Moments of Magic
It's June, it's hot and the plants and the humidity are telling me that Summer has officially arrived here in Southeast Ohio. It feels like Spring has literally evaporated, and with it any time that a gardening herbalist might have to sit at her computer and write. The days are longer by light and shorter by deed...as some would say.
It has been a miraculous season here at the Medicine Garden in Hocking County, Ohio, and when I write miraculous I mean truly filled with moments of magic. This space, tucked back into a 3000-acre parcel of the Wayne National Forest, has been a major overall-work-in-progress for the past three growing seasons. It is now finally starting to come around...as I attempt to grow full-sun medicinals, like Echinacea, in less-than-full-sun conditions (and quite neurotically, I might add). As the Spring unfolded, I was reminded, bloom by bloom, how fortunate I am in my daily work.
I have also been honored this season to have had the opportunity to teach and present at various events and conferences throughout the region, visiting new places, meeting new people, and sharing the stories of Ohio's medicinal plants (both native an non-native) with other plant enthusiasts. I am always impressed by humanity's desire to learn more about the medicinal virtues of the plant kingdom. I need no further proof that there is a yearning for this knowledge deep inside our primal hearts. So for those of you whom have joined me on some of these plant adventures, I am grateful for your company! I would like to thank, with my deepest sincerity, Brooke and Erica of the Ohio Herb Education Center for their unwavering support of my herbal antics. I would also like to thank the organizers of the Ohio Certified Naturalists Conference, Appalachia Ohio Alliance, and Dawn Combs of Mockingbird Meadows, for inviting me to participate in their good works.
Throughout the journey of this season I have attempted to document and share many of these magical moments of Ohio's medicinal plants with a larger audience (...on Facebook and Instagram). I have called this photographic chronicle 'The Meaning of Spring', which represents 45 different species of Ohio's medicinal plants in bloom between March and the beginning of June. So without further ado, I present to you the highlights from this photo series, with a bit more medicinal detail about each species. (Please note that I am no Steven Foster, Jim McCormiac, or Andrew Lane Gibson although I do try to take a nice picture...with a cell phone). I highly recommend the blogs of all three of these gentlemen, as well as Steven Foster and Jim Duke's 2014 Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America (It's a beauty!)
In addition, I must add, that none of the following statements have been approved by the FDA. The following information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease and anyone considering the use of herbal medicines should consult their healthcare professional before doing so...(an so on and so forth).
Hmmm...the commoners, plants we see on the daily. We recognize them as fleeting moments in our peripheral vision or nuisances in our gardens. They are not native species, but one could hardly call them invasive (as in my mind they were introduced to this land so long ago that they have found their balanced place within the ecosystems they inhabit). Knowledge of their medicine is an amalgamation of Native American and European medical traditions, which coalesces in the dramatic climax of the American Physiomedicalists and Eclectics of the late 19th through early 20th centuries. This knowledge, passed down through generations of physicians, herbalists, root doctors, and healers, is still called upon in modern times both within a clinical setting as well as around the homestead. The Commoners...we are surrounded by allies.
Ground ivy (glechoma hederacea, lamiaceae)
Ahhh...if you are a gardener you may be familiar with this one. This is ground ivy, also known as creeping Charlie (a testament to its habit of crawling all over viable gardening locations). A member of the Mint family, this herb is native to Europe and western Asia, now naturalized in gardens, hedges, wasted ground, roadsides, and lawns across North America. Ground ivy can be quite prolific in both sun and shade, and is really quite pretty when it hits full bloom in April-May (or at least I think so). It is the leaves and flowers, or aerial parts, of the herb that are used in herbal medicine and it is considered ripe for harvest when in full bloom.
