The Secret Lives of Herbs*
Yes, herbs do have a secret life—many secret lives, in fact. Over the past twenty years that China Bayles and I have been creating and solving mysteries, we've learned many (but not nearly all!) of these secrets. The longer you study these wonderful plants, the more of their secret lives they reveal.
There are lots of ways to talk about the secret lives of plants. In this small collection of plants (with links to online sources), I've demonstrated one strategy for exploring these hidden secrets. This would be a good way to organize a notebook, plan a sequence of study papers, or develop a series of talks. I hope you'll take this list as a place to begin your study of herbs, and add other plants that you want to learn about. You may want to consult some of the books and other resources I've listed at the end.
A word about the definition of "herb": I like the inclusive description long ago adopted by the HSA: "a plant for use and delight." This definition encourages us to learn as much as possible about any plant and to discover the various ways human beings have put it to use. Many plants are major agricultural cash crops (such as sugar, cotton, strawberries, flax), but they have been put to other uses (medicinal, for instance). I consider these agricultural plants as "herbs," too, and have included them here.
If you wish, you may share the link to this document or copy and distribute this material. Herbs are all about sharing, but please give credit to Susan Wittig Albert, www.abouthyme.com.
Herbs That Grow Tall
- Chaste Trees
The chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) was believed to be an anaphrodisiac, which accounts for another of its common names, monks pepper. The seeds were used in monastery cookery to reduce the monks' libido. It has traditionally been used as a "woman's herb." Clinical studies support its use as treatment for PMS.
The bark, twigs, and leaves of Salix have been used for centuries by many cultures to relieve the pain of headaches, sore muscles and joints, toothaches, and sore throat and gums. In 1763, a British physician named Edward Stone reported to the Royal Society on the use of Salix as a treatment for malaria. By 1838, acetylsalicylic acid, the plant's active chemical, had been extracted. It caused serious stomach upsets, however, so researchers turned to meadowsweet (Spirea ulmaria syn. Filipendula ulmaria) an important wildflower that contains significant amounts of acetylsalicylic acid. The "buffered" form was patented as aspirin. The word is a compound of the letter "a" (from acetylsalicylic acid) and "spirin," from Spirea).
Other "oversized" herbs for study: Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia); "Fever" tree (Chincona sp.); Cocoa tree (Theobrama cacao); Ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Herbs That Are Flowers
The name foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) may be derived from the old English phrase "foxes glofa." It comes from a folk belief that foxes used the flowers to sheath their paws as they raided poultry yards. The scientific genus name refers to the fact that foxglove flowers fit on the tips of fingers. (Digitalis means "a finger's breadth.")
People who use digitalis to treat heart ailments can thank Dr. William Withering for his research into the secrets of this medicinal plant.
Linum usitatissimum (the word means "the most useful kind of flax") has a lovely blue flower. Dyed flax fibers have been found in a cave dating around 30,000 BCE, suggesting that flax was among the earliest domesticated plant species. It was extensively cultivated in ancient Egypt and Ethiopia and ancient Egypt. Grown for fiber and seeds, the plant has been used widely to manufacture linen cloth, paper, rope, nets, and soap. Flaxseed oil contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is used medicinally to lower cholesterol, promote heart health, and prevent breast tumor growth. Flaxseed is also used as a laxative. The plant would be an interesting addition to your herb garden.
- Other flowering herbs for study: rose (Rosa sp.); flax (Linum usitatissimum); violet (Viola); feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium); coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctora); flax
Herbs That Are Vegetables (and/or Fruits)
The earliest records of rhubarb (Rheum sp.) date back to 2700 BCE, when the Chinese cultivated it for use as a laxative and a treatment for everything from rheumatism to plague. When it first appeared in England in the 1630s, primarily for use as a laxative, it was worth a fortune. But it was soon cultivated and sold as a vegetable. Rhubarb was brought to America in the 1830s and traveled westward across the continent. In 1947, a U.S. court legally designated rhubarb as a fruit, to lower the import duties.
