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

Posts tagged ‘natural first aid’

Dayflower is edible and medicinal for colds and flu

The common dayflower looking like a three-eyed mouse is edible.

Mixing in with other plants in the garden is a clumping, grass-looking plant with alternating leaves clasping around the stem. Only after the blooms begin would one notice the common Asiatic dayflower weed (Commelina communis).

Looking like a cute, three-eyed little mouse, this Asian annual has two, iridescent cornflower-blue petals spread like ears, and a small, inconspicuous white petal underneath. Three yellow staminodes with dark-red centers look like eyes, while the lower stamen and style resemble the nose and whiskers.

Behind many of the mouse-flowers, are two, oval leaves closed as if in prayer, preparing to open on the following day to expose another little mouse.

Apparently, Carl Linnaeus, who came up with most of the botanical names for the plant world, inserted his notorious humor when he named the dayflower, Commelina, after three sons. Two of the sons had become famous botanists — represented by the two large petals, while the third son chose a less admirable path — represented by the inconspicuous white petal underneath.

Growing in disturbed areas in full sunlight, the common dayflower appears in most regions of the Eastern United States.

Some folks call it a troublesome weed, but if you eat it, or use it medicinally, it’s not so troublesome.

I think it’s rather sweet to have in the garden.

Leaves and shoots are edible with a green-bean flavor, and can be used in salads, or minimally cooked with other greens. The flowers, which bloom only for a day from May until October, are adorable additions to salads, or as a decorative accent to cupcakes.

The small seeds taste like peas and also are edible.

In China, the above-ground parts are used to cool fevers associated with the common cold and flu. A recent study on cells from dog kidneys and in live mice found that the common dayflower had a protective effect against the H1N1 influenza A virus.

Other medicinal uses for the dayflower are as a diuretic, eliminating excess fluids or as a gargle for sore throats.

Topically, the plant can be mashed and applied as a poultice to cool inflammation on the skin.

Dayflowers collect excess copper in the soil, which makes them useful for phytoremediation, a process of restoring the soil after contamination from industrial pollutants.

As an annual, the best way to keep this plant under control is to use it, preventing it going to seed, which you can easily do either by eating it or using it medicinally.

Yarrow, a pharmacy in itself

Yarrow’s reputation as a first-aid hemostat has spread throughout the world with the herb, and its common names — soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, carpenter’s weed — reflect those who were most appreciative of its powers.

A medicinal powerhouse of the cultivated garden and wild spaces alike, Yarrow carries within its botanical name a recommendation from antiquity. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is named after the Greek hero Achilles who healed the bleeding wounds of his soldiers with its foliage. Millefolium means thousand-leaves, referring to its ferny foliage.

According to the Lady Bird Johnson Native Plant Database, yarrow is native to the U.S., but there also are introduced Achillea species. It appears to be a gift to the globe.

Yarrow’s reputation as a first-aid hemostat has spread throughout the world with the herb, and its common names – soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, carpenter’s weed – reflect those who were most appreciative of its powers.

I can attest to yarrow’s fast-acting blood-staunching properties. Once, when I sliced my palm open on a yucca leaf – it’s called Spanish bayonet for a reason – I quickly found yarrow growing nearby, as it often does, and applied a poultice of leaves to my wound. Within five minutes or less, the pain and bleeding were gone, and within 24 hours the cut was completely healed. A couple days more and all evidence of my suffering had disappeared.

Some of the hemostatic, blood-staunching properties come from the bitter sesquiterpene lactones specific to yarrow, achillian and achillicin. Like chamomile, yarrow also contains asulenes, which contribute to its anti-inflammatory actions. Several essential oils lend yarrow its antiseptic qualities: pinine, borneal, camphor, eugenol, saponine and terpineol. With loads of polyphenol flavonoids, yarrow is great as a tonic for depression and memory maintenance.

When studying herbal medicine at Tai Sophia Institute in Maryland, my instructor, Simon Mills (who is Senior Teaching Fellow in Integrated Health Care, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, the first medical school in Britain to establish a program in Integrated Health Care) said of yarrow, that with hundreds of complex constituents, it is “a pharmacy in itself.”

Mills frequently used yarrow in his formulas as a “top up,” a British term for adding a bit more to someone’s drink. He became convinced that yarrow, with its synergistic compounds that we are only beginning to understand, was often the key ingredient of his formulas.

When he neglected to “top up” the formula with yarrow, filling the formula with herbs more specifically indicated for the condition, returning clients reported the formula was less effective.

Yarrow is particularly suited for healing the predominant ailments of cold, damp climates, bestowing upon it a type of panacea status in Ireland and the British Isles due to its efficacy for reducing rheumatic pains, soothing flatulent bowel complaints, healing colds and fevers, and countering depression.

Usually, in contemporary herb texts, yarrow is known as a diaphoretic, an herbal action that causes one with a fever to sweat, thereby bringing down a fever instead of suppressing it.