When pulling this 'weed' out of your gardens, you may have noticed its slightly aromatic nature? Like the majority of its Mint family cousins, ground ivy possesses a small amount of essential, or volatile oil, which leads to a interesting smell and flavor as well as medicinal virtues. In fact, before the use of hops, ground ivy was one of the principal plants used by the Saxons to clarify and flavor their beer (another common name for the plant is Alehoof). Other chemical constituents within this species that are valued by herbalists include tannins (which impart a toning and drying effect on the mucous membranes...think 'tanning hide'), a bitter crystalline lactone called Marrubiin (which is also found in Horehound) that when isolated from the whole plant acts as a strong expectorant among other things), flavonoids (including Rutin) which impart an anti-inflammatory action, and a substance known as urolic acid which has also been associated with anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor activity (among a whole list of other biological prowess). There are many, many other chemical compounds found in ground ivy that impart a medicinal action to the species as a whole. And as herbalists, we understand that an herb is more than just its 'active constituents'. The medicine of this herb, like all herbs, is a sum of all its parts.
Both traditional and modern indications for the use of this species as a medicine can be summarized by its astringent, expectorant, and anti-inflammatory actions. Ground ivy is thought to be specific for excessive mucous and damage to the mucous membranes of the urinary, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems. I have found this herb, as both a tea and a tincture, to be specifically useful in chronic allergic conditions of the upper respiratory system that are characterized by excessive, watery catarrh. Think red, hot, inflamed mucous membranes which are oozing copious amounts of watery discharge in a desperate attempt to put out the fire (and it just ain't working cause something keeps adding more kindling). It is an ideal tonic for some individuals who suffer from both seasonal and chronic allergies, toning up the mucous membranes so they are less reactive and irritable and can serve as a stronger filter against those pesky allergens. Interesting that it is so prolific and in full bloom in the spring...don't you think?
RED CLOVER (TRifolium pratense, fabaceae)
You have just met a powerhouse herb. This is red clover and she is a beauty! Member of the legume family, Fabaceae (so related to bean and peas and such), red clover is another European native that has taken up permanent residence here in North America. It is a common sight in fields and pastures and along roadsides and other waste places. Like many plants in this family, red clover is a nitrogen fixer. This means that the plant hosts bacteria on its roots that convert nitrogen into a form that plants can utilize (and nitrogen is a vital element necessary for plant growth and survival). For this reason It is commonly grown as a cover crop. It 'heals' and nourishes the soil, much like it does to our bodies.
First and foremost, red clover is a nutrient dense herb, much appreciated in both the herbal medicine and natural food communities for its high levels of calcium, chromium, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, and vitamin C. Now a days, it is not uncommon to see red clover seed in sprouting mixes (along with your alfalfa). In fact, this species is rich in a whole host of chemical constituents which have been shown to impart healing biological activities in human beings (if you don't believe me, check out this list: Red Clover). A good example would be isoflavones (specifically genistein) which are often also classified as 'phytoestrogens', meaning that they act as weak estrogen agonists/antagonists with molecular and cellular properties similar to sex hormones. Isoflavones are also common in other types of leguminous plants such as soybeans. These nutrients are converted by the flora, the beneficial bacteria of the digestive tract, into compounds that have estrogen-like actions.This can be incredibly useful when, like during the menopause, you are running a little short in the hormone department.
There are other roles for isoflavones in the human body, for example one clinical trial whose aim was to determine whether or not dietary supplementation with isoflavones from red clover affected ambulatory blood pressure and forearm vascular endothelial function in postmenopausal women with Type II Diabetes. 16 of these women who were all being medicated by diet or hypoglycemic therapy completed a randomized double-blind crossover trail of dietary supplementation of isoflavones from red clover (50mg / day) for 4 weeks. The overall conclusion of this study was that isoflavone supplementation from red clover may favorably influence blood pressure and endothelial function in postmenopausal type 2 diabetic women (Howes, J., et al., 2003)**. Check out this really cool overview of the uses of phytoestrogens and the pros and cons thereof.
