An integrative approach to healing ourselves and our world: honoring people, plants, planet

Archive for June, 2011

Ironically, chaste tree can be used for fertility

Historically, the chaste tree’s spicy, aromatic, ripe berries, high in diterpenes and flavonoids, were used in small doses like pepper during the medieval period by young monks in the Mediterranean region to lower their sexual libido and excitability, helping them to honor their vows of celibacy.

Lavender, bottlebrush flowering tree-shrubs predominate the University of Georgia’s campus, buzzing with all sorts of pollinators.

In the past few decades, the Mediterranean-native chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) has become a popular ornamental shrub or small tree in the South, and makes its twice-a-year flowering show in most landscapes.

Besides being a showy ornamental, this five-fingered leaf, drought-tolerant plant has an important role to play. Not only does the chaste tree increase fertility in the plant kingdom by attracting pollinators to fertilize our vegetables, it also addresses the issue of infertility among women, which is a growing issue among working women who are waiting later to have children.

Historically, the chaste tree’s spicy, aromatic, ripe berries, high in diterpenes and flavonoids, were used in small doses like pepper during the medieval period by young monks in the Mediterranean region to lower their sexual libido and excitability, helping them to honor their vows of celibacy.

This gave the plant two of its common names — chaste tree and monk’s pepper. Chaste tree’s botanical name, Vitex agnus-castus, refers to the religious use of the plant, as “agnus” is Latin for lamb, and “castitas” is Latin for chaste, or pure.

Even before the Middle Ages, Vitex was used by women for a variety of reproductive complaints, including infertility and irregular menstruation. Obviously by increasing fertility, one is not appearing chaste. This would seem contradictory to the way monks used Vitex, but Vitex works in a dose-dependent fashion, either raising or lowering hormone levels, which stimulate libido and infertility.

Several research studies using Vitex on small mammals and in clinical trials with humans successfully confirm the efficacy of Vitex for regulating the menstrual cycle by decreasing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and increasing fertility, especially among women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome.

The mechanism in which Vitex works in correcting infertility is quite complex. When a woman is under stress, there’s an increase in the thyroid hormone TRH (thyroxin releasing hormone) that triggers prolactin, a hormone from the anterior pituitary. Prolactin can block ovulation by creating a progesterone deficiency and shortening the luteal phase when the egg follicle normally would be released.

Evolutionarily, it makes sense that a woman who is stressed, or already is nursing a child, would not ovulate because her biological resources to carry a child to term might be compromised.

A woman can have anovulatory menstruation cycles, which means she has a menstrual period but has not released an egg that could be fertilized, in which case, she would be infertile. Anovulatory cycles are often irregular, either occurring more or less frequently than the ideal 28-day cycle following the patterns of the waxing and waning moon or tidal rhythms of the ocean.

Other interesting current uses of chaste tree berries are in harm-reduction therapy with heroin addicts. The diterpenes in Vitex bind to opioid receptors in the reward center of the brain, which decreases cravings.

For addressing fertility or regulating the menstrual cycle, a typical dose for a woman is 500 mg of powered ripe berries once a day.

This article originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald, June 19, 2011.

Yellowroot a favorite folk remedy for ulcers

Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) in on the West Fork of the Chattooga River in Rabun County, Georgia.

In the most urban areas of Athens, one is unlikely to find a plant which once predominated along creeks. Soil disturbance and invasive plants have made yellowroot’s original home inhospitable. If you find a shaded or semi-shaded stream that isn’t covered in invasive plants, such as on the Orange Trail at the State Botanical Garden or on private lands, you’ll likely see yellowroot performing its ecological, streamside vegetation function of maintaining the integrity of a streambank, preventing erosion.

Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) is an eastern North American, native perennial shrub growing in thick mats with its long, thin root horizontally holding fast to the soil on the edge of the streambank. There is very little demarcation of where the root ends and the stem begins. Greyish, bark-covered stems stand between one-three feet, bare of foliage until a spray of attractive, bright green leaves erupt at the top. The foliage consists of deeply serrated, pinnately or bipinnately compound leaves, meaning several leaflets grow on one leaf stalk, or leaflets grow on smaller stems within a larger pinnately compound leaf.

