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

Posts tagged ‘hypertension’

Cleavers for internal spring cleaning

Cleavers in Athens, Georgia, US at the Brick House

Before there was Velcro, there were cleavers, a bristly, weak-stemmed annual with whorls of narrow leaves and inconspicuous white flowers. Arising from its winter bed during the seasonal transition into early spring, cleavers (Galium aparine) embody juicy, springtime vitality.

Growing in areas of moist, partial-shade, cleavers, also known as goosegrass and lady’s bedstraw, typically are thought to have originated in Europe. According to the USDA Plants Database, however, cleavers are considered native to the United States. Whether native or not, cleavers are found throughout the entire North American continent and have been used in Native American medicine.

According to traditional Western herbal healing, cleavers cleanse accumulating toxins from the fluid and its channels, such as the blood, lymph, sweat, bowels and kidneys, which can become stagnant during the colder months.

The fresh, brilliant-green cooling juice released from its stem and leaves contains citric acid, sweet-smelling coumarins (which is not the same blood-thinning compound, Coumarin), and asperuloside, a laxative.

Signs of stagnation for which cleavers are used in order to nudge the fluid channels toward more efficient elimination are swelling of the hands and feet, or nodule-like cysts on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet; fibrous tissue in the breasts; inflammation in the kidneys or urethra, or kidney “gravel”; constipation; and cystic acne.

The Nitinaht people of British Columbia are reported to have used cleavers as a hair wash to make the hair grow long.

Harvest the above-ground parts while they’re bright green, before the weather becomes too hot in late spring when cleavers become stringy, yellowed and has gone to seed. On a daily basis while locally available, gather a handful of cleavers – carefully removing co-existing plants unless it’s chickweed (Stellaria media), which has properties similar to cleavers – and either juice them, or chop the herbs, putting them in a pitcher and pouring about 32 ounces of boiling water over them. Allow the cleavers to steep for 8-10 minutes. Strain and drink a couple cups a day. Cleaver tea smells like spinach-water and tastes like grass, so one might want to add lemon juice for flavor.

A member of the Madder family (Rubiaceae), the same family with coffee, cleaver seeds can be roasted as a caffeine-free coffee substitute.

One can experience spring by drinking cleaver tea, bathing in cleavers, or wearing sprigs of cleavers, which make a natural springtime corsage, adhering to any article of clothing when applied.

Paying attention to the plants of the season, and accepting their gifts, brings us closer to the natural, healing rhythm of Earth.

Sweetgum used to treat hypertension

In my assessment, the most undervalued native tree is the sweetgum. Due to its abundance – and to the sweetgum’s fruits, which look like miniature, medieval torture devices that litter the ground and clog lawnmowers – the sweetgum is condemned by many as a trash tree. Others might have a NIMBY response to sweetgums: they appreciate them along the highway, just not in their backyards.

Star-shaped sweetgum leaves turn a rainbow of colors in the fall, indicating its complex chemistry. Liquidambar, or sweetgum, is one of the sacred sources of Mayan copal resin.

A few features about sweetgums, though, point to this tree being more interesting than current conventional wisdom perceives.

During the fall, few trees offer the spectacular multi-hued, rainbow of color seen in the sweetgum’s star-shaped leaves. From shiny green, to yellow, to red, to deep eggplant-purple, sweetgum’s color spectrum appears to be indicative of its complex chemistry.

Within both common and botanical names of the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), we can gather that the tree offers a liquid, resinous, sweet-tasting gum. In the old days, the balsamic resin was called American styrax, or storax, and used as a natural chewing gum. The balsam resin is harvested by making a gash inside the inner bark so the liquid can ooze out. The balsam resin is medicinal, and further processing can produce tinctures and gums that also are medicinal.

Traditionally Native Americans used the resin and inner bark as an aid for wounds, sore throats, coughs and in treating infectious diarrhea. Chemical analysis has found astringent tannins and antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory compounds in sweetgum, which make it effective in treating skin and mucosal infections. The leaves also contain many of the medicinally active compounds.

Ethnobotanical research by the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research documents Liquidambar styraciflua, or arbol de estoraque, as one of the sacred sources of copal resin used for incense and burned during religious ceremonies. South Carolina Civil War surgeon and botanist writes that sweetgum incense was used in Mexico as an “excitant of the mucous system” and antimicrobial for infections of lungs, intestines and urinary tract.

Sweetgum balls look like miniature medieval torture devices.

Archeological research of pre-Columbian Aztecs discovered evidence of a large trade of Liquidambar for incense. “Trash tree” is clearly a perception.

Another traditional use by Cherokee Indians was to make a tea infusion of the inner bark as a sedative to calm the nerves.

Recent pharmaceutical research found that an alcohol extract of sweetgum reduced angiotensin II signaling, thereby reducing hypertension. The researchers isolated chemical constituents, benzyl benzoate and benzyl cinnamate, and discovered they served as antagonists for angiotensin II-induced hypertension. Will this trash tree be revalued as a native treasure?

Although sweetgums are prolific and long-lived, they are sensitive to urban sprawl and drought. According to a North Carolina State University study of sweetgums growing in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, foliage is damaged from phytotoxic levels of troposheric ozone. We might regret that we didn’t appreciate the sweetgums while they were common.

In the Athens area, a walk around Memorial Park Lake offers a chance to take in the sweetgum’s beauty.

This article was originally published in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday, October 31, 2010.

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