So getting away from isoflavones and looking a the whole herb, red clover has a long and stout history of medicinal use. It is the flowering tops are employed, either as a dried herb for tea or extracted in alcohol as a tincture. Herbalists classify this herb as a deobstruent, alterative, anti-inflammatory, and expectorant. It is believed to act upon what is sometimes referred to as the lung-skin axis (a Western interpretation of a complex concept of Traditional Chinese Medicine). For example, childhood eczema can manifest as adult asthma, and vice versa. In this regard, red clover is considered an excellent safe and supportive remedy for both children and adults suffering from lung afflictions such as bronchitis and asthma. It is also indicated for lymphatic stagnation, swollen encysted glands, and chronic inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Overall, this herb is considered detoxifying, nourishing, rebuilding, and cleansing.
You see, I told you...a powerhouse.
**HOWES, J., et al., 2003. Effects of dietary supplementation with isoflavones from red clover on ambulatory blood pressure and endothelial function in postmenopausal type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Obes Metab 2003 Sept; 5(5): 325-32.
Dandelion (taraxacum officinale, asteraceae)
I think I could write an entire book about this species (and its many forms). It is going to be hard to keep this short and sweet but I will try. This is the lovely (and to some, noxious) dandelion aka. tooth-of-the-lion or piss-your-bed (he he, I will explain). Again, not a native species, but so darn common it might as well be. Hardly troublesome ecologically speaking, this is a favorite flower of the honeybee (a species that is struggling in our modern world of herbicides). And although some folks wrestle with this plant as it invades their lawns, others enjoy its company and delight in the little rays of sunshine popping up from within the fescue.
The name of the genus Taraxacum is derived from the Greek words ‘taraxos’ which means ‘disorder’ and ‘akos’ which means ‘remedy’. The first mention of Dandelion’s use as a medicine comes from the Arabs of the tenth and eleventh century who called it ‘Taraxacon’ and was a highly-favored plant of the great Arabian Herbalist, Avicenna. Dioscorides wrote about it, as did Gerard and Parkinson. The point is, this plant has been around medicine chests (or baskets or whatever) for a really, really, really long time.
All parts of the plant are used medicinally: roots, leaves, and flowers. The dried root was listed as an official medicine of the United States Pharmacopoeia until 1926 (right about the time we see the final downfall of the American Botanical Movement). In general terms, herbalists consider the root an indispensable bitter tonic, strengthening to the digestive process whilst also assisting the liver in the synthesis of bile, digestion and assimilation of fats, and detoxification of undesirable substances from the blood.. In this regard, it also acts as a mild laxative. Dandelion root is considered useful for a sluggish liver, which can often be associated with tiredness, irritability, skin problems and headaches. It is also utilized in herbal medicine in support of blood sugar regulation.
As the root is considered to have a greater affinity for the digestive system and liver/gallbladder, we see the leaf of dandelion being utilized more for support of the urinary system and the blood. They are predominantly considered nutritive, diuretic, and alterative, meaning that they are both building and cleansing to the blood.
'Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.'
Dandelion leaves are incredibly nutritive, being particularly high in Folate, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper, and are a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Iron, Potassium and Manganese. The potassium part is key...especially when we talk about the powerful diuretic action of the leaves (hence the herb's other common name 'piss-your-bed'). More often than not dieresis can cause a leaching of potassium from the body (ie why one might be prescribed a potassium-sparing diuretic as part of their blood pressure medication schedule). The leaves also impart a bitter flavor, and can also stimulate appetite and digestive function.
And ahhh...those lovely flowers. They make a fine wine as well as a powerful skin cleanser for acne, eczema, age-spots etc.
Native Trees and Shrubs
In moving away from some of the more common non-native 'weeds', to hone in the miraculous native Ohio flora and its medicinal significance, it is important to remember that there is a difference between growing herbal medicines and harvesting your herbs from the wild. There are many factors to consider, including the damage one might do to the ecosystem they are trampling in or whether or not they are causing damage, disease opportunity, or death to the species they are harvesting. That being said, for many herbalists (who make their own medicines) there is an ethical code that governs the decision making process of 'to harvest or not to harvest' and even 'how much to harvest' given the time, place, and species in question. We have a dedicated non-profit organization, United Plant Savers, that was founded to assist us in identifying those species that are 'At-Risk' of being over-harvested and that should be left alone in the wild. They have recently published their 'At-Risk Assessment Tool' in the Journal of Ethnobiology which anyone interested in wild-harvesting medicinal plants should definitely check out.
