The Better Part of (Herbal) Wisdom

By Chrissy Moore

Spend any time with me and you’ll learn quickly that I am a “waste not, want not” kind of person, and that includes food. I have been known to push the envelope with expiration dates–tempting fate, if you will–only occasionally experiencing unpleasant consequences. Not that that’s good practice, mind you, but before you cast the first stone, tell me that you have never ever strategically removed that tiny spot of green on that otherwise perfectly good hunk of cheese in your refrigerator! I thought so.

Recently, I was making a pot of soup, the ingredients for which I had purchased the previous weekend in anticipation of the cooking session. When it came time to throw in the fresh spinach, I noticed that some of the leaves looked a bit dodgy, but decided to risk it. Why? Because that’s just what I do in my personal culinary (mis)adventures. What’s the worst that could happen?

Historical advertisement for castor oil laxative

Historical advertisement for castor oil laxative

I didn’t eat the soup that day, but did have a few spoonfuls as part of the tasting/seasoning process. No harm, no foul…well, until later that night. I was starting to feel a wee bit off, but didn’t think much of it until I was going through my nightly ablutions. The gastric distress came on suddenly with little warning, but, admittedly, it wasn’t the worst I had ever experienced. I skated by on that one. Was it the soup? Maybe the spinach was more “mature” than I originally thought. Or maybe it was the seafood I had the previous night at the restaurant. Either way, I wasn’t about to throw out a whole pot of perfectly good soup on circumstantial evidence. So, in the name of science, I made to find out for sure by eating a small amount of soup for dinner the following day and awaited the results.

While lying in bed that night anticipating the tell-tale signs of digestive misgivings, my mind wandered to herbs with strong purgative properties. (Isn’t that what you think about in the middle of the night?) When people tell me something is “natural” or invoke Mother Earth as if she is some benevolent, gentle grandmother, my first reaction is, “Pff! You have seen National Geographic, haven’t you? ‘Mother Earth’ will kill you in a heartbeat!”

Rhamnus_purshiana_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-121

Rhamnus purshiana

In that same vein, purgative herbs, such as Rhamnus purshiana (cascara), if not used properly, can produce severe side effects. Castor oil, extracted from the seeds of Ricinus communis, is another purgative remedy known for its unpleasant, though highly-effective laxative properties. As with cascara, castor oil can cause harmful side effects if not used properly. When contemplating herbal remedies, you should always keep in mind–and remind others who may try to sweet-talk you with herbal accolades–that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or gentle. The proper respect should always be paid to herbs, no matter their use, and it is always the better part of wisdom to consult a professional before tinkering with herbs’ powerful properties.

The same wisdom should probably be applied to dodgy soup, too.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.  She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

6 thoughts on “The Better Part of (Herbal) Wisdom

  1. The problem with trying to consult a professional….
    1. Try to talk to your doctor about herbal remedies… he has no idea and refers you to traditional modern medicine.
    2. Trying to find a local herbal professional to consult with is impossible in most rural areas and you may have to travel 100s of miles just to talk to one.
    We need an herbal professional directory. Where we can find an herbal professional near us.
    OR…..
    We need a book that is simple to understand and easy to determine what herb and what dose to take for what ailment. However, they will inevitably have a statement to consult with a professional disclaimer… leaving you to wonder if the validity of the information on the herbs is correct or implied possible errors may be riddled through out the information in the book; and we are down to trying to find an herbal professional again.
    Its a vicious cycle.

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  2. Pingback: The Better Part of (Herbal) Wisdom – The Herb Society of America Blog | Mind Body & Spirit

  3. Pingback: The Better Part of (Herbal) Wisdom – Human Health

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