure sign of impending rain.
The leaves, flowers and roots are gathered before flowering time, although the roots have a higher content of inulin, which is beneficial in treating diabetes and anaemia due to liver malfunctions.
Dandelion contains taraxacin and choline, which stimulate liver cell metabolism, and a sugar, laevulose, which is easily assimilated by diabetics. The plant is also rich in vitamins A, B-complex, C and E as well as calcium, iron and potassium.
Individuals prone to or suffering from liver and gall ailments, rheumatism anaemia and diabetes benefit from a 4 – 6 week seasonal treatment using dandelion.
Infusions of the plant stimulate the flow of bile and promote digestion. As such they are a gentle remedy for flatulence, atonic syspepsia and disturbances in gall bladder secretion.
Dandelion tinctures and deliciously bitter teas have been used as household remedies to treat eczema and skin eruptions, oedema, gout and varicose veins.
The plant can be applied in plasters to swollen glands and skin diseases and the milky juice of the stem is rubbed on to warts. The juice of the root is highly active and may be combined as a spring and autumn remedy with nettle and watercress juices.
The roots are prepared like asparagus and taken as a spring remedy to improve liver, gall and pancreatic function.
The leaves are very edible and chopped finely in a salad adds flavour and nutrition.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica and Urtica urens)
The hairs on the leaves of the stringing nettle have globular, silicified tips that are fragile and quartz-like and break off when brushed. The resulting sharp point injects histamine, which causes allergic reactions and acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter ordinarily found in nerves, which amplifies the sensation of pain.
However the nettle is rich in vitamins A and C, carotene, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, calcium and other minerals.
The high mineral and vitamin content increases body metabolism. The nettle also has astringent, tonic and strong diuretic properties, and is presently utilized in treating urinary disorders caused by enlarged prostates and reduced heart and kidney activity.
Nettles stimulate the gastro intestines, pancreas and gall. Its multiple active constituents make it beneficial for a range of diseases.
Nettle teas have been home remedies for arthritis, gout, shortness of breath, phlegm-congested lungs, bronchitis, nervous eczema and hemorrhoids.
The pulverized root, cooked with sugar in sweet violet syrup is an excellent remedy for whooping cough and inflamed throats.
Decoctions of the plant help lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure and increase the number of red blood cells.
Rich in copper, iron and salicylic acid, which improve the condition of the blood, nettle is used to treat secondary anaemia, chlorosis, diabetes, uterine hemorrhages, and hives and to diminish menstrual and other bleeding.
The bruised leaves are applied as a poultice to alleviate burns, scabs, wounds, indurate spleens and neuralgia.
The leaves may be used as a gargle to sooth toothache and in foot baths for rheumatism, or they can be burned and inhaled to treat asthma. People have been beaten with fresh nettles as a treatment for rheumatism, paralysis, pleurisy, measles and scarlet fever.
The juice, applied with a stiff brush or massaged into the scalp, removes dandruff and invigorates the hair.
The leaves and tops are collected in late spring to early summer. The roots are at their best in June and July. The plants are best collected with scissors and gloves and boiling in water removes their sting.
Nettles finely chopped are beneficial in a salad and can also be cooked and added to stews. Once chopped or cooked the sting is taken out of the plant.