Black haw (viburnum prunifolium,adoxaceae)
This is one of Ohio's most beautiful understory/edge habitat shrubs, and to me it always marks the beginning of the true growing season. Black haw, a native to eastern North America, enjoys fertile soil of the low, moist edges of our deciduous hardwood forests. The blue/black berries from which it gets its common name are a delightful food for birds, rodents, deer, and even humans (although they are rumored to cause significant nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea). It is the bark however, that is used medicinally with the exception that the bark of the root was traditionally and historically considered to be a superior remedy. This begs the question...how does one harvest the bark or root bark of a shrub without causing irrevocable damage, opportunity for disease, or death of the plant? This is a very good question. I personally harvest the twigs, in an act of pruning the prunifolium, and extract their medicinal principles as a tincture. No root harvesting here.
It is more than likely that our current medicinal uses for black haw come to us from various Native American traditions throughout the species native range. One of the best examples of this comes from the Cherokee people who used the bark of the root to treat muscle pain and spasm. Through time this tradition shifted to more the specific uses we see in modern herbalism. William Cook, in his Physiomedical Dispensary of 1869, speaks about the bark (or preferably the root bark), as a toning astringent for the uterus. He writes of uterine weakness, leucorrhea, and excessive, passive menstruation or what we might call flooding from the uterus, and that 'the influence it exerts over this organ is of the best character'. However, It was the Eclectic physicians who really emphasized its use as an antispasmodic. Still focused upon as a 'female medicine', the Eclectics believed black haw to be one of the best uterine sedatives in their materia medica (they also believed it to be a remedy of their own development). Harvey Wicks Felter wrote about these specific indications in his 1922 The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology, and Therapeutics: Uterine irritability and hyperaesthesia; uterine colic; dysmenorrhea, with cramp-like pelvic pain; severe lumbar and bearing-down pelvic pain; painful contraction of the pelvic tissues; false pains and after-pains.
So there you have it, modern herbalists now use the bark (most often from twigs and branches) for painful spasm of the uterus. It is also useful in cases where pelvic toning is appropriate, for example as sometimes found to be the case with endometriosis or uterine fibroids. Where an antispasmodic herb is deemed appropriate, black haw is definitely considered. I have found benefit using this herb for general muscle tension, arterial tension, and gastrointestinal tension especially that which is associated with heightened levels of stress or anxiety.
Fringe tree (chionanthus virginicus, oleaceae)
This is definitely one of my favorite sights of Spring. This is Fringe tree, also known as old man's beard due to the long strands of white petals that dangle from amidst its dark ovate to oblong leaves in late Spring. Fringe tree is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are found on separate trees (and some say the male flowers are more beautiful). The female flowers turn to dark blue drupes that serve as a late Summer food source for wildlife. Very showy, and very fragrant. Fringe tree, a member of the Olive family, is another shrub native to the moist deciduous forests eastern North America. Due to its exquisite beauty, fringe tree can also be found in horticultural installations and private gardens across the county. I've seen rather large and robust specimens growing in full sun, but the literature tells us the fringe tree prefers the moist, part shade conditions that the edge of a woodland provides.
So as the story goes with black haw, it is the bark of fringe tree's roots that was traditionally considered the best medicine...and when you harvest the root, there is a high likelihood that you are going to kill the plant (bummer to damage or kill such a beauty). When we look at the Native American Ethnobotany Database from the University of Michigan (search Chionanthus), we find both the root bark and the trunk bark mentioned as external remedies for cuts, sores, and wounds. It appears that it wasn't until fringe tree showed up in the texts of Physiomedicalist and Eclectic physicians that we see a real emphasis on the root bark. In both these medical traditions, fringe tree was considered a bitter tonic that had both stimulating and relaxing effects (stimulating to liver and digestive function, but relaxing to the smooth muscle of the digestive and billiary tract). It was employed to gently encourage the secretion of bile from the liver and gallbladder whilst also relieving the spasm and pain that is sometimes associated with gallbladder disease.