In April and May, yellowroot’s inconspicuous, yet charming, clusters of brownish-purple flowers bloom, often dangling from under the leaves. As they become fruits, the clusters turn greenish-yellow.

Among the Appalachian and Piedmont area of the South, yellowroot is held in high esteem as a premier tonic herb for healing stomach complaints, such as ulcers, and canker sores.

Old-timey herbalist Tommie Bass provided yellowroot to many people for stomach ulcers with positive results. According to herbalist Darryl Patton’s book with Tommie Bass, the FDA instructed Mr. Bass to stop claiming yellowroot would cure stomach ulcers.

A mechanism behind yellowroot’s success with ulcers is due to an antibacterial, bitter alkaloid constituent called berberine, which is also found in other herbs of the Ranunculaceae family, goldenseal and coptis root. Research confirming a bacterial component to ulcers, from the Heliobacter pylori, gave insight into how yellowroot has traditionally healed ulcers for hundreds of years.

Other medicinal uses for yellowroot include cleansing the liver and gallbladder. Herbal medicines of a yellow nature are often used for liver complaints, which is either coincidental, or it’s an illustration of the Doctrine of Signatures at work: a theory that plants have features indicating what their use is for humans. The yellow color is associated with jaundice.

Yellowroot trying to do its job holding up the streambank. Yellowroot is important for erosion control, which makes me consider it the symbol for integrity. US economic banks could use a little yellowroot, don't you think?

Catawba Indians used yellowroot for jaundice, stomach complaints and as a cold remedy, and Cherokee would drink its tea as a tonic for the blood and nerves, or just simply chew the bitter stem for mouth sores.

Around Georgia, rural roadside stands, country stores and the DeKalb Farmer’s Market are the only places where I have found harvested yellowroot available. In these markets, yellowroot comes either pre-brewed as a yellow tea, or as a bundle of one-inch twigs, which can then be boiled in water at home.

To make a tea of the roots, boil a cup of roots in 24 ounces of water for 20 minutes. Strain and either drink a cup of tea, or gargle with it. Alcohol extract tinctures are also very effective.

This article was originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, May 29th, 2011.

Yellow dock is a survival plant

Yellow dock (Rumex crispus) going to seed in a yard on Milledge Avenue in Athens, GA.

As a perennial herb offering food and medicine, yellow dock is a plant to know, especially during hard times. Native American tribes have considered yellow dock a panacea and survival food.

Yellow dock (Rumex crispus), also known as curly dock due to the wavy edges of its long, narrow leaves, is an introduced plant from Northern Africa, Europe and Asia. It’s currently found all over North and South America, and has become a staple in traditional American herbal medicine practices.

To recognize yellow dock from late spring and throughout summer, look for the tall seed stalks ranging from greenish-pink to dark rust as they dry along roadsides, in pastures, and wherever else the ground is compacted. As a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae), the seeds can be ground and added to ground cornmeal for porridge, also known as mush, or it can be added to a base of ground maize and herbs to make pinole – a Mexican and Central American food or beverage, depending on the preparation.

Yellow dock’s long, slightly-yellow taproot breaks up the hard clay soil, and is very difficult to remove from the ground. People who cultivate yellow dock for the commercial herbal trade have deep pits of loose soil so the taproot grows particularly long and straight, and is much easier to remove.

A primary action for yellow dock root is to heal digestive complaints. Having both astringent tannins and laxative anthraquinone glycosides, specifically emodin and chrysophanin, yellow dock can dose-dependently act as an astringent for diarrhea, or as a gentle laxative, also known as an aperient. Smaller doses are used in loose stool patterns, while larger doses, containing a higher quantity of anthraquinones, are indicated in constipation.

A specific indication for yellow dock is when someone has an elongated, deep-red tongue which narrows into a point. The tongue indicates constriction and heat in the bowels. Yellow dock can be taken in low doses over an extended time as a tonic herb for low-grade gut inflammation, particularly associated with gastrointestinal imbalances, sometimes called leaky gut.

As a mildly bitter herb, it stimulates the actions of the liver, which gives yellow dock its other traditional use as an alterative – called a blood purifier by old timers and Native Americans – which is a cleansing agent for toxicity often manifesting as itchy skin, known as pruritis, or as eczema, psoriasis, acne or joint inflammation.

