Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Herbal Remedies: Ancient Medicines, Modern Uses

herbal medicineBy late-March it starts to feel as though winter is the only time of year not in a hurry to get somewhere. By comparison, every other season seems to go by with a Doppler-type velocity like an Indy car blurring past. But I realize that any day now, spring could get sprung, and when that happens, plant life will change by the day, if not the hour. Some of the first plants to catch my eye are ones which have historically been used to treat coughs and colds. Good timing, I’d say.

Herbal remedies have been part of human culture since the day culture got invented. No matter where our early ancestors settled, they exploited regional plants for medicinal as well as culinary value. In a sense, unknown plants served as an evolutionary pressure, except they selected against bad luck, and perhaps gullibility, and likely didn’t help the human genome a lot. As knowledge of plant medicine accrued, it was refined, committed to memory and passed along — first orally and later in writing — from one generation to the next. Ancient healers had to know the properties of a given plant, what it might interact with, and how to tell it from similar species. This of course helped protect them from the wrath of disgruntled patients, not to mention early malpractice suits.

People often focus on the “herbal” half of the term and gloss over the “medicine” part. Many potent modern drugs are derived from plants. When Beatrix Potter has a naughty Peter Rabbit drink chamomile tea and go to bed, we feel warm and fuzzy about herbs. If Mommy Bunny had served Peter a cup of digitalis tea, it would have been a very different story, one involving a funeral for Peter and possible jail time for Ma Bunny. As much as I support and respect the use of herbal medicines, it should always be done in cooperation with your health-care provider and an experienced herbalist.

Now that the lawyers are happy, let’s talk about coltsfoot, whose dandelion-like, bright yellow flowers emerge, long before any leaves appear, from muddy roadside ditches, rail embankments and other places with a history of soil disturbance. Although it is native to Europe and Asia, coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), a plant which seems to materialize overnight as the snowbanks melt, has naturalized throughout North America. Its species name, Tussilago, stems from the Latin word for cough, and its common name comes from the fact that its leaves, which emerge as the flowers die back, are shaped like a horse’s hoof.

In medieval Europe, its flowers were virtually synonymous with healing, becoming the symbol for an apothecary, sort of an old-time drugstore that dispensed herbal medicine. Coltsfoot leaves are either used as a tea, made into a syrup, or smoked. This latter sounds counter-intuitive as a cough treatment, but is a fairly common way to treat respiratory issues. Pliny the Elder — think Socrates, but Roman instead of Greek and slightly less ancient — treated his asthma by inhaling the smoke of dried coltsfoot leaves and flowers. (In an ironic and tragic twist, Pliny died of smoke inhalation during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.)

The white blossoms of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a native woodland flower, also appear just as the snow recedes, although its leaves unfurl before petal drop. Bloodroot has a fleshy tuber, which when broken will produce beet-red sap. In bygone days, this was employed as rouge. Its cosmetic value pales in comparison to its medicinal use, though. In addition to being antiseptic, bloodroot is a powerful expectorant, used in minute amounts to break up and clear out dense bronchial congestion.

A few caveats regarding bloodroot. On public lands, it is a protected plant, and cannot legally be harvested. And while it is one of my all-time favorite wildflowers, it is one of those remedies that absolutely should not be used without supervision. It contains toxins which induce violent vomiting in quantities beyond a tiny therapeutic dose, and could even cause liver damage.

Another early-season cough remedy comes from a domesticated plant of European origin, horseradish (Armoracia rusticana). A cousin to broccoli, this perennial has long slender white roots that may be harvested in any month containing the letter “R.” (A helpful guideline, but one that makes it sound like horseradish was brought to you by Sesame Street.) In our region we probably need to move a bit of snow to dig horseradish before its roots become too tough to process after the Rs run out in May. It might be a late winter/ early spring herb, but it does not send up any showy blooms to announce its location—you need to have some idea of where you planted the stuff.

Although we are familiar with it as a condiment, horseradish has a long history as a botanical remedy. In addition to being a good diuretic, is used externally as a chest compress to break up congestion. But even with a garden-variety medicinal plant, caution is needed—horseradish is so powerful that it may cause skin blistering if the compress is not prepared correctly.

I recently learned that our friend Pliny thought that horseradish also worked as a scorpion repellent. In the twenty years since I first began growing the mustard-oil laden herb, there has not been one scorpion found at my place, so maybe he was onto something. Since coughs are still common, I’ll focus on ways to treat those, and worry about poisonous arachnids later.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

One Response

  1. Paul says:

    An an amazing discovery was made earlier this year when they were looking at the DNA in tooth plaque from a early hominid found in Europe. Apparently they guy was pretty sick – some of the bacteria that he was harboring indicated and intestinal problem. They also discovered DNA from poplar trees in his tooth plaque. They suspect that he was maybe chewing on Poplar bark which contains pretty high levels of salicylic acid – the active component in aspirin. Pretty smart for a guy that lived 160,000 years ago! So even pre-humans were taking some herbal meds!

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