Modern herbalists respect this plant for its bitter, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It is considered a specific liver and gallbladder tonic that stimulates bile flow, eases pain, and modulates inflammation associated with gallstones and cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder). There is still an ongoing debate surrounding the use of the root bark vs the root of the trunk bark (especially in regards to the lignans), but I have found the fresh bark from the trunk and twigs efficacious enough to not have to dig up roots...and hence kill the tree.
Wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens, hydrangeaceae)
I absolutely adore this plant. It can grow in the most tough and unusual places in the rich forest understory of eastern North America...and it grows prolifically around here in the Medicine Garden. I am under the impression when most people think of hydrangea, they think of the bright blue to pink colored varieties that are a common feature of gardens and parks. There is even a 'oak-leaf' variety. Although not as obviously showy as some of these horticultural cultivars, this species is absolutely breathtaking in full bloom (and not to mention incredibly fragrant).
This medicine was well known amongst the Cherokee people of the eastern United States who used the root for calculus conditions of the kidneys and bladder. It is through this native use that Hydrangea found its way into the American Eclectic movement as introduced by Dr. S. W. Butler of New Jersey. The Eclectics also used Hydrangea to aid in the removal of gravelly deposits in the bladder. It was thought to have a soothing action upon the mucous membranes of the urinary system, allaying any irritation of the urinary passages especially when due to the presence of passing stones. Hydrangea was thought to improve the nutrition of these mucous membranes in general, and as an alterative was used to wash away unhealthy accumulations thereof.
Hydrangea is still appreciated by modern herbalists as a demulcent diuretic, the root of which is used to stimulate balanced kidney excretion and soothe irritated mucous membranes of the urinary system. On the other hand, Hydrangea is also appreciated for its ability to shift chronic catarrh and excessive mucous states of the bladder, leading to what is often referred to as an amphoteric action. Beside these modern uses of hydrangea, it is also employed for benign enlargement of the prostate amongst other such inflammations of the urinary system such as acute nephritis, cystitis, and urethritis. One must be careful with this herb however, as it has been associated with severe digestive upset. One could argue that there are more gentle alternatives for supporting the urinary system and the prostate....
There is nothing in the world more glorious to me than hiking through the woods in Spring in search of our native medicinals. I feel like a kid in a candy store. The forest is alive and vibrant with its interesting and unique herbaceous layer, and there are treasures at every turn! Many of these woodland medicinals have a very long history of human interaction. The knowledge of their medicinal value comes to us from across cultures and through many, many generations. For most of our woodland medicinals, it is the root of the plant that is used. In some cases, harvesting a portion of the root and leaving the rest to regrow is sufficient enough to ensure the continued existence of the plant. However, with most of these species this in not the case. Wild harvesting of medicinal roots is prohibited on State lands (such as state parks) as well as many Federal lands (National Parks and National Forests). Harvesting on private lands can also be illegal depending on the state and the species. There is a reason for these prohibitions...heed them, please.
Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides, berberidaceae)
Our lovely blue cohosh, with its nondescript yellow flowers. Although its common name is similar to the infamous black cohosh, the two species look nothing alike (they are not even related). Most sources will tell you that the word cohosh comes from the Algonquin language, eastern Abenaki, and refers to the 'rough' nature and appearance of the roots of both plants. Abnaki-Penobscot is an Algonquian language still spoken in Canada by a few Western Abenaki elders. Eastern Abenaki or Penobscot was another dialect of the same language once spoken in Maine, where Penobscot Indian people today are working to revive its use. Today 2000 Abenakis live on two reserves in Quebec, and another 10,000 Abenaki descendants are scattered throughout New England. Only the Canadian Abenaki tribe is officially recognized, but there are at least three Abenaki bands in the United States: the Sokoki and Mazipskwik Abenakis of Vermont and the Cowasucks of Massachusetts.** This tells you a bit about the plant's native range...