With yarrow’s complex chemistry, its uses are far more extensive than merely fever management. Native American tribes all over North America widely used yarrow, perhaps more than any other plant, for ailments ranging from digestive cramps, wounds and colds to neuralgia, venereal disease, as a blood purifier, to revive an unconscious person who had fallen, and as a remedy for multiple infant sicknesses – just to name a few.

Likely, if Achilles could have had only one herb to use on the battlefield, it would have been yarrow. But his legendary application begs the question: Did Achilles apply it to the mortal blow to his heel, or was it just out of reach?

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, May 29, 2011.

Plantain: a valuable medicinal, edible plant

Plantain grows in any kind of soil, from gravel and sidewalk cracks, to rich garden soil. This native British plant has bright-green, round leaves growing in a basal rosette. It bears a green-brown, cylindrical flowering spike with teeny lilac and yellow stamens. Depending on the soil, plantain’s size will range from 5 inches to a foot in height. The herb plantain is no relation to the tropical fruit plantain, of which the banana is a subspecies.

When Europeans came to North America, they inadvertently brought many things with them. Besides small pox, they brought with them the seeds of plantain (Plantago major and P. lanceolata). Botanists speculate that the seeds traveled with the Europeans in the clods of mud-impacted horses’ hooves. American Indians observed that wherever the White man went, this plant would soon appear; thereby, gaining the common name White-man’s foot.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha” might have been the first written reference to plantain as White-man’s foot: “Wheresoe’er they tread, beneath them/ Springs a flower unknown among us,/ Springs the White-man’s Foot in blossom.”

Plantain grows in any kind of soil, from gravel and sidewalk cracks, to rich garden soil. This British native has bright-green, round leaves growing in a basal rosette. It bears a green-brown, cylindrical flowering spike with teeny lilac and yellow stamens. Depending on the soil, plantain’s size will range from five inches to a foot in height. The herb plantain is no relation to the tropical fruit plantain, of which the banana is a subspecies.

Plantain grows everywhere Europeans have settled, and is despised in many countries for its link to a colonial past. Worse plants could follow a population around. The edible and medicinal properties of plantain make it a top plant for the survival of a settling community. Its early spring leaves are edible either raw in salads or boiled as a pot herb, and high in many vitamins and minerals.

Long ago, plantain was highly respected in its homeland. It was considered one of the nine sacred herbs of the ancient Saxon’s, and called the “mother of herbs” in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Once established in North America, plantain’s value was quickly recognized by American Indians. One tribe gave it a name which translates as “life medicine,” a kind of panacea, or cure-all.

Internally, Colonial Americans used plantain to reduce prolonged fevers, to prevent tuberculosis when early symptoms were presenting, and also to treat cholera. Plantain “purifies” the blood and tones the lungs when there has been a debilitating illness.

Recent clinical studies show plantain’s efficacy in chronic bronchitis, and for symptoms of the common cold. In combination with other herbs, plantain has shown analgesic activity when treating pain due to chronic gastroduodenitis.

Topically, plantain is a marvel when applied to bites or stings. When applying plantain to an insect bite, simply pick a leaf, chew it for 10 seconds until the mucilage is released (rubbing it in the fingers a bit is also an acceptable method if one would rather not chew the leaf), and place the wad of juicy plantain leaf directly on the sting site. Leave it in place for five minutes. The itch and inflammation will completely disappear. As a salve, plantain soothes irritated or ulcerated skin and wounds.

With great irony we tread over a seemingly insignificant plant, unaware of its value, though named after the path of the colonizers who trod over lands often unaware of the value of the land’s diversity, and the culture of its inhabitants.

The above article appeared in the Urban Forager of the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, August 29, 2010.

Magnificent mullein: A friend to those with lung issues

Mullein at the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia. Looks like Verbascum olympicum, which has showier flowers than V. thapsus.

Mullein, Verbascum thapsus or V. olympicum, is that plant along the roadsides with a towering spike of yellow flowers which lingers all through winter as a dried-out, brownish-black spike. Being a biennial, mullein will grow as a circular, basal rosette in its first year where all its leaves come from the central stem. In the second year, the flowering spike will grow straight up from the middle, and the leaves will grow upwards on the stem until the flowers begin. It then ends its life-cycle when it goes to seed and becomes a stalk. New basal rosette mullein plants will grow in the surrounding area the following year.

You might notice the 6″ to 2′ bluish-gray-green leaves, which resemble the common landscape plant lamb’s ears because they are furry and soft. We typically consider this plant a benign weed, but I think it’s gorgeous and deserves to be appreciated in a garden. It’s easy to start from seed.

The whole plant is medicinal with dozens of uses. Legend has it that mullein was one of the plants so cherished by European women that when they migrated to the U.S., they sowed its seeds into the hems of their skirts, making sure they would not be without their medicine. It’s easy to understand how they felt if you’ve grown to appreciate how mullein can soothe irritated or congested lungs.