A decoction of yellow dock root can be taken internally, made into a salve, or used as a wash. For athlete’s foot, yellow dock root decoction – the root is boiled for 20 minutes – is used as a foot soak.

Yellow dock root is often provided with iron supplementation for women because it is thought to increase iron assimilation.

Throughout Southern winters and into early spring, yellow dock leaves are an excellent sour-tasting wild green to add to salads, stews, or cooked like spinach. When eating them raw, the younger the leaf the better. The stems can be peeled and eaten raw or roasted.

Yellow dock leaves do contain some oxalates, as does spinach, so if you’re prone to kidney stones, refrain from yellow dock leaves. Though a mild plant, yellow dock is contraindicated in pregnancy due to its laxative effect, and cautioned with young children, as in during lactation.

This article originally appeared in Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, June 5th, 2011.

Butterflyweed a dramatic respiratory remedy

Asclepias tuberosa at Fort Yargo State Park in Winder, Georgia USA

Butterflyweed’s other common name, pleurisy-root, indicates its medicinal value for the respiratory system.

Vibrant-orange clusters of blooms dotting Southeastern roadsides beginning in early June and lasting into late summer attract more than just the human eye. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), a native host-plant to Monarch, Gray Hairstreak and Queen butterflies, is a fabulous garden addition for both beauty and use.

Considered the most medicinal of the milkweeds, butterflyweed stems also can be used for cord, as with other milkweeds. Cherokee used the cord stems for belts. Butterflyweed, however, is not edible as are other milkweeds.

Butterflyweed’s other common name, pleurisy-root, indicates its medicinal value for the respiratory system. Pleurisy is a painful inflammation of the pleural lining of the lungs. Butterflyweed has long been held in high regard as a traditional lung remedy among Native Americans, and as an official drug among pharmacists and physicians.

One of the best-selling, populist-inspired books in America during the 19th century was the “New Domestic Physician or Home Book of Health” by the Scottish physician Dr. John Gunn.

Gunn says butterflyweed “is a very popular remedy for pleurisy in many places.” Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, author of “Collections for an Essay towards a Materia Medica of the United States” that also was published in the 19th century, viewed butterflyweed as one of the most important of our indigenous species.

Acting as an expectorant and diaphoretic, butterflyweed induces sweating without being overly heating to the system, as are most sweat-inducing sudorifics. Therapeutically, butterflyweed downwardly disperses inflammatory heat occurring in the lungs, or sometimes in the head.

To me, the blooms symbolically indicate that they disperse upward heat, as the center, upwardly reaching petals range from dark orange to red, and the opened petals pointing downward are lighter orange.

Of the Native American tribes that utilized butterflyweed, the Omaha tribe placed the prized plant, used for wounds and lung problems, in a sacred, ceremonial context. Within the Omaha tribe, a selected member of the Shell society was the sole keeper of the remedy. After four days of ceremonial digging, preparation and consecration of butterflyweed, the authorized keeper would distribute bundles of the herb to other members of the society, according to the early 20th century pharmacognosist H.W. Youngken, of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.

The medicinal root, which resembles a small sweet potato, is dug when the plant goes dormant. Old-timey herbalist Tommie Bass suggests slicing large roots to dry and store. For a tea infusion for the lungs, steep or simmer a handful of dried roots in water, and take a tablespoon as often as needed.

For wounds, powder the root, and apply to the sore topically. Some Native American tribes would blow the powdered root onto the wound, which was thought to activate the medicine.

Butterflyweed’s flowers contain cardiac glycosides, the constituent found in foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) that for centuries was used to treat congestive heart failure.

Monarch butterflies ingest this toxic compound, which does not harm them, but serves as protection against various bird predators. Birds poisoned by monarchs with high cardiac glycosides vomit for up to half an hour. Some birds will sample the tip of a Monarch wing for the distinctive taste of the cardiac glycosides before preying on the butterflies. Studies have found female butterflies have a higher content of the glycosides than males.

Current research on butterflyweed offers exciting prospects in sustainability. In May, the “Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry” published a study utilizing the seeds of butterflyweed as a renewable source for industrial lubricants, an alternative to nonrenewable petroleum-based sources.

This article was originally published in Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, June 12th, 2011.

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