**Please visit this incredible website, run and maintained by the non-profit organization Native Languages of the Americas, dedicated to the survival of Native American languages.
When looking at the Native American Ethnobotany Database from the University of Michigan, we see blue cohosh show up in Cherokee, Chippewa, Iroquois, Menominee, Ojibwa, Pottawatomie, and Omaha traditions. There are some common themes between these different cultures most directed toward relief from pain, spasm, tension, stagnation, and excessive bleeding of various body systems including the respiratory (bleeding from the lungs), musculo-skeletal and urinary systems (rheumatism), and spasm, colic, and pain of the gastrointestinal system. However the most common theme, and by a large a reflection of its modern use, is pain, spasm, and excessive bleeding in the female reproductive system, especially that associated with menstruation and childbirth. It is what us herbalists call a 'partus preparator' or' parturient', an herb that readies and steadies the uterus, and the woman, for labor.
My favorite, and what I believe to be the most thorough, explanation of this herb's virtues, comes from the Physiomedicalist tradition (of course), and specifically the writings of William Cook in his The Physiomedical Dispensatory, 1869. He writes:
"The root of this plant, as a popular parturient among the "medicine men" of the Indians. To Dr. Isaac Smith, of New York, is chiefly due its introduction to the profession. It is a moderate diffusive, stimulating and relaxing in about equal degrees, spending its main powers upon the nervous system. These qualities make it one of the very best of antispasmodics, to relieve nervous feebleness with irritability, as in crampings of the bowels, twitching of the muscles in typhoid and parturient cases, hysteria, painful menstruation, colic, etc. Its efficacy in these cases is remarkable...It sustains the nervous system, but at the same time soothes it; and is of especial service in strengthening and relieving painful functional difficulties of the female generative organs. It is one of the most valuable of all parturients, when the uterine action is becoming weary."
The modern medicinal uses of Blue Cohosh do not differ significantly from the traditional uses. It is still considered a ‘woman’s’ herb being used most specifically as a uterine tonic, a pain reliever of uterine and ovarian pain, and to promote menstrual flow whilst also being able to keep it in check. During labor it is useful for exhaustion and pain and to help expel the placenta. Being considered a connective tissue tonic, Its is given for self-repair with tissue overgrowth and damage. As it is toning to the tissues of the female reproductive system this herb has found use in the reparation of scarring of the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes especially as a result of pelvic inflammatory disease and subsequent infertility In other body systems, Blue Cohosh’s anti-inflammatory action is sometimes used for arthritic and rheumatic conditions especially of the small joints of the fingers and toes.
Not a common sight in the modern herbalist's dispensary...but a really valuable medicine.
wild geranium (geranium maculatum, geraniaceae)
Ok, ok, so I love them all. Every one. But especially this one. This is wild geranium, a gorgeous perennial herbaceous native that decorates the dry or moist forest floor and edges of our eastern deciduous hardwood forests. Its other common name 'cranesbill', as well as the genus name, from the Greek geranos (a crane), depicts the cool-looking seed capsule that forms in late Spring. It is both the root and the aerial parts that have both traditional and modern use in herbal medicine, although it is the root that is considered to be of superior efficacy. Luckily, this is one of those herbs that can spring back to life even when a portion of the root is taken. Leaving a portion of the root intact ensures that the plant can reestablish itself.
Like most medicines native to North America, our knowledge of this herb's virtues comes to us from various Native American traditions. The physiomedicalist physicians looked upon wild geranium for its slow but steady tonic action upon the mucous membranes of the digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems. It was, and still is considered to be of a gentle drying and astringent nature, employed both internally and externally for ulcers, inflammation, and unwanted bleeding.