Many mullein, Verbascum thapsus. Big mullein leaves in right forefront.

American Indians quickly saw mullein’s virtues as the plant was introduced to North America. In Daniel Moerman’s tome, Native American Ethnobotany, over 25 tribes are listed to have used mullein. The uses range from applying the leaves to swollen glands or skin sores, to sore throats, to cough remedy, and asthma. Several tribes used it for magical or ceremonial purposes, attesting to the high regard the American Indians held for mullein.

Mullein is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory which is great when there is an infection in the throat, lungs, or on the skin. It’s also an expectorant, helping to move the damp congestion (catarrah) in the lungs. And as a soothing, anti-inflammatory herb, when someone has a non-productive cough that is hard, sore, and a little burning coming from the chest, not the throat, mullein is excellent. Mullein serves as a safe and effect tonic for chronic, dry respiratory inflammation in adults and kids.

For the lungs, the best method of taking mullein is through steeping the chopped leaf in boiling water for about 8-10 minutes. You will need 4-8 grams, three times a day, which is a lot because mullein is very light. Strain the tea through an unbleached coffee filter before drinking to make sure the little hairs don’t bother your throat. A common Indian method for administering herbs quickly was through smoking them. Powdered mullein leaves were smoked to help with asthma and catarrah (damp congestion in the lungs).

Mullein is a great first aid plant. If you’re out in the field and get cut, or develop a rash or athlete’s foot, find some mullein. Make a damp poultice with the leaf and then wrap another leaf around the poultice.

Mullein flowers make a famous ear oil to remove excess wax or relieve pain. A tincture of the flowers is also useful for someone prone to nervous throat clearing.

Speaking of wax, the dried stalks would be dipped in wax and burned as torches. I haven’t tried this, but I think they’d make awesome party torches for a harvest celebration.

Natural First Aid

Calendula Gel, Lavender essential oil, Herbal Armor insect repellent

It’s that time of year in the South when the bugs can drive you mad, or at least drive you indoors. If you are interested in using more herbs, homeopathics and essential oils in your life, but don’t know where to begin, start with stocking your natural first aid kit. I have been using these products for years, and have experienced great results. I’m telling you about them because I like the products. I’m not getting any endorsement money from the companies.

1. Traumeel cream: a homeopathic with many ingredients. This is a pricey tube of cream, but it is really great when you or your kids get bumps, bruises, stub a toe, pull a muscle, etc. My father put it on his wrist where he had a cyst that was inflamed after taking down some shelving. His wrist was aching/throbbing for several days. Within 30 minutes the pain was almost gone. After a couple days of using Traumeel cream, the cyst went away!

2. All Terrain Herbal Armor: Great herbal insect repellent, especially mosquitoes. I use this all the time when at outdoor events and camping.

3. Calendula gel, by Boiron: a homeopathic gel that is great if you forget to use the Herbal Armor. It helps the itch and welt of a mosquito bite go away in about 60 seconds.

4. Plantain, Plantago major: If you have some of this growing around, either chew it up and put it on a mosquito bite or ant bite, or squish it in your fingers for awhile if you don’t want to chew it. Check out my article on Plantain which was published in the Jetwork magazine from Mumbai, India.

5. Lavender essential oil: Excellent for cooking burns, either from steam or touching a hot pan. I cannot stress enough how necessary it is to have Lavender essential oil on hand in the kitchen. Make sure the ingredients list only Lavendula angustifolia. This is also antibacterial, so you can add a few drops to an atomizer and spray it in your house or around your seat when you’re in an airplane. Your neighbors will love it, too.

6. Aloe vera: The gel is great for sunburns, chapped skin. There was a Jason product that was primarily Aloe vera, which I really loved. The juice is great for upset stomachs. Lily of the Desert is a good brand for juice.

7. Tea tree oil: If you happen to get chiggers, bless your heart. I know they are miserable. Tea tree oil helps keep them from itching and getting infected if you’ve been scratching. Tea tree is good on open cuts as an antiseptic. I know a couple people who have an allergic reaction to tea tree oil. This is not common, but just in case, use the oil in a small spot first before applying liberally.

8. Herbs etc. Ivy Itch ReLeaf: This is a great spray for stopping the relentless itch of poison ivy rash. One of the key ingredients is Grindelia flower. It forms a little coat on the rash and cools it down.

9. Rhus tox: The homeopathic Rhus tox is good for keeping poison ivy from spreading if you take it internally when you first notice the poison ivy blisters. Follow the directions.

10. Cardamom pods, fennel seeds, ginger, peppermint leaf or dill seeds: If you eat something that gives you painful gas or bloating, the above herbs will act as carminatives, meaning that they relieve the gas, bloating and nausea. If you have GERD, then stay away from peppermint unless its enteric coated.

There are lots of other fresh herbs which are useful when you have them on hand. There are also lots of products I’ve tried and wasted my money on. These are the products that I use again and again. If you use them, please follow the directions.

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