- Blueberries and Cranberries
Native Americans have used the fruit, leaves, bark, and roots of various species of Vaccinium (a genus that includes both blueberries and cranberries) for medicinal purposes: as a blood cleanser, a treatment for fevers and influenza, and for kidney ailments. Current research demonstrates that the flavenoids and antioxidants in blueberries and cranberries can slow the progress of Alzheimer's.
- Other good-to-eat herbs for study: strawberries; kale; spinach; raisins; Brussels sprouts; red grapes
Herbs That Bloom in the Dark
- Evening primrose
Evening primrose (Oenothera) is native to the Americas. The blossoms open and release their fragrance after most bees have gone to bed, so it is only the nocturnal pollinators, such as the Hawk moth, that visit the flowers. The entire plant is edible. Many tribes employed various parts of the plant to treat sprains, swellings, sores, toothache, gastro-intestinal ailments, and insect bites. The seeds are rich in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega 6 fatty acid. Evening primrose oil has been used to treat eczema, inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, and menopausal symptoms and premenopausal syndrome (PMS). The oil is also used in soaps and cosmetics.
- Night-blooming cereus
Selenicereus grandiflorus, also called Queen of the Night, is a cactus species native to the deserts of the American Southwest and Mexico. A tincture was traditionally used as a cardiac stimulant, sometimes with digitalis, to control arrhythmia. It has diuretic properties as well; the herb was used as a treatment for congestive heart failure.
- Other night-loving herbs for study: Angels' trumpet (Datura innoxia), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), moonflower (Ipomoea alba)
Herbs That Cause Wars
- Opium Poppy
The nineteenth-century Opium Wars were a series of disputes (some of them armed) between the British (the British East India Company), who sought to import opium into China, and the Chinese government, which resisted.
- Aloe Vera
This medicinal plant (the "Band-aid Plant") was valued as a treatment for war wounds. According to legend, Aristotle is said to have advised Alexander the Great to send soldiers to seize the island of Socotra in 332 BC, to gain possession of the native aloes.
The Black Patch Tobacco Wars (1904) took place in Kentucky and Tennessee, as small tobacco growers fought the monopolistic American Tobacco Company.
- Other war-related herbs for study: cotton (American Civil War); tea (the Boston Tea Party); sugar (American Revolution); cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper (the long conflict between Portuguese, Dutch, and British merchants and governments for the spice trade); marijuana, hemp, cocaine, heroine (War on Drugs)
Herbs That Were Used to Enhance Romance
Allium sativum, best known as a culinary herb, has had a long reputation as an aphrodisiac. In the East, this was because it was known as a "hot" herb; in the West, it was through garlic's association with the virile, masculine god Mars. Garlic has been used in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.
Theobrama Cacao means "food of the gods," and the Mayans of Mesoamerica believed the tree to be divine. They roasted and powdered cocoa beans (the seeds of the cacao tree) with maize and chile peppers, then fermented the mixture. This drink was believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac, but modern science remains skeptical.
- Other herbs believed to be romance-enhancing, for study: chili peppers, ginseng, parsley, tomato, potato, onions
Herbs That Were Used in Family Planning
Ruta graveolens is a potent herb that has for centuries been used as an abortifacient, to induce uterine contractions. Like other antiseptic, antibiotic herbs, rue was also used to help prevent infection. Perhaps the most famous example was its storied used in Three Thieves Vinegar. A trio of thirteenth-century thieves, intent on robbing the corpses of plague victims, soaked cloths in vinegar steeped with rue, thyme, sage, and lavender and tied them across their mouths and noses. The trick was said to have worked, and the vinegar, with various ingredients, became a well-known weapon against infectious disease. Rue sap, rubbed on the skin and exposed to the sun, can cause burn-like blisters.
Mentha pulegium, a plant in the mint genus, has a long history of use as an abortifacient. It is high in pulegone, a highly toxic volatile organic compound affecting uterine and liver function. The dried leaves were also used to make a tea to treat colds, fevers, and flu.