I have found wild geranium to be an incredible ally in both moderate and severe cases of inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn's), diverticulitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. A tea of either the herb or the roots can be used in this regard. The same goes for excessive bleeding in female reproductive conditions such as uterine fibroids and endometriosis when a gentle styptic and tonifying action is called for. A tincture or tea of the root has been of significant value for chronic inflammation of the urinary system, for example as is the case with interstitial cystitis (combined with other herbs of course), UTIs, and to assist in repair of the mucous membranes after treatment for some STDs. The tincture of the root has also been used for male reproductive system problems such as benign prostate hyperplasia, urethritis, and epididymitis (again where a gentle drying and toning action is called for).
bloodroot (sanguinaria canadensis, papaveraceae)
I remember the first time I met this plant. I was sitting in a classroom in Glasgow, Scotland with a professor and TCM master. The class was taking part in what is called 'a blind herb tasting', which entails using your senses to identify characteristics of the smell, taste, and pharmacology of an herb...before you know what it is. This is actually a very cool way of learning herbs. Anyway, I hadn't eaten anything that morning. The dark red root tea had a bitter flavor I will never forget, nor will I forget the profound experience of vomiting it back up in the middle of class. It was clear to me, there and then, that this is no doubt a powerful medicine that should not be taken lightly (nor on an empty stomach). It has very real, very effective emetic and expectorant actions.
It wasn't until I moved back to the United States and took up an internship with United Plant Savers at the Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary in Rutland, Ohio, that I had the pleasure of meeting this incredible plant face to face. Bloodroot, also known as red puccoon or puccoon to the early Physiomedicalist and Eclectic physicians, has a long and thorough history of medicinal use. There are over 20 Native American tribes with documented ethnobotanical uses for this species ranging from use as a dye and body paint plant to a remedy for stomach pain, bleeding from the lungs, and wounds that wouldn't heal (among many, many other uses). The Physiomedicalist tradition was a bit weary of this medicine, as William Cook in his The Physiomedical Dispensatory, 1869 writes about the preferable use of the dried root, rather than fresh, being contraindicated when irritability and sensitivity of the mucous membranes is present. One of the founding therapeutic philosophies of this tradition was the refusal to use substances, herbs or otherwise, that were considered poisonous and hence combative to rather than supportive of the Vital Force. From reading historical texts it appears that Bloodroot really stood on that fine line for many Physiomedicalist physicians. Perhaps it was too effective a remedy to exile? Cook deems Bloodroot a slow and harsh emetic, especially for less robust constitutions, but nonetheless useful where relaxant and stimulant action upon the mucous membranes, gall ducts, and secretory organs are needed.
I have not used bloodroot much in clinical practice (except in few cases of very wet asthma). A decade ago you could find a chemical constituent (the alkaloid sanguinarine) derived from bloodroot in toothpastes where it served as an antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory for reducing gingival inflammation and supragingival plaque formation. It has since been taken out of the market, as Steven Foster suggests, perhaps due to its ability to cause precancerous oral lesions. The irony here is that the whole herb (rather than the one isolated constituent) has a very long history of being used topically to treat melanoma and other skin cancers. It is sold around the world in the form of creams and ointments for this purpose. However 'unsubstantiated' this particular use might be, the isolated alkaloid sanguinarine (the same one they put in toothpastes) has remarkable antiangiogenic activities** (angiogenesis refers to the development of new capillary blood vessels in the body). This has important implications in cancer treatment. Did you know that there is actually a foundation called The Angiogenesis Foundation? Neither did I...interesting.
Medicine Garden Specialties
If you are still with me here, you either feel obligated to read this whole post because you love me, or...you feel as inspired as I do about the plants that surround us everyday and the medicine they provide. Both my mother and father have a contagious passion for gardening. It wasn't until I had my own space that I was truly able to experience the 'wow factor' and healing that growing plants creates. Medicine doesn't necessarily need to be phytochemical or pharmaceutical. It is through this most ancient and artistic practice that medicine can also be experiential.
