Nasty Plants and the Reasons to Love Them

by Erin Holden

Scrunched up faces. Tongues sticking out. Sounds of choking and disgust. Unfortunately this is the usual reaction when I’m finally able to coax someone into trying medicinal herbs. When we move past the more pleasant plants like lavender, chamomile, and peppermint and delve into the deeper waters of herbal medicine, not everything is so user-friendly. Many plants taste bitter, smell like old socks, or even feel slimy. But often, it’s these same nasty characteristics that provide the therapeutic benefits we’re looking for. Let’s take a look at a few plants and see what makes them so “nasty” as well as useful.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Many people may be familiar with the distinctive aroma of valerian root; old socks, wet dog, and horse manure are just a few things to which the odor has been affectionately compared. In fact, the constituent responsible for the smell, valeric acid, is also one of the components that causes swine manure to smell so badly (Chi, Lin, & Leu, 2005). Despite its odiferous qualities, valerian has been used for its sedative effects for over 2000 years. Valerian root is taken to relieve anxiety, promote sleep, and relax gastrointestinal spasms (Braun & Cohen, 2006). Some research shows that another compound, valerenic acid, may mediate anxiety by binding to GABA receptors in the brain, although the exact medicinally active compounds haven’t yet been pinpointed (Benke et al., 2009).  It’s possible that valeric acid also has a role to play, as multiple constituents acting together may account for these effects (Spinella, 2002).

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
marsh-mallow-jcs-althaea-officinalis-54735 from biopix dot comGlycosaminoglycans, the medicinally active polysaccharides found in marshmallow root, have an appropriate abbreviation: GAGs. Mixing the powdered root with water or preparing an infused tea results in a slimy, mucilaginous mess that can be difficult to choke down. But it’s this very sliminess that causes marshmallow to work so well at soothing irritated tissue. Marshmallow is used for coughs, as a urinary demulcent, and for irritated skin. The mucilage forms a bioadhesive layer that acts as a barrier, protecting the tissue and allowing it to heal (Deters et al., 2010). Extracts of the root have also demonstrated antibacterial properties (Lauk, Lo Bue, Milazzo, Rapisarda, & Blandino, 2003; Watt, Christofi, & Young, 2007).

Gentian (Gentiana lutea)
Gentiana_lutea_090705 by Bernd Haynold via wikimedia commonsNo pub or bar would be complete without a bottle of bitters, with Angostura® being among the more popular brands. Although the recipe for Angostura® Bitters is a well-guarded secret, gentian is listed on the label as an ingredient and is likely a major contributor to the bitter flavor. By itself, gentian is considered extremely bitter and has been used as a yardstick when rating the bitterness of other herbs (Olivier & van Wyk, 2013). Bitter compounds in general have been shown to stimulate the secretion of saliva and digestive juices by activating the vagus nerve (Bone, 2003). The active constituents in gentian, gentiopicroside and amarogentin, are no exception.  These molecules account for gentian’s use in improving digestion, increasing appetite, and relieving flatulence (Braun & Cohen, 2006).

Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
Lobelia_inflata_8820er_1586426759 by Paul Rothrock from SERNEC websiteWhat list of nasty herbs would be complete without pukeweed? This alternate common name for lobelia says it all. The emetic qualities of this plant were made (in)famous by Dr. Samuel Thomson in the 19th century. As a boy, Thomson would cause his friends to vomit by tricking them into eating lobelia leaves. Later in life, he founded the Thomsonian medical movement and employed lobelia and its purging properties as his main treatment (Loyd & Loyd, 1930). This unpleasant effect is attributed to lobeline, an alkaloid found in the above ground parts of the plant (Miller & Ruggiero, 1994). Lobeline is also responsible for lobelia’s therapeutic use as a bronchodilator and muscle relaxant (Hanson, 2005). This herb has been taken to relieve asthma, ease tense skeletal muscles, and calm nervous anxiety (Snow, 2009).

As you can see, even though some plants might make you want to “lose your lunch” or plug your nose and run for the hills, we should embrace them as they might be the very thing needed to help us feel better. Perhaps this perspective will help make ingesting nasty herbs a bit easier to swallow.

Photo Credits: 1) Valerian (Morton Arboretum, via Sernecportal.org); 2) Marshmallow (Biopix.com); 3) Gentian (Bernd Haynold, via Wikimedia Commons); Lobelia (Paul Rothrock, via Sernecportal.org)

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. 

 References

Benke, D., Barberis, A., Kopp, S., Altmann, K.H., Schubiger, M., Vogt, K.E., Rudolph, U., & Möler, H. (2009). GABA A receptors as in vivo substrate for the anxiolytic action of valerenic acid, a major constituent of valerian root extracts. Neuropharmacology, 56(1), 174-181. 

Bone, K. (2003). A clinical guide to blending liquid herbs. St. Louis: Churchill Livingston.

Braun, L. & Cohen, M. (2006). Herbs and natural supplements (2nd ed.). Sydney, Australia: Churchill Livingstone.

Chi, F.H., Lin, P.H., & Leu, M.H. (2005). Quick determination of malodor-causing fatty acids in manure by capillary electrophoresis. Chemosphere, 60(9), 1262-1269.

Deters, A., Zippel, J., Hellenbrand, N., Pappai, D., Possemeyer, C., & Hensel, A. (2010). Aqueous extracts and polysaccharides from Marshmallow roots (Althea officinalis L.): Cellular internalisation and stimulation of cell physiology of human epithelial cells in vitro. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 127(1), 62-69.

Hanson, Bryan A. (2005). Understanding medicinal plants, their chemistry and therapeutic action. New York: The Haworth Herbal Press.

Lauk, L., Lo Bue, A.M., Milazzo, I., Rapisarda, A., & Blandino, G. (2003). Antibacterial activity of medicinal plant extracts against periodontopathic bacteria. Phytotherapy research, 17(6), 599-604.

Loyd, J.U. & Loyd, C.G. (1930). Drugs and medicines of North America, 1884-1887. Cincinnati, Ohio.

Miller, A.D. & Ruggiero, D.A. (1994). Emetic reflex arc revealed by expression of the immediate-early gene c-fos in the cat. The Journal of Neuroscience, 14(2), 871-888.

Olivier, D.K. & van Wyk, B.-E. (2013) Bitterness values for traditional tonic plants of southern Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 147(3), 676-679.

Snow, J. (2009). Materia medica: Lobelia inflata. Personal Collection of J. Snow, Maryland University of Integrative Health, Laurel, MD.

Spinella, M. (2002). The importance of pharmacological synergy in psychoactive herbal medicines. Alternative Medicine Review, 7(2), 130-137

 Watt, K., Christofi, N., & Young, R. (2007). The detection of antibacterial actions of whole herb tinctures using luminescent Escherichia coli. Phytotherapy Research, 21(12), 1193-1199.

 

 

Unearthly fragrance, cat-scratching thorns

By Rachel Cywinski

(This article is an abridged version originally appearing on the Native Plant Society of Texas website, November 30, 2020. Thanks to the author for allowing us to reprint her article here.)

Huisache flowersThe portals of heaven open to announce [that] spring will soon return—that’s the only way that I can describe the aroma of huisache (Vachellia farnesiana) in bloom. Texas A&M University’s Aggie Horticulture website describes this tree as “intensely fragrant.” 

For years, I was drawn to this delightful scent but stayed away because of an extreme sensitivity to bee stings. Never are bees more evident than when huisache blooms. Many people also stay away because they fear the thorns.

Huisache tree in Alamo Defenders Cemetery in San Antonio, TexasBut one day, looking for emerging native plants as I often do in the neglected historic cemeteries of San Antonio, I ducked under the branches and stood near the trunk. My senses were transported by the unearthly fragrance and the amazing sound of thousands of bees, who were all so entranced by the blooms, that they had no interest in what a human was doing. As I deeply inhaled the fragrance, breezes moved the fine leaves like caresses across my face. I was hooked. Ever since, when I see huisache blooming in the hot and high parts of San Antonio, I look for it each week in places a little farther north or more shaded, until all the trees have bloomed, and spring has arrived.

picture of Guerlain's Apres L'Ondee perfumeIn the 1800s, some enterprising Europeans imported what we in southern and central Texas take for granted; the macerated blooms of huisache grown commercially in southern France and Portugal are used in some of the world’s most expensive perfumes made in Cannes. Huisache is an “overlooked indigenous plant” that is “very valuable” to urban gardens by fixing nitrogen in the soil and attracting pollinators, said San Antonio City Arborist Mark Bird. “The bees and other pollinators can’t resist.” The Native Plant Project states that the bees particularly need the pollen more than the nectar of this tree and cites it as attracting insects and birds (1).

ISA-Certified Arborist® David Vaughan, one of the charter members of the ISA-Texas chapter, recommends huisache for dry sites. Vaughan listed benefits of huisache as being a pioneer species, fast-growing, maturing to a medium size, fragrant and “gorgeous” with early spring flowers that last a month, with the perk that “compound leaves are small and do not need to be raked.”

Huisache thorns adult and juvenile forms

Young huisache trees have large thorns on new foliage (right). More mature trees have sharp pairs of barb-like thorns at junctures.

Mature trees do have two small barb-like thorns at the base of each leaf, but only the youngest trees have the long spiky thorns to protect themselves. This adds to their attractiveness in urban landscapes, where so many birds fall prey to domesticated cats let outdoors. Birds nest in huisache, according to the Natives of Texas website. Native Plant Project lists it of particular value for white-winged doves (1).

Huisache, a Nahuatl term meaning “many thorns,” is the most common name for Vachellia farnesiana, though it has been called an “acacia” for so long that many will likely continue to remember it as such. The gum derived from the tree is considered higher quality than gum arabic. Other historic and current uses of huisache include medicine, wood, dye, tannin, ink, pottery, glue, toothbrushes, and firewood (2). David Vaughan cautions that, although huisache and mesquite wood have a similar appearance, grilling meat over huisache wood will ruin it.

Other medicinal uses recorded for huisache include: an astringent and demulcent; in treatment of wounds, skin inflammations, and swellings; sore throat, diarrhea, typhoid, stomachic, dyspepsia, dysentery, leucorrhoea, conjunctivitis, uterorrhagia, neuroses, and headaches (3).

Vachellia farinesiana seed podsThe ebony-colored seed pods appear to bulge with numerous small seeds that contain a toxic alkaloid. But that does not prevent them from being invaded by insects as soon as they drop to the ground. If you plan to start huisache from seed, be on the lookout to get the seeds before they are eaten.

Mark Bird has found huisache valuable for controlling erosion and restoring degraded soils. He said, “In some ways the tree can be considered a pioneer species, because it can establish in poor quality soils and lead to future, ‘more desirable’ trees, such as oaks and elms.”

Another ISA-Certified Arborist®, Mark Peterson, concurs with Bird. Peterson, who is a project manager in the Conservation Department of San Antonio Water System, said huisache “is definitely a pioneer species. In certain regions of south and southeast Texas, it is the primary woody species during the first five to thirty years of succession after land clearing.” Peterson has observed that establishment of huisache and mesquite improves soil quality for later growth of hackberry, pecan, mulberry, or oak, particular to site conditions.

Huisache tree blooming and Diana Kersey Art on bridge over San Antonio RiverVachellia farnesiana’s native range is considered to cross from southern Florida to southern California, south to northern South America. Vaughan said, “a few grow more north, but seldom survive the occasional very cold winter of the [Texas] hill country.” Huisache is not freeze-hardy, but it is fast-growing and exceptionally drought-tolerant. Peterson says, “The only thing that can seriously affect its growth is over-watering.” In the San Antonio area, one could almost draw a map of the waterways by the presence of huisache, as it is pervasive on the upper banks of streams, creeks, and the river. I think of it as one of those unique plants that so often grows near, but never in, waterways as they are uniquely able to tolerate periods of moisture and yet withstand dry conditions.

This past spring, I happened to be in northwest San Antonio near the place of the most extraordinary annual sight of huisache in bloom. The trees near where I live, between Salado Creek and the San Antonio River, had bloomed a few weeks earlier. And so, I realized this might be the time that trees along creeks in more elevated areas were blooming. Indulging in huisache viewing would really brighten my day, I rationalized—and there were so many trees [from which] I could get whiffs of the fragrance just driving past.

Huisache trees along byway

Huisache trees between the roadway and hike-and-bike trail provide visual calm to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River in southern Bexar County.

With great anticipation, I found my way to a large roadway that serves traffic exiting and entering a main entrance of a major local employer. I remembered how stunningly the display of golden blooms gleamed all along the upper bank of a stream tributary to Zarzamora Creek and took deep breaths to maintain calm as I rounded the bend, where the setting sun would create such a breath-taking display.

I did not remain calm. I rounded the bend and saw the sunset. There was nothing between us. I pulled over. There were no trees: there was nothing. Where was the “rain of gold” that blooming huisache made in the wind? 

As I stared, stunned, another motorist pulled her car in front of mine, and came running back, asking if I was okay. “The huisache [trees] are GONE,” I said to her. She looked at me with confusion.

She asked several times whether I was all right, and I continued to explain the huisache were gone. Her confusion concerned me. Perhaps she might think I was some dangerous person. Then we both changed the conversation. I asked her if she didn’t remember the huisache. Clearly, she didn’t. Then I realized that she just did not know the NAME of the trees. She probably missed them but did not know what they were called. So, I explained it was the trees that always had such beautiful blooms every year, the ones that looked like shining yellow all along this area. I motioned to where the trees had been and said, “It makes me want to cry.”

Huisache blooming at Ecumenical Center of San Antonio, TexasThe woman stared open-mouthed then looked to where the trees had been, then at me, then to the stream bank, as if trying to remember. But she couldn’t.

The woman explained it was very dangerous to stop a car along the roadway, even with flashers on. I asked if it wasn’t between shifts when there would not be so many employees driving. She agreed, and said it was still very dangerous. Even though there were many lanes, there were constant motor vehicle collisions. It was not safe even to be on this roadway. 

I told her that I was going to leave. But, I insisted, didn’t she miss the trees that had been there? Again, she seemed confused and unable to place any trees where they had been. She said if I was okay, she was leaving, but that I really needed to get my car off the road altogether; there were too many drivers who ran into people here.

Huisache tree bloomingI thanked her. As I waited for her car to move, I began crying in earnest. How many times had the concerned woman driven past the beautiful delicate-looking green of huisache branches dancing over the breeze? Had she passed golden huisache blooms thousands of times and never noticed them?

To me, this was the saddest thing of all.

*For more information about supporting native herbs in the landscape, visit The Herb Society of America’s GreenBridges™ Initiative website.

Photo Credits: 1) Huisache (Vachellia farinesiana) flowers (R. Cywinski); 2) Huisache tree in Alamo Defenders Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas (R. Cywinski); 3) Perfume by Guerlain containing huisache essential oil (public domain); 4) Mature and immature thorns (R. Cywinski); 5) Mature and immature seed pods (Creative Commons, Starr Environmental); 6) Huisache tree blooming and Diana Kersey Art on bridge over San Antonio River (R. Cywinski); 7) Huisache along roadway (R. Cywinski); 8) Huisache bordering the Ecumenical Center of San Antonio, Texas (R. Cywinski); 9) Huisache flowering boughs (R. Cywinski).

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. 

References

(1) Native Plant Project. https://www.nativeplantproject.com/. Accessed 8 October 2021.

(2) Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plant Products. https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Acacia_farnesiana.html. Accessed 8 October 2021.

(3) Plants for a Future Database. https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Acacia+farnesiana. Accessed 8 October 2021.


Rachel Cywinski’s professional background is in journalism and mathematics education, including degrees in international business and business economics. She is a native plant enthusiast (with a special affinity for plant identification) and serves as a volunteer for the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in the San Antonio region and is a member of the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Finding Peace in the Garden

By Karen Kennedy
HSA Education Coordinator

LemonBalmClose200911The lazy days of summer quickly transition to the more scheduled and hurried days of autumn. While glorious hues are found in changing leaf color and late season blooms like goldenrod and Joe-Pye weed, the pace of our world undeniably quickens during this season. Add the additional stress and worry about the Covid-19 pandemic and the message is clear–take time to personally cultivate peace and manage stress.

Research by environmental psychologists like Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, as well as landscape architects like Clare Cooper Marcus and Naomi Sachs and others, points to the overall positive impact of plant-rich environments and contact with nature on reducing mental fatigue and increasing feelings of restoration, recovery from stress, and improved mood (Haller, Kennedy and Capra, 2019).

Gardeners, without knowledge of the research, often say they find peace and solace in the garden. The act of gardening, tending plants, and focusing on their care and growth, is a peaceful and mentally renewing activity for the gardener. Does fragrance have a role in the enjoyment and satisfaction of gardening? 

Passionflowerincarnata2019.2NervinesSedativesOne of the most enjoyable aspects of the garden is fragrance. The sense of smell is closely tied to our limbic system and can have a powerful impact on feelings of well-being. The fragrance of herbs such as lavender has a well-known association with relaxation and stress relief. Lavender also has a long history of having skin soothing properties, is a sleep aid, and can even relieve headaches. This favorite garden herb is now easily found in all sorts of self-care products from shampoo to body lotions. 

To have a bit of lavender to carry beyond the garden, see below for directions on how to make a roll-on lavender oil blend. This portable project is a wonderful treat to add to a self-care strategy and quite literally, add to one’s tool bag (purse, backpack or pocket)! Especially as we all grow weary of wearing a mask for many hours, putting some on the edge of your mask or on the bridge of your nose will give access to the fragrance where it is needed the most.

Author and HSA member Janice Cox, in her workbook Beautiful Lavender, A Guide and Workbook for Growing, Using, and Enjoying Lavender, shares the following recipe for making roll-on lavender scented oils. 

To make one Roll-on Lavender Bottle:

1 to 2 teaspoons almond, jojoba, argan, avocado, olive, or grapeseed oil

¼ teaspoon dried lavender buds

1 to 2 drops lavender essential oil

1-ounce glass roller bottle

Add dried herbs to the bottle. Top with oils and secure the top.

To use, roll a small amount behind your ears, on your wrists, temples or even on the edge of your face mask. Inhale and let the lavender aroma soothe your spirit.IMG_0584

Experiment with other herb combinations such as:

  •     Relaxing blend – lavender, chamomile, and cinnamon
  •     Energizing blend – lavender, dried citrus peel, and mint
  •     Refreshing blend – lavender, eucalyptus, and cedar

Note: use only dried plants when making scented oils. Adding a couple drops of vitamin E oil will act as a natural preservative, making the oil blends last longer.

Herbalist Maria Noel Groves of Wintergreen Botanicals Herbal Clinic and Education Center has additional information on making infused oils in her blog. You can read more about a variety of methods there: https://wintergreenbotanicals.com/2019/08/28/diy-herb-infused-oils-2/

MariaGardenCalendulaWithLogoAndBooksMaria will share other aspects of using peaceful herbs in The Herb Society’s upcoming webinar: Growing & Using Peaceful Herbs. She will talk about growing herbs that promote sleep, boost mood, quell anxiety, and encourage calm energy. She will discuss growing herbs in any size garden. The webinar will take place September 23rd at 1pm EDT.  Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit  www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/.

Photo Credits: 1) Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) (Maria Noel Groves); 2) Passionflower and garden bouquet (Maria Noel Groves); 3) Essential oil roll-ons (Janice Cox); 4) Maria Noel Groves (Maria Noel Groves)

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.

References

Haller, R. L., and K. L. Kennedy, C. L. Capra. 2019. The profession and practice of horticultural therapy. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.


Karen Kennedy has been the Education Coordinator for The Herb Society of America since 2012. In this position she coordinates and moderates monthly educational webinars, gives presentations, manages digital education programs and produces educational materials such as the Herb of the Month program,  https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html. In addition, she is a registered horticultural therapist (HT) with over 30 years of HT and wellness programming experience in health care, social service organizations, and public gardens. Karen loves to garden, knit, drink tea, and is a big fan of her daughter’s soccer team. She lives in Concord Township, near Cleveland, OH, with her husband, daughter and schnoodle, Jaxson.

Horehound – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Horehound leavesThe fuzzy, light gray, deeply-wrinkled leaves of horehound (Marrubium vulgare) offer a nice contrast to other colors and textures in the garden. I love that contrast around the base of the red roses in my garden. Horehound is a perennial herb that grows from one to two feet tall, and can spread in the garden. It prefers dry sandy soil and a sunny location, tolerates poor soil, and is hardy in USDA Zones 4‒8. It may be started from seed in the spring, although germination is slow and sometimes not reliable. Cuttings can be taken from a mature plant or the established plant can be divided. Its leaves have a very bitter taste. Horehound produces whorls of small white flowers at the top of the stalk in the second year. The flowers are very attractive to bees, which makes for a tasty honey. The barbed seeds attach to grazing animals and clothing, enabling their spread to other locations.

Horehound is in the mint family. It has the same square stem and prolific growth habit as other mints. It is native to southern Europe, central and western Asia, and North Africa. It has naturalized in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Horehound will reseed itself naturally to the point that it has become invasive in some areas. It is considered invasive in parts of Australia and New Zealand.  

History

As is the case with so many other herbs, horehound has been used as a medicine since ancient times. Horehound was important in Israeli and Arabic medicinal folk traditions. The Hebrew word for bitter juice is marrub, which could be a possible origin of horehound’s botanical name. Some writers claim that it was one of the bitter herbs used during Passover, though other writers dispute this claim.

Claeys Horehound candyThe Egyptians and the Greeks used it to treat respiratory problems, while the Romans used horehound as an antidote to poisons. Columella, a 1st century Roman agricultural writer, stated that horehound was useful in treating worms in farm animals (Columella, 1941).

In the Middle Ages, horehound was thought to ward off evil spirits, and charms containing horehound were worn for protection (Small, 2006). Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th century mystic and healer, said in her book, Physica: “The horehound is warm and has enough juice, and it helps against various illnesses….And who is ill in the throat, boil horehound in water and strain boiled water through a cloth and add twice as much wine, and let it boil again in a bowl with some fat, and drinks it often, and he will be cured in the throat (von Bingen, 1998).” Later herbalists, such as Gerard (14th-15th century), Culpepper (17th century), and  Grieve (20th century), all recommended the use of horehound for respiratory ailments.

Indigenous tribes of North America use horehound as a medicine, treating mainly respiratory issues but also breast complaints, gynecological problems, and skin problems (Moerman, 1998).

In early England, horehound was not only used for its medicinal properties, but it was also used to brew a horehound ale (Botanical.com, 2021).

rock and rye alcohol beverage with horehoundAt the end of the 19th century, rock and rye liqueur–a combination of rock candy dissolved in rye whiskey and a touch of horehound and citrus—managed to survive Prohibition because it was marketed as a medicinal tonic; it was labeled as a cure for colds, congestion, and other illnesses. The liqueur could be purchased in pharmacies in the United States and was initially taxed at a lower rate owing to its “medicinal properties (Mayhew, 2021).”

Current Uses

Today, horehound ales and drinks are still being made, as well as candies and syrups, to alleviate cold symptoms. Horehound throat lozenges are easily found anywhere that cold remedies are sold.

Ricola throat dropsMarrubiin, a component of horehound, gives the herb its bitter taste. It is also thought to be responsible for its expectorant action and for increasing saliva and gastric juices, which stimulate the appetite. This explains its traditional use as a cough suppressant, expectorant, and bitter digestive tonic (Kaiser, 2015).

“The German Commission E approved horehound herb for loss of appetite and dyspepsia, such as bloating and flatulence” (American Botanical Council, 2021), and the USDA has given horehound GRAS (Generally Recognized  as Safe) status (USFDA, n.d.). However, there have not been any clinical trials to definitively prove the effectiveness of the traditional uses of horehound for respiratory and other ailments.

Horehound, Marrubium vulgare, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for September. Visit the webpage for more information, recipes, and an attractive screen saver.

Photo Credits: 1) Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) leaves; 2) Horehound candy; 3) Rock and rye cocktail; 4) Ricola throat drops. All photos courtesy of the author.

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.

References

American Botanical Council.  2021. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Accessed 8/3/21.

Barnes, Joanne, Linda A. Anderson, J. David Phillipson. 2007. Herbal medicines. Great Britain: Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Botanical.com. 2021. Horehound. Accessed 8/3/21. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/horwhi33.html

Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus. 1941. On agriculture, with a recension of the text and an English translation by Harrison Boyd Ash. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Internet Archive.  Accessed 8/9/21. https://archive.org/details/onagriculturewit02coluuoft/page/n17/mode/2up.

Kaiser Permanente. 2015. Horehound. Accessed 8/12/21. https://wa.kaiserpermanente.org/kbase/topic.jhtml?docId=hn-2109003

Mayhew, Lance. 2021. Rock and rye whiskey. The Spruce Eats. Accessed 8/3/21. https://www.thespruceeats.com/how-to-make-rock-and-rye-whiskey-760286

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Siegelbaum, Rebbetzin Chana Bracha. 2018. Was horehound one of the bitter herbs of the Pesach Sedar? Women on the Land Blog. Accessed 8/3/21. https://rebbetzinchanabracha.blogspot.com/2018/03/was-horehound-one-of-bitter-herbs-for.html

Small, Ernest. 2006. Culinary herbs. Ottawa: National Research Council of Canada.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.) Accessed 8/14/21. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/food-additive-status-list#ftnH

Von Bingen, Hildegard. 1998. Translated by Pricilla Throop. Physica: The complete translation of her classic work on health and healing. Google Books. Accessed 8/3/21. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her … – Google Books


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’sTexas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Hawaiian Herbal Medicine: Rooted in Family and Tradition

By Kaila Blevins

Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry AuwaeMy grandmother grew up in Hawai’i, so my childhood was filled with trying traditional dishes like poi, and my vocabulary is peppered with Hawaiian words. But, I did not know much about traditional Hawaiian herbalism and began researching.

La’au lapa’au is one of several traditional healing methods practiced by Native Hawaiians, and it is rooted in the use of plants. A traditional healer’s job goes beyond just prescribing plants. They use a holistic approach to ensure that the body, mind, and spirit are in harmony to promote good health. The lack of harmony between the three elements results in illness. Beyond assessing the harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, healers follow traditional practices to ensure harmony with the environment as well.

Traditionally, the plants were harvested in the lush forests or were planted near heiaus, or sacred temples, if a healer resided there. Today, foraging at the temples is forbidden due to the sacredness and cultural significance of them. heiausHowever, healers from then and now continue to follow the same principles when approaching plants. They revere the plants for the gifts that they offer through their medicinal properties and act as stewards by tending to their needs and promoting sustainable foraging practices. This process acknowledges the innate intelligence of plants. As the healer approaches the required plant needed for healing, they think of the person who enlisted their help before kneeling and praying, sharing their gratitude for the plant, and asking permission to harvest. If permission is granted, the harvest begins. Once the necessary amount is gathered, the healer never turns their back to the plant–a societal norm that is also practiced when near elders–backing away, giving thanks for the gift. In some cases, the healer may not be the one to gather the medicine. Instead, this may be prescribed as part of the healing journey, and the client will forage and perform the ceremony of giving thanks to the required plants. 

Furthermore, since the plants are Earth’s gifts for humans to use, traditional healers will not charge for their services. The lack of payment ensures a lifelong commitment to the practice and prevents greed from tainting the practice. 

Between each island, the plant palette changes, so the island on which the healer resides dictates the plants used in their practice. However, some plants are indigenous to the majority of the islands, or they’ve been naturalized. Below is a brief list of plants and some of their herbal uses:

Aleurites moluccanus (kukui, candlenut)

Declared the state tree in 1959, kukui leaves are crushed into poultices, and the roasted nuts are pounded into salves to treat sores and external ulcers. Historically, mothers chewed the flowers and gave them to their children to heal sores. After recovering from an illness, the nut meat is often combined with fish and ‘uala (sweet potato) for a nutrient-rich meal. Culturally, the nuts were used in candles, and the ash collected from burned nuts was used for tattoos and canoe paint. 

Morinda citrifolia flowers and fruitMorinda citrifolia (noni, Indian mulberry)

Introduced in 1941 from Fiji, noni has naturalized across the islands and is also cultivated due to its numerous herbal benefits. The leaves are used to treat a variety of skin problems, including cuts, boils, growths, and even lice. Traditional healers use all parts of the tree as a laxative.  

Saccharum officinarum (kō, sugarcane)

Saccharum officinarum sugar caneChewing on the sugary stalk can strengthen the teeth and gums, while the juice is used to sweeten other medicines, or is combined with Ipomoea alba (tropical white morning glory) and salt to treat deep cuts and wounds. In folklore, the juice of kō is used to create a love potion. However, the correct species must be utilized since others are used to block love potions.

After I completed the draft of this blog post, I called my grandmother and discussed the topic with her. While she was not familiar with the uses of the plants, it did remind her of the landscape of her youth. Furthermore, I enjoyed learning about the Native experience and interactions they had with the environment, since their practices are rooted in respect for their environment and plants.

Photo credits: 1) Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry Auwae (Jeanella and Kehaulani Keopuhiwa, National Library of Medicine); 2) Heiaus (National Park Service); 3) Aleurites molucanna flowers and fruit (Hawaiian Plants and Tropical Flowers); 4) Morinda citrifolia (Plants of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park); 5) Saccharum officinarum (National Tropical Botanical Garden).

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.

References

Aleurites moluccanus (kukui). (n.d.). Accessed 7/2020. https://www.kapiolani.hawaii.edu/aleurites-moluccana

Kalama, H. (n.d.).: Healing With Spirituality And Herbs. Accessed 7/2021.  http://heyokamedicine.com/laau-lapaau

Lincoln, N. K. (2017). Description of Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. Accessed 7/2021. http://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/cane

National Park Service. Wailua Complex of Heiaus. Accessed 8/13/2021. https://www.nps.gov/places/wailua-complex-of-heiaus.htm

Timboy, M. (n.d.). La‘au Lapa‘au: Medicinal Plants and Their Healing Properties. Accessed 7/2021. https://keolamagazine.com/agriculture/medicinal-plants/

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing. Accessed 7/2021. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/healing-ways/medicine-ways/healing-plants.html


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_nKaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. She is pursuing a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha, and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets.

Subterranean Treasures: the Beneficial Roots of Native Vines

By Angela Magnan

As I pulled into the parking lot next to the native plant collection at work one day, I noticed our intern up in a tree cutting down a native honeysuckle vine. Uh-oh, I thought. Not again! Working at a public garden, our attempts to grow vines can often be frustrated by well-meaning visitors and volunteers, and yes, overly enthusiastic interns, who automatically think that all vines are weeds and cut or pull out the vines we have planted there. 

Apios in August by Angela MagnanOne strategy to avoid such tragedies is to plant vines that are less obtrusive and that produce underground structures from which they will resprout. One such vine is Apios americana, or groundnut. This leguminous, sprawling perennial vine grows up to 10 feet long and produces clusters of maroon pea-type flowers. Used by native peoples east of the Mississippi as a food source, it has both edible seeds and edible tubers.  The seeds are in long pods that can be harvested in the fall when dry and contain as much protein and fiber as pinto beans. Although not commonly grown in the US, it has been commercially farmed in Japan for more than a hundred years. 

The tubers, which grow every 10-12 inches along the rhizomes, need to be cooked and can be eaten in similar ways to potatoes. Research has also shown that dried and powdered tubers have some promise as an additive to gluten free bread products, increasing the protein content and improving the texture. If you harvest the tubers, the plant won’t come back, but it does seed around; you can maintain its presence in your garden by harvesting sparingly. The tubers are a good source of proline, an amino acid that helps build collagen. Groundnuts have been made into a poultice and used by New England tribes to treat proud flesh, a skin condition caused by inadequate healing of wounds that is particularly common in horses. 

Another native vine with a subterranean edible is hog peanut or ground bean. Also a legume, this is a great plant for botany geeks. Its scientific name, Amphicarpaea bracteata, refers to its production of more than one type of flower, a characteristic known as amphicarpy. It has two types of aboveground flowers and a third type underground. One of the aboveground flowers and the underground flower are cleistogamous, meaning they are permanently closed and self-fertile. The second aboveground flower is a delicate white or light purple pea-like flower that is pollinated by bumblebees. This annual or short-lived perennial produces edible underground seeds, but the aboveground seeds are not edible.

In the wild, this plant typically grows along streams and given enough moisture in the garden, it can run rampant and smother nearby plants. If grown strictly for ornamental purposes, this could be undesirable, but if you want to eat the seeds, you can harvest it aggressively and it will still come back. Because it gets a late start during the growing season, it is a great companion for early spring plants that go dormant by mid-summer. If it has something to twine around, it will, but it will also sprawl along the ground as a groundcover. 

In the US, Cherokee and Iroquois people used the plant for intestinal distress. The Cherokee also used it as a snake bite remedy and the Iroquois used it to treat tuberculosis. In Mexico, indigenous peoples grow it amidst maize and beans, allowing it to twine up the maize stems and intermingle with the climbing beans. Referred to as talet beans, they harvest the underground seeds in early spring before planting that year’s maize crop and then roast the beans as a snack. The aboveground seeds are plowed into the soil for next year’s crop. 

Yet another native vine with useful underground structures is Dioscorea villosa, a wild yam whose tubers contain diosgenin. In the 1940’s, scientists figured out how to synthesize human steroid compounds from diosgenin, a process that was then used to manufacture oral contraceptives and cortisone. Today scientists can synthesize diosgenin in the laboratory, but prior to 1970, wild yam was the sole source of diosgenin and most steroid hormones used in modern medicine were developed from this plant. Although diosgenin can be converted into such steroids in a lab, this process does not occur naturally and consuming wild yam would not have the same effect. 

The flowers of Dioscorea villosa are inconspicuous, but it has attractive heart shaped leaves. Even though its long runners can lead it to pop up in unexpected places, it is not aggressive like some of its non-native relatives. The tubers have an unpleasant, bitter taste, and you wouldn’t want to eat them, but they have been used medicinally for various ailments. Native Americans used a root-based tea to treat menstrual cramps, labor pains, inflammation, asthma, and rheumatism. European settlers used it to treat colic, which led to one of its other common names of colic root. It continues to be used in modern herbal medicine as an anti-inflammatory, either dried in capsule form or as a liquid extract to be made into an herbal tea.

The best thing about all three of these vines is that if a well-meaning individual cuts one down, you might still be able to use the underground treasures or leave them be and let the vine grow back. And what about the native honeysuckle cut down by our intern? It was not so lucky; it never came back. 

Photo credits: 1) Apios americana in August (courtesy of author); 2) Amphicarpaea bracteata flowers (Fritzflohrreynolds via Wikimedia Commons); 3) Amphicarpaea bracteata foliage (R. A. Nonenmacher via Wikimedia Commons); 4) Dioscorea villosa twining up hemlock (courtesy of author)

References:

Foster, S. & Johnson, R. (2006). Desk reference to nature’s medicine. National Geographic.

Frey, D. & Czolba, M. (2017). The food forest handbook. New Society Publishers.

Ichige, M., Fukuda, E., Miida, S., Hattan, J., Misawa, N., Saito, S., Fujimaki, T., Imoto, M., & Shindo, K. (2013). Novel isoflavone glucosides in groundnut (Apios americana Medik) and their antiandrogenic activities. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 61 (9), 2183-2187. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jf305233t

Ito, S. & Arai, E. (2021). Improvement of gluten-free steamed bread quality by partial substitution of rice flour with powder of Apios americana tuber. Food Chemistry, 337, 127977. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2020.127977

Pena, F.B., Villalobos, G. Martinez, M.A., Sotelo, A., Gil, L., & Delgado-Salinas, A. (1999). Use and nutritive value of talet beans, Amphicarpaea bracteata (Fabaceae: Phaseoleae) as human food in Puebla, Mexico. Economic Botany, 53 (4), 427-434. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4256226

Salmon, E. (2020). Iwigara: The kinship of plants and people. Timber Press.

Schnee, B.K. & Waller, D. M. (1986). Reproductive behavior of Amphicarpaea bracteata (Leguminosae), an amphicarpic annual. American Journal of Botany, 73 (3), 376-386. https://bsapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.1537-2197.1986.tb12051.x

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.


Angela grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and has degrees in biochemistry, horticulture, and science writing. She now lives in Maryland and has worked in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum since 2012.

Who Was That Guy?

By Chrissy Moore

wp-LostAmazon_backcoverWe’ve likely all had the experience of never having heard of something your whole life, and then suddenly you hear about that thing everywhere. A while back, I was putting together a presentation on cacao research but couldn’t find a photo of the botanist I would be discussing. So, I had to use a placeholder image of some random fellow who happened to be looking at plants with a couple of Indigenous tribesmen in the Amazon. “That’ll have to do for now!” I thought, as I had no idea who the stand-in fellow was and didn’t have time to research him prior to delivering the presentation. But, I acknowledged my photographic hack to the audience and moved on, not giving it another thought.

A week later, one of the audience members emailed me the exact picture I had used, which she stumbled upon in an old copy of The Herbarist (No. 53., 1987), the annual publication of The Herb Society of America. What a coincidence! Come to find out, that “random fellow in the Amazon” was Dr. Richard Evans Schultes. But, still…who was that guy? Clearly, he was someone of importance, but for what? I tabled the inquiry for the time being. Shortly thereafter, one of my volunteers happened to forward me a link to a blog post about the Oakes Ames Herbarium at Harvard University. And whose name appeared in the post? Yep. Richard Evans Schultes. Him again? I decided it was time to go on my own hunt, and lo’ and behold, I found his name practically everywhere in the botanical world. Little did I know that Schultes was a famous 20th century taxonomic botanist and ethnobotanist; Harvard University professor of economic botany; curator, then executive director, of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University; and the one who is considered the father of modern ethnobotany. In other words, plantsman extraordinaire! How had I not come across his name after all these years in the herb world? Boy, did I feel silly. But, you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it! 

rivea_corymbosaSchultes was born in 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts, but spent many years of his life studying plants used by Indigenous peoples, primarily in the Americas. He is known for his work on medicinal and toxic plants, particularly those with hallucinogenic and entheogenic properties. (Hallucinogenic “refers specifically to plants or drugs which induce true hallucinations through the action of deleriant anticholinergic substances such as naturally occurring tropane alkaloids,” while entheogenic refers to “plants and substances which can induce transcendent mystical or spiritual experiences nearly always involving visions….It is associated with a range of psychoactive plants, specifically when used in religious or spiritual…contexts, be they hallucinogens, psychedelics, dissociatives, or others” (Hay et al., 2012).) His deep dive into Amazonian plants began while seeking out wild, disease-resistant Hevea (natural rubber) species in the Western Hemisphere for the United States government during World War II. (During the war, the Southeast Asian rubber sources were cut off, and new sources were needed.) Though he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for twelve years, Dr. Schultes’ research branched out to include many other plants with varying economic or ethnobotanical uses. All the while, he maintained a focus on hallucinogens of plant origin. During his career, Schultes collected over 24,000 herbarium specimens and is credited with introducing 300 plants not previously known to science. 

In one of his papers, Schultes notes, “In view of the number of plant species, variously estimated at from 400,000 – 800,000 species, those that have been used as hallucinogens are few; probably no more than 60 species of cryptogams [spore-producing] and phanerogams [seed-producing]….Only 20 may be considered important” (Schultes, 1969).

Lophophora williamsiiSome of his most well-known research subjects were peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), used for ritual by the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma; ayahuasca, an entheogenic botanical brew used by Indigenous tribes of South America; and the numerous plants used to make curare, “a mixture of naturally occurring alkaloids found in various South American plants and used as arrow poisons” (ScienceDirect, 2021). After decades of research into its mode of action by many scientists around the world, curare was applied to surgical procedures in the 20th century, along with anesthesia, as a muscle relaxant during operations until safer synthetic analogues were discovered (Burr and Leung, 2014).

“I have tried several of the Indian hallucinogens, in part because the Indians consider them sacred plants and it would have been an unpardonable rudeness to refuse them when the Indians were kind enough to offer them to me during a ceremony” (Schultes, 1994).

By all accounts, Schultes was a die-hard ethnobotanist, who defined it thusly:

 “[It is] the complete registration of the uses of and concepts about plant life in primitive societies… comprising aspects of botany, anthropology, archeology, plant chemistry, pharmacology, history, geography, and sundry other tangential fields of the sciences and arts” (Schultes, 1988).

Schultes5-572x768His knowledge of the field went beyond just the cultural or botanical, but also landed squarely in the geographical as he sought to document the locations of plants and people. His journal notes and maps were indispensable for recording hard-to-get-at information, including language documentation of the tribes with whom he worked.

After living with and learning from the Indigenous populations in Amazonia for more than ten years (he concentrated on the northwest Amazon region of Colombia), Dr. Schultes returned to the United States and taught economic botany classes at Harvard University for decades, inspiring hundreds of students with his understanding of people and the plants they use. He also contributed hundreds of papers to various scientific publications, as well as authored eight books.

During his career, Schultes noted the rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest and strongly advocated for its conservation, not just for the plants themselves, but for the knowledge that the Indigenous peoples held of those plants, both of which were disappearing at an alarming rate.

“It is therefore our responsibility – nay, our duty – to put ourselves in the forefront of ethnobotanical conservation. We cannot allow such precious funds of knowledge to become extinct” (Schultes, 1988).

He also understood the potential loss of knowledge yet to be discovered and encouraged continued botanical, pharmacological, and ethnobotanical research throughout the Amazonian basin.

Schultes_amazon_1940s-593x768Schultes was a lover of people, whether they were the tribespeople with whom he forged friendships or the students he mentored at university. His knowledge was profound, and scores of plants share his name. His conservation efforts were acknowledged through numerous awards during his lifetime, including the World Wildlife Fund’s Annual Gold Medal in recognition of ethnobotanical conservation, as well as a 2.2-million-hectare tract of land in Colombia. Dr. Schultes was also an honorary member of the New England Unit of The Herb Society of America! Not surprisingly, his impact has been felt the world over. I may have only recently heard of this tremendous ethnobotanist, but he’s definitely taken me on a botanical journey I’ll not soon forget.

Photo credits: 1) R.E. Schultes in South America (Wade Davis/Earth Aware Editions); 2) Turbinia corymbosa (syn. Rivea corymbosa) botanical illustration (R.E. Shultes); 3) Lophophora williamsii (peyote cactus) (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Schultes’ hand drawn map in his field notebook (Harvard University Botany Libraries); 5) Schultes with Salvador Chindoy (left), a renowned Kamëntsá healer from Sibundoy Valley of Colombia (Archives of the Economic Botany Library of Oakes Ames, Harvard University).

References

Burr, S.A. and Y.L. Leung. 2014. Curare (d-Tubocurarine). Encyclopedia of Toxicology (Third Edition). Academic Press.

Curare – An Overview. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/curare. Accessed 14 June, 2021.

Davis, Wade. The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. 160 pp. ISBN# 0-8118-4571-0

Hay, A., Gottschalk, M., & Holguín, A. 2012. Huanduj: Brugmansia. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Richmond, United Kingdom

Kahn, E. J. “Jungle Botanist [Richard Evans Schultes]”. The New Yorker. v. 68: pp. 35-58. 1992.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Burning the Library of Amazonia.” Sciences 34, no. 2, pp. 24. 1994.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Hallucinogens or Plant Origin.” Science, New Series, Vol. 163, No. 3864 (Jan. 17, 1969), pp. 245-254. www.jstor.org/stable/1725088, accessed 08 Jan 2020.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “The Medicine Man: Herbalist Superb.” The Herbarist, No. 53. 1987.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Primitive Plant Lore & Modern Conservation”. Orion Nature Quarterly; v. 7, No. 3, Summer 1988. New York, NY: Myrin Institute, 1988b.

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2003/09/richard-evans-schultes/. Accessed 3/31/2021.

https://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2020/08/richard-evans-schultes.html. Accessed 3/31/2021.

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, DC. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Herbal Medicine vs. Homeopathy

By Erin Holden

Herbs in jarsThe world of natural and alternative medicine encompasses many modalities, and for the layperson, the different approaches and schools of thought can be confusing. When I tell people I’m an herbalist, they invariably think I practice homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, aromatherapy, you name it. And while many herbalists are also knowledgeable in these areas, they are very different subjects that each take additional study to practice safely and effectively. In my experience, most people think that herbal medicine and homeopathy are one and the same. Although there are similarities, they’re separate ways to approach natural healing, and I wanted to help people distinguish between the two. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that I don’t practice homeopathy and only have a little bit of knowledge on the topic – lectures touching on homeopathy are not uncommon in classes and at herbal conferences I’ve attended, so it’s easy to passively acquire tidbits of a more complex picture. 

According to the American Institute of Homeopathy, there are three principles of homeopathy. The first, “let likes cure likes,” means that “a substance taken in small amounts will cure the same symptoms it causes if taken in large amounts.” To illustrate that point, a preparation from the strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica), nux vomica, is used for nausea. The second principle is “the minimum dose.” stockvault-homeopathy-medicines211519 FREE TO USETo maximize effectiveness while decreasing side effects, a full strength medicine (which can be herbal, mineral, or animal) is subjected to a series of dilutions and agitations (called succussions), until the original medicine is no longer detectable. The number of dilutions and succussions are noted on the remedy. For example, a 6X remedy is one part tincture to nine parts alcohol (the X here denoting 10), then succussed six times (National Center for Homeopathy). The third principle, “the single remedy,” dictates that practitioners suggest only one remedy at a time, although some homeopathic preparations contain a combination of remedies. Practitioners take a holistic approach, and match the specific remedy to the overall clinical picture of the client. Homeopathic remedies come in a variety of formulations, from sublingual pellets to liquids and topical ointments. Overall, homeopathy is considered safe for just about everyone, including babies, children, and those who are pregnant and breastfeeding.

Herbal medicine is also a holistic modality, where the practitioner looks at the client’s physical and emotional health, and herbalists also use herbs (obviously!), but that’s about where the similarities end. When selecting remedies, herbalists often choose those that oppose, and therefore balance, what’s going on with the client. For example, if a person runs cold or is feeling slow and sluggish, then warming herbs, like ginger, may be recommended. Many times herbalists make recommendations based on thousands of years of traditional uses, which are being increasingly validated by scientific study. Herb infused oilDosing and formulation are also very different between the two modalities. Herbalists use full strength preparations, often multiple grams of different herbs in formulas developed specifically for the client. I’ve formulated teas for clients that range anywhere from 4g to 15g of herbs per day; it all depends on what symptoms they’re presenting and how they respond to the herbs.  Formulas can be teas, powders, tinctures, glycerites, or topical preparations such as salves, poultices, and liniments. Sometimes the type of preparation depends on the active constituents in an herb – some are water soluble and call for a tea, while others are alcohol soluble and are only effective via tincture. Since herbs, as used by herbalists, are not used at the dilutions employed by homeopaths, there’s a potential for side effects and interference with medications, and some herbs are not recommended for babies, children, or pregnant/breastfeeding people. However, since herbalists do take the whole person into account, they can adjust dosing or herb choice to safely and effectively work with these populations and medications. 

In the end, the goal of both of these modalities is the same – overall wellness. They are just two different points on a continuum of natural healing.

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.


Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member at large of The Herb Society of America.