Thymus vulgaris is another traditional emmenagogue (an herb used to bring on menstruation) and abortifacient. It was often used, in a tea or tincture, in conjunction with other abortifacients. (The Scots had a saying for it: Rue in thyme is a maiden's posy.) The herb has many important antibacterial and antiseptic properties and is cultivated for its thymol, a substance that kills bacteria and fungi.
- Other herbs traditionally used for family planning (for study not for use!): angelica, black cohosh, blue cohosh, cotton root bark, evening primrose, tansy.
Herbs that Charm
In Europe, it was believed that people who ate periwinkle (Vinca minor, also called sorcerer's violet) leaves together would fall in love. A sixteenth-century potion, less tasty: powdered periwinkle, houseleek, earthworms. Some species of periwinkle have been used in folk medicine to to enhance blood circulation and to treat diabetes and cardiovascular disorders. Recently, it is being used to treat cancerous tumors, childhood leukemia, and Hodgkin's Disease. Can be toxic.
To dream of your future lover, pin five bay (Laurus nobilis) leaves to the four corners and the center of your pillow. Before you go to bed, repeat the traditional charm (it won't work if you don't): "St. Valentine, be kind to me, in dreams let me my true love see." Bay was thought to enhance clairvoyance and was used to ward off evil.
A lover might wear a cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) in his lapel. If the color stayed true-blue, the young lady he courted would be his; if it faded, he'd lost her. Goethe's Faust illustrates:
Now gentle flower, I pray thee tell
If my lover loves me, and loves me well,
So may the fall of the morning dew
Keep the sun from fading thy tender blue.
- Other charming herbs for study: Yarrow, four-leaf clover, mugwort, ash
Herbs That Put Us to Sleep
The unripe seedpods of Papaver somniferium are used to produce a powerful narcotic, opium, that was well known in the ancient world. Medicinally, opium had great value when it was used to induce unconsciousness during illness or surgery. Its use as an addictive euphoric, however, has overshadowed its value. You may purchase and possess poppy seeds for culinary purposes, but it is illegal to grow this plant in your garden.
The flowers and leaves of Lavandula sp. have been traditionally used to promote sleep, reduce headaches, and calm anxiety. You can place a sachet of lavender flowers and leaves under your pillow, brew a strong lavender tea for your bath, or place the essential oil in a diffuser.
- Other sedative herbs for study: valerian, hops, passionflower, skullcap
Herbs That Keep Us Awake
Among its many other virtues, Rosemarinus officinalis has traditionally known for its ability to improve memory and help us stay alert. Now, medical research has found that one of the main chemicals in rosemary oil acts as a therapeutic agent, improving subjects' test performance on both the speed and accuracy of recall. The idea of "rosemary for remembrance" is more than just a myth or a metaphor.
According to one legend (there are many), coffee's ability to keep us awake was discovered when a Yemini shepherd watched his goats cavorting after they nibbled the reddish-brown berries from a bush. The shepherd told his story to a monk, who brewed a cup for himself and discovered that it kept him awake during prayers. Now, coffee (which is rich in caffeine) is valued world-wide as a stimulant and on-going research demonstrates its importance in preventing Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes.
- Other stimulant herbs for study: tea, cacao (chocolate), ginger, peppermint
For Further Study
- Castleman, Michael. The New Healing Herbs
- Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper's Complete Herbal and English Physician
- Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America
- Duke, James A. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs
- Foster, Steven. Herbal Renaissance, Growing, Using & Understanding Herbs in the Modern World
- Gladstar, Rosemary. Herbal Healing for Women
- Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal, Vol. 1 and 2
- Griggs, Barbara. Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine
- Hoffmann, David. Holistic Herbal 4th Edition: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies
- Kahn, Minnie Watson. Old Time Herbs for Northern Gardens
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany
- Tierra, Michael. The Way of Herbs
- Weed, Susun S. Wise Woman Herbal Series
- Vickery, Roy. Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore
Text of Susan's talk at the Herb Society of America's 2012 Educational Conference (Austin TX).
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