I have been blessed by the land that surrounds me on a daily basis. Massive, thriving populations of blue lobelias, wild yam, elderberry, St John's wort were waiting here for me when I arrived. As the years have passed I have gently (but rather obsessively) added friends to keep them company. Here are a couple that were blooming this Spring...what I like to call Medicine Garden specialties.
henbane (hyoscyamus niger, solanaceae)
Henbane...definitely a 'witchy' herb. Also commonly referred to in fictional literature and film (for example, I have definitely heard it referred to in Harry Potter). It has a reputation for being one of the ingredients of the witches' infamous 'flying ointment', a preparation that is often referred to has been used for divination. In all seriousness, the alkaloids of this species can cause severe mental disorientation, accommodation disturbance, and central excitation resulting in restlessness, hallucinations, delirium, manic episodes, followed by exhaustion and sleep or death from respiratory failure. Not an herb to f%^k around with.
Henbane is native to Europe...a common weed of roadsides and waste places. The leaves, flowers, and seeds are used medicinally by qualified practitioners. Although those tropane alkaloids can kill you, medicinal doses inhibit the parasympathetic nervous system that controls involuntary bodily activities (the rest and digest functions). The herb has anticholenergic /antimuscarinic properties and hence is able to relax smooth muscle, decrease the secretion of saliva, sweat, and digestive juice, and relax smooth muscle of internal organs. This can be a very handy thing...although more from the angle of symptom relief rather than holistic healing. Henbane is specifically indicated for pelvic pain especially that which is associated with the female reproductive system, i.e. endometriosis, painful periods, and spasmodic pain of both male and female urinary system. Henbane has a specific effect on the detrusor muscle of the bladder and can be used for miction disorders where nerve irritability is an underlying cause. Like its cousins Atropa belladonna and Datura stramonium, Henbane can also be used for spasms of the respiratory tract (ie. as manifest with asthma)...but use too much and death ensues...death. Don't mess around.
lily of the valley (convallaria majalis, liliaceae)
I love this pretty little lady. It took her a couple of seasons to bloom here at the Medicine Garden, but she finally came out this Spring. I like to think of this non-native medicinal as one of Western herbalists 'best kept to ourselves' remedies. However, I have had wonderful experiences with this herb in clinical practice and I am not afraid to say that it works wonders under qualified supervision and for short periods of time. It is the rhizomes and rootlets that I have used.
The key to this species is a group of chemical constituents known as cardiac glycosides. This constituent group is also found in foxglove, (Digitalis purpurea) as well as other species. Foxglove is the source of the pharmaceutical preparation Digoxin, which is prescribed to regulate heart rhythm and function for cardiac arrhythmias and heart failure. The cardiac glycosides in lilly of the valley include convallatoxin, convalloside, convallotaxol, convallotoxoloside, convallarin which are all progressesively converted to convallatoxin. The effects of this chemical group upon the heart are positively inotropic (increase force) and negatively chronotropic (reduces rate). In comparison to the cardiac glycosides from foxglove, those from lily of the valley have a lower absorbability and are more quickly eliminated from the body and hence are known to not accumulate in system (which can be dangerous, because yes...cardiac glycosides can kill!)
Eclectic herbalists of old and medical herbalists of the United Kingdom, use lilly of the valley for similar indication to those of foxglove, most specifically heart failure with associated edema (and lilly of the valley does not irritate stomach like digitalis). I have had great clinical success employing lilly of the valley for. nervous disorders of the heart (and those affecting the heart). It is believed that the heart irregularities benefited by this drug are not those due to organic degeneration so much as those of an obstructive character, due to mechanical causes, and particularly where the mitral valves are involved.
This is another herb that is only used under the supervision of a qualified medical herbalist...period.
Thank you, dear reader, for sticking it out this far! I sincerely hope you have enjoyed revisiting the season and exploring some of the Spring blooming medicinal plants of Ohio with me. I would have so many more to share with you, but I think I have kept your attention long enough. I hope one to meet you in person on one of my actual herb walks around the region. Please keep your eyes peeled on my Calendar for upcoming dates. Also, I would like to invite you to check out my upcoming photo series 'Summer Loving' on both Facebook and Instagram where we will be on the lookout for all the blooming medicinal plants of the Summer season. I hope to see you there!
With sincere gratitude,
Erika G Galentin, MNIMH
To learn more about the traditional uses of these and other medicinal plants please refer to the following